This article titled “Empires and splendour: David Roche’s private collection of antiques opens to public” was written by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, for theguardian.com on Thursday 9th June 2016 01.12 UTC
David Roche first visited a dog show at the age of nine and bought his first antique aged just 17. For the eccentric, Adelaide-based millionaire, dogs and antiques would turn into his two great life passions. Roche not only dedicated himself to his hounds, becoming one of Australia’s leading breeders and judges, but to accumulating a hoard of relics and curios.
Now, for the first time, the David Roche Foundation is showcasing perhaps the most significant collection of 18th and 19th century European antiques in the southern hemisphere. Roche, who was gay and never had children, passed away in 2013 and in his will gave his estate to the not-for-profit David Roche Foundation.
After a $5m renovation and the addition of a glitzy new wing, his former residence – the grandiose Fermoy House located in leafy North Adelaide – opened this month as a private museum.
Valued at more than $70m, the collection of 3,000 items spans everything from paintings to clocks to toys to furniture. Roche, whose family made their fortune in property, had a taste for the ornate and the over-the-top; many pieces are outrageously camp. Others are historical: highlights include a pistol previously in the possession of Napoleon and a dinner service from which the Duke of Gloucester once dined.
In contrast with Roche’s solitary nature, the décor verges on the deliciously flamboyant: think brash gold male nude statues, chairs lined with ostentatious leopard print, delicate teacups in hot raspberry pink and ceilings painted with murals of chubby cherubs. Walking through the home is like journeying back in time – the quaint kitchen not only sports a 60s-style oven and vintage telephone but retro tin toys. The “Russian room”, replete with deep blue walls covered by a dusting of yellow stars, is presided over by the stern portrait of Catherine the Great.
Roche may have loved finesse but he also believed that his collection was to be lived in – not simply looked at. “Everything was used – sat on, tea spilt on, torn, rotted, knelt on,” says the Sydney-based antiques dealer, Martyn Cook, the director of the foundation and a close adviser to Roche. We pick five pieces not to be missed.
Sitting grandly in one corner of the museum is this lustrous malachite Russian vase. Not only is it vast and outrageously beautiful, with its swirls of different shades of green, but it is also the final resting place for Roche. Hidden inside the late 19th century vessel are both his ashes and his death mask, the latter cast in gilded gold. (A gleaming copy shows his eyes closed and his lips curved upwards, as if smiling).
“He wanted to be on the site somewhere so we decided on putting him in this vase,” Cook says. “It suited him.”
Leda and the Swan
This 1829 oil painting by the French artist François-Edouard Picot of Leda and the Swan is small in size but big in impact.
In Greek mythology Zeus, king of the gods, transforms himself into a swan in order to seduce – or, in some renditions, rape – the beautiful Leda. Most images show Leda’s chasteness, as she coyly looks down, trying to bat away the attention and preserve her chastity. Not here. Picot shows Leda with her bare back and buttocks facing the viewer, seductively draped in white sheets. She kisses the swan in a full embrace. Her loose hair is a symbol of corruption and desire as, behind her, the sun sets a deep red.
Peter Carl Fabergé parasol handle
Peter Carl Fabergé, court jeweller to the Russian tsars, was most famous for his creation of imperial Fabergé eggs, which contained entire miniature worlds within their precious shells. First commissioned as an Easter egg gift by Tsar Alexander III for his wife, empress Maria Feodorovna, each egg, designed in secrecy, took a year to make.
Less well known is that Fabergé, utilising 500 workers in St Petersburg and Moscow, also made cigarette holders, parasol handles and paper knives, all of which can be found in the David Roche collection.
One of the most delicate and exquisite is this parasol handle, crafted in the early 20th century using precious materials including translucent green bowenite and rose-cut diamonds.
In 1802 the English military commander Colonel Thomas Thornton gave Napoleon Bonaparte this handsome blued steel, gold and wood pistol. It was created by London gunsmith Durs Egg whose shop in Pall Mall catered for royalty – other clients included the Prince of Wales and King George III.
Inlaid gold engravings shows Thornton’s coat of arms and a dolphin. According to the foundation’s guide, Empires & Splendour, it was a gift “intended to show Thornton’s admiration for Napoleon … and to clear his reputation, tarnished in 1794 when he was court-martialled out of the British army.”
Whether Thornton’s ploy worked or not, it remains today a thing of beauty.
Spotted opossum dessert plate
Possums did not usually decorate English tablewear at the turn of the 19th century. This rich blue porcelain plate is one of the first to show what were then wildly exotic Australian animals on the fine dining tables of Great Britain. Made in 1800, it is part of an “animal dessert service” designed by the Shropshire china company Coalport.
Roche’s penchant for fauna and flora also stretched to a pair of twee teacups and saucers cast by Paris Porcelain in 1805. Showing, respectively, La Hamster and La Kangaroo, they demonstrated excitement over Captain Nicolas Baudin’s journey to map New Holland (aka Australia) from 1800 to 1803.
The explorer bought back live kangaroos and some emus to France, yet both illustrations stray somewhat from reality. La Kangaroo has a stumpy, too-small face with strange googly eyes; and La Hamster appears, in fact, to be a Tasmanian devil.
• David Roche Foundation House Museum at Fermoy House and a new adjoining building on Melbourne Street in North Adelaide is now open to the public
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