Sydney Morning Herald Column

The David Roche Foundation

Published June 17, 2016
Maude Earl, Pointer at sunset, c.1900, England, oil on canvas.

David Roche (1930-2013) led an enviable life. Supported by the wealth of a property development firm started by his father, for most of his 83 years he never had to work at all. Instead he could but devote himself to two passions: collecting art and antiques, and breeding pedigree dogs. With the opening of the David Roche Foundation House Museum in Adelaide we can be thankful for the circumstance that allowed this exceptional man to be a gentleman of leisure.
Roche left instructions that upon his death his home in North Adelaide should be transformed into a museum. This meant preserving and restoring the opulent interiors of the house itself, and building an extension on the site of the kennels where Roche kept his prize pooches. Architects, Williams-Burton-Leopardi, have created a new building that pays homage to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Temple of Pomona in Potsdam. Schinkel (1781-1841) one of the leading exponents of the Neoclassical style, was Roche’s favourite architect.
In 2008 the Art Gallery of South Australia hosted the exhibition, Empires & Splendour: The David Roche Collection. The weighty catalogue published for that show remains the best resource on a collection unlike anything else in this country. The scope of Roche’s holdings, in the words of then-AGSA director Christopher Menz, “spans two centuries, from the early 18th to the early 20th, from the early Rococo of France to Fabergé in Russia.”

Inside the David Roche Foundation House Museum at North Adelaide. Picture: Graeme Prosser
Inside the David Roche Foundation House Museum at North Adelaide. Picture: Graeme Prosser

Roche collected ceramics, furniture, paintings, sculptures, clocks, glass, metalwork, and many smaller items of decorative art. With major acquisitions he always aimed for the highest quality, and was happy to sell off a piece if a better example became available. He also indulged himself with thousands of knick-knacks and curiosities, including novelty figurines, works of folk art, and virtually anything with canine content.
Although Roche was discerning in his pursuits, he also relied on the assistance of experts, notably New York dealer, Carlton Hobbs, and the redoubtable Sydney antiquarian, Martyn Cook, who is the inaugural director of the House Museum. Cook’s right-hand man is senior curator, Robert Reason, poached from the AGSA.
The greatest concentrations of material are in the Rococo and Neoclassical styles, including an dazzling selection from the Regency era (1811-20), when George IV took over the reins of monarchy from his deranged father, George III. It should be noted that much work classified as “Regency” was made both before and after this caretaker period.
The new museum attached to the house will be used for temporary exhibitions, but three inaugural offerings are drawn from the permanent collection: Neoclassic: The Spirit of Antiquity, Rococo: Graceful Exuberance, and David Roche: Kennels and collecting.
The evolution of styles, from Rococo to Neoclassical, reflects the perennial alternation of taste between poles of indulgence and asceticism, freedom and formality. “Rococo” is a term that began life as a whimsical combination of the French words for stone debris (rocaille) and shell (coquille). It was a playful reaction against the grand style, discipline and symmetry of the Baroque, and found its finest flowering at the courts of Louis XV (r. 1715-74) and Louis XVI (r. 1774-91). In painting it encompassed the careers of artists such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard.
Jean-Baptiste Santerre - The Regent, Philippe Duc D'orleans And The Comtesse
Jean-Baptiste Sancerre – The Regent, Philippe Duc D’orleans And The Comtesse

The strength of the Roche collection lies in the decorative and applied arts, but there are notable paintings from the Rococo period. A full-length double portrait by Jean-Baptiste Sancerre (1651-1717) of the Duc d’Orléans and his mistress, Madam de Parabère, as Adam and Eve, dated c.1716, is a remarkable insight into the temper of the times. As Regent, the Duc d’Orléans was the effective ruler of France, so we might assume this painting was a work of political satire or moral condemnation. Instead it seems to have been a witty dig at the Duc’s willingness to succumb to every pleasurable temptation.
The reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) had been characterised by displays of wealth and power, but his successors brought a lighter touch to the monarchy. To the firebrands of the French Revolution the Rococo was a sign of incurable decadence.
The house style of the Revolution, and the Napoleonic era that followed, was Neoclassicism. It took its inspiration from antiquity, which was being rediscovered by scholars and proto-archaeologists. Winckelmann, the influential German art historian, argued that the highest form of art aspired to a “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”. One can see how this appealed to Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial aspirations.
The Neoclassical style took hold in the 1830s and has never really disappeared, despite the challenges of Romanticism, Naturalism and every shade of Modernism. This is because there is something inherently pleasing in the orderly principles of classical design, but also because it was much more adaptable than Winckelmann might have imagined. He would not have approved of the mock-Egyptian furniture of British designer, Thomas Hope (1769-1831), which was such a highlight of the Regency period. David Roche had no such scruples.
Among the pieces by Hope in the Roche collection there is an Egyptian-style stool with gilded lion’s feet, and a bronze and marble clock with a standing figure of Isis. There are also two ormolu candlesticks of the period that copy the shapes of the canopic jars in which the Egyptians placed the organs of the dead. These were probably attempts by another firm to capitalise on the “Egyptomania” Hope had generated.
One of the masterpieces of the collection is a circular table by Hope’s contemporary, George Bullock (1782/3-1818), inlaid with Italian pietre dure (hard stones). It’s a decorative tour-de-force, from the inlaid top to the gilded sphinxes on the triangular base.
Leda and Swan, an 1829 oil painting by the French artist François-Edouard Picot.
Leda and Swan, an 1829 oil painting by the French artist François-Edouard Picot.

Roche’s best painting of this period is probably Leda and the swan (1829), by François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868), a pupil of the master of Neoclassicism, Jacques-Louis David. In the rendering of the landscape and rich, heavy drapery the work recalls the reclining nudes of the Renaissance. In the artful, erotic elongation of Leda’s back, it echoes Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814).
It’s easy to keep picking out highlights but there are currently over 3,000 items on display, and many more in storage. To appreciate the truly obsessive nature of the collection one must explore the house, which is crowded with small ornaments. Each room presents a different colour scheme, with unique wallpaper and themes. Some, such as the red-and-green military room, are a challenge to good taste. There are no beige walls in Roche’s interior decoration masterplan.
The kitchen is a goblin’s horde of decorative mugs, toby jugs and tiny figurines. There are cabinets crowded with the ribbons Roche won as a champion dog breeder, a bathroom painted in the style of a classical fresco, and a lush, blue sitting room fillled with Russian treasures, presided over by a portrait of Catherine the Great. The parlour where guests watch an orientation video, is lined on both sides with classical statuary.
The sheer profusion of items, coupled with the curators’ desire to present everything without intrusive glass cases and labels, means the only way the House Museum may be visited is in small guided tours of ten people at a time.
Many will find this an ideal arrangement, but visitors must be prepared to wait for a booking.
What one savours most in such a display is the feeling that every single piece has a story, or many stories. There is the sense of an historical period and the shifting patterns of taste; the innovations in materials and manufacturing, (notably the European discovery of porcelain); and the identity of an object’s original owner. The tracing of provenance is an adventure in its own right, following the path of each piece from the moment it left the artist’s workshop to the day it came into David Roche’s possession. That’s an ongoing research project that may never be concluded.
The David Roche Foundation House Museum is a brilliant addition to Australia’s growing list of private museums, and one wishes it the same success as venues such as Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery and David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art. One only hopes that governments don’t see these initiatives as another excuse for the persistent underfunding of public institutions. The generosity of a handful of benefactors should never allow politicians to believe that culture is a strictly private matter rather than a national responsibility.
The David Roche Foundation House Museum, Adelaide
John McDonald flew to Adelaide as a guest of the David Roche Foundation
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th June, 2016