The Waller House – Fairy Hills
Located at the end of a sleepy little cul-de-sac in the leafy north east Melburnian suburb of Fairy Hills is a beautiful pebbledash Arts and Crafts style bungalow. Quiet and unassuming amid its well kept gardens, this bungalow is quite significant historically as it is the creation and home of nationally renowned husband and wife artists Christian and Napier Waller, and is known as the Waller House. Together they designed the house and much of its interior decoration and furnishings. Napier Waller lived in their purpose designed home for some fifty years. What is especially significant about the house is that both it and its contents are quite intact. Napier Waller's studios, examples of his art, that of his two wives and his niece, famous studio potter Klytie Pate, and items connected with his work remain exactly as he left them. Architecturally the house design is innovative in its internal use of space, specifically in the organisation of the studio cum living room and displays a high degree of artistic creativity in the interior decoration.
The Waller House in Fairy Hills is so named because it was the residence of Mervyn Napier Waller, the acclaimed artist who gained National fame from his water colours, stained glass, mosaic works and murals and his wife Christian, who was a distinguished artist and designer of stained glass in her own right. In particular Napier Waller's works adorn the Melbourne Town Hall, the Myer Emporium Mural Hall, the Victorian State Library and the Australian War Memorial. The Waller House is a split level house designed by Napier and his first wife Christian who intended the house to be both a home and a workplace. For this the design was conceived to accommodate the tall studies and pieces of the artist's work.
The Waller house was built by Phillip Millsom in 1922 and the architectural style of the house is a mixture of Interwar Arts and Crafts, Interwar Old English and Interwar California Bungalow. The house is constructed from reinforced concrete walls with a rough cast pebbledash finish. The roof is steeply pitched with a prominent half timbered gable over the front entrance and has Marseilles pattern terracotta tiles. There are small paned casement windows. There have been several additions to the original design over the years but these have all been sympathetic to the original design.
The house is entered from a two sided verandah into an entrance hall, panelled in Tasmanian wood. This has stairs leading to the different levels of the house interior. In one direction the hall leads to a main living hall which was Napier Waller's original studio and later used as the main living room in the house. This room has a high ceiling with casement windows, a musicians’ gallery and a broad brick fireplace flanked by fire-dogs and bellows made by the sculptress Ola Cohn (1892 – 1964). Like many of the other rooms in the house the studio is panelled and floored with Tasmanian hardwood and contains some of the studies for Napier Waller's murals: “The Five Lamps of Learning; the Wise and Foolish Virgins” a mosaic for the University of Western Australia and, “Peace After Victory” a study painting for the State Library of Victoria. Above the panelling the plaster walls are painted in muted colours in wood grain effect. The raftered plaster ceiling has been painted in marble effect with gold leaf. Book shelves, still containing the Wallers’ beautiful books, are built into the panelled walls. Furniture in the room includes a settee with a painted back panel featuring jousting knights, painted by Christian Waller, a leather suite and black bean sideboards and cupboards. This furniture was designed in the nineteen thirties by Napier Waller and by Percy Meldrum and a noted cabinet maker called Goulman. The studio cum hall also contains many ceramic works created by studio potter Klytie Pate who was Christian Waller’s niece and protégée. The entrance hall leads in the other direction to a guest room, known as the “Blue Room”. This was the idea of Napier's wife Christian and has simple built-in glass topped furniture and Napier's murals of the “Labours of Hercules” which include a self portrait of the artist. An alcove section of the room was constructed out of an extension to the verandah. Stairs lead from the entrance hall to the musicians’ gallery which has a window and overlooks the studio cum living room. The kitchen near the studio/hall is panelled and raftered with built-in cupboards conforming to the panelling. The ceiling is stencilled in a fleur-de-lys design by Napier. The dining room lies to the right of the studio cum hall and contains shoulder high panelling and raftered ceilings. It has an angled brick corner fireplace and the walls and ceiling have the same painted treatment as the studio cum living room. The oak dining furniture was designed by Napier. A small den with high window, furnished with leather chairs, opens off the dining room. Opening off the hall to the left is a long rectangular room known as the glass studio. This was added to the house by builder C. Trinck of Hampton in about 1931 and contains Napier Waller's kiln, paintbrushes and stained-glass tools on the benches, and stained glass designs and racks which are still stacked with radiant streaked glass from his work with stained glass windows. A bedroom and bathroom with attic pitched rafter ceiling and casement windows is situated on the upper level of the house. Another bedroom in ship's cabin style with flared wall light fittings and built in bunks opens off this first bedroom.
The house backs onto a courtyard enclosed by a long bluestone garden wall. The house is set in a three and a half acre site with cypress hedges and gravelled paths. The garden drops away to a hillside slope with manna gum trees. Set on the slope is a flat roofed studio built in 1937. It has an undercroft beneath a studio room and this contains a lithographic press and a printing press of 1849 for woodcuts and linocuts. This was used by Napier and his first wife Christian to produce prints in the 1930s. Napier was widowed and married his stained glass studio assistant Lorna Reyburn in 1958.
The Waller House has recently become famous for yet another reason. The exterior has been used as a backdrop in the ABC/ITV co-production television series, “The Doctor Blake Mysteries” (2013). The house serves as the residence of the program’s lead character, Doctor Lucien Blake (played by Australian actor Craig McLachlan), and the doctor’s 1930s tourer is often seen driving up to or away from the Waller House throughout the series. The Waller House is the only regular backdrop not filmed in the provincial Victorian gold rush city of Ballarat, in which the series is based.
The Waller House is still a private residence, even though it was bequeathed to the people of Victoria by Napier Waller under the proviso that it would not revert to state ownership until after the death of his second wife, Lorna. The current leasee of the Waller House is a well known Melbourne antique dealer, who was friends with Lorna Reyburn, and who acts as a loving informal caretaker. He was approached by the Napier Waller Committee of Management and keeps the house neat and tidy, and maintains the garden beautifully. I am very grateful to him for his willingness to open the Waller House, and for allowing me the opportunity to comprehensively photograph this rarely seen gem of Melbourne art, architecture and history.
Mervyn Napier Waller (1893 – 1972) was an Australian artist. Born in Penshurst, Victoria, Napier was the son of William Waller, contractor, and his wife Sarah, née Napier. Educated locally until aged 14, he then worked on his father's farm. In 1913 he began studies at the National Gallery schools, Melbourne, and first exhibited water-colours and drawings at the Victorian Artists' Society in 1915. On 31 August of that year he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, and on 21 October at the manse of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Carlton, married Christian Yandell, a fellow student and artist from Castlemaine. Serving in France from the end of 1916, Waller was seriously wounded in action, and his right arm had to be amputated at the shoulder. Whilst convalescing in France and England Napier learned to write and draw with his left hand. After coming home to Australia he exhibited a series of war sketches in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart between 1918 and 1919 which helped to establish his reputation as a talented artist. Napier continued to paint in water-colour, taking his subjects from mythology and classical legend, but exhibited a group of linocuts in 1923. In 1927 Napier completed his first major mural for the Menzies Hotel, Melbourne. Next year his mural 'Peace after Victory' was installed in the State Library of Victoria. Visiting England and Europe in 1929 to study stained glass, the Wallers travelled in Italy where Napier was deeply impressed by the mosaics in Ravenna and studied mosaic in Venice. He returned to Melbourne in March 1930 and began to work almost exclusively in stained glass and mosaic. In 1931 he completed a great monumental mosaic for the University of Western Australia; two important commissions in Melbourne followed: the mosaic façade for Newspaper House (completed 1933) and murals for the dining hall in the Myer Emporium (completed 1935). During this time he also worked on a number of stained-glass commissions, some in collaboration with his wife, Christian. Between 1939 and 1945 he worked as an illustrator and undertook no major commissions. In 1946 he finished a three-lancet window commemorating the New Guinea martyrs for St Peter's Church, Eastern Hill. In 1952-58 he designed and completed the mosaics and stained glass for the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. On 25 January 1958 in a civil ceremony in Melbourne Waller had married Lorna Marion Reyburn, a New Zealand-born artist who had long been his assistant in stained glass.
Christian Waller (1894 – 1954) was an Australian artist. Born in Castlemaine, Victoria, Christian was the fifth daughter and youngest of seven children of William Edward Yandell a Victorian-born plasterer, and his wife Emily, née James, who came from England. Christian began her art studies in 1905 under Carl Steiner at the Castlemaine School of Mines. The family moved in 1910 to Melbourne where Christian attended the National Gallery schools. She studied under Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall, won several student prizes, exhibited (1913-22) with the Victorian Artists Society and illustrated publications. On 21 October 1915 at the manse of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Carlton, she married her former fellow-student Mervyn Napier Waller; they were childless, but adopted Christian’s niece Klytie Pate, in all but a legal sense. During the 1920s Christian Waller became a leading book illustrator, winning acclaim as the first Australian artist to illustrate Alice in Wonderland (1924). Her work reflected Classical, Medieval, Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau influences. She also produced woodcuts and linocuts, including fine bookplates. From about 1928 she designed stained-glass windows. The Wallers travelled to London in 1929 to investigate the manufacture of stained glass at Whall & Whall Ltd's premises. Returning to Australia via Italy, they studied the mosaics at Ravenna and Venice. Christian signed and exhibited her work under her maiden name until 1930, but thereafter used her married name. In the 1930s Waller produced her finest prints, book designs and stained glass, her work being more Art Deco in style and showing her interest in theosophy. She created stained-glass windows for a number of churches—especially for those designed by Louis Williams—in Melbourne, Geelong, and rural centres in New South Wales. Sometimes she collaborated with her husband, both being recognized as among Australia's leading stained-glass artists. Estranged from Napier, Christian went to New York in 1939. In 1940 she returned to the home she shared with her husband in Fairy Hills where she immersed herself in her work and became increasingly reclusive. In 1942 she painted a large mural for Christ Church, Geelong; by 1948 she had completed more than fifty stained-glass windows.
Klytie Pate (1912 – 2010) was an Australian Studio Potter who emerged as an innovator in the use of unusual glazes and the extensive incising, piercing and ornamentation of earthenware pottery. She was one of a small group of Melbourne art potters which included Marguerite Mahood and Reg Preston who were pioneers in the 1930‘s of ceramic art nationwide. Her early work was strongly influenced by her aunt, the artist and printmaker, Christian Waller. Klytie’s father remarried when she was 13, so Klytie went to live with her aunt, Christian Waller. Christian and her husband Napier Waller encouraged her interest in art and printmaking. She spent time at their studio in Fairy Hills, and thus her work reflected Art Deco, Art Nouveau, the Pre Raphaelites, Egyptian art, Greek mythology, and Theosophy. Klytie made several plaster masks that were displayed by the Wallers in their home and experimented with linocut, a medium used by Christian in her printmaking. Her aunt further encouraged Klytie by arranging for her to study modelling under Ola Cohn, the Melbourne sculptor. Klytie became renowned for her high quality, geometric Art Deco designed pottery which is eagerly sought after today by museums, art galleries, collectors and auction houses.
Fairy Hills is a small north eastern suburb of Melbourne. Leafy, with streets lined with banks of agapanthus, it is an area well known for its exclusivity, affluence and artistic connections. It was designed along the lines of London’s garden suburbs, such as Hampstead and Highgate, where houses and gardens blended together to create an informal, village like feel. Many of Fairy Hills’ houses have been designed by well known architects of the early Twentieth Century such as Walter Burley Griffin (1876 – 1937) and have gardens landscaped by designers like Edna Walling (1895 – 1973). Fairy Hills is the result of a subdivision of an 1840s farm called “Fairy Hills” which was commenced in the years just before the First World War (1914 – 1918). “Lucerne Farm”, a late 1830s farm associated with Governor La Trobe, was also nearby.