Dame Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861. She was the greatest Operatic Soprano of the late Victorian era, and was one of the most famous women in the world at that time. Melba is thought of as one of the most iconic Australians to have ever lived – her portrait even graces the $100 note!
Melba’s Father, David Mitchell, owned a large area of land through the Yarra Valley, and Melba loved to visit him and ride through the country. After touring the world for many years, she returned home to Melbourne in 1909, and purchased the Dairy Farm on the site of Coombe Cottage. Here she set about creating her perfect country home.
‘The property is a very personal expression of Melba’s style, aesthetic and experience’ says Daniel Sinclair Johnson, the passionate manager of the Melba Estate. After purchasing the property, rather than knocking the existing Dairy Farm cottages down, Melba set about constructing a series of extensions to the property over the next 4 years. ‘She was heavily involved in the design both internally and externally, and whilst on her travels wrote extensively to the builder John Grainger instructing him’ Daniel says. Inspired by Melba’s many travels, the interior decoration here has French, Italian and English influence, as well as elements of Chinoiserie. Melba lived here from 1913 until her death in 1931.
Dame Nellie Melba is often considered Australia’s first really internationally renowned ‘celebrity’. And with celebrity comes a celebrity lifestyle! She loved to entertain, and her home was designed to share with friends and family. ‘Her parties here were legendary, the gardens filled with Chinese lanterns, spilling out of the music room and onto the croquet lawn’ says Melba Estate Manager Daniel Johnson.
Having travelled the globe extensively during her illustrious career, it’s perhaps not surprising that Melba was a great collector of art, objects, fashion and furniture. ‘All the treasures in the house hold enormous provenance, but none perhaps more so than a small, unsigned oil painting of the sea and the horizon’ says Daniel. ‘Lady Vestey (Melba’s Granddaughter) once told me that Melba would hang this painting in every hotel or house she stayed in, to remind her of looking back across the sea to Melbourne, “there’s no place like home” she would say’.
Melba passed away in 1931. Her home was left in trust to her beloved Granddaughter, Pamela, known as Lady Vestey. Lady Vestey devoted her life to the preservation of Coombe Cottage, ensuring her Grandmother’s iconic legacy would live on. However, four years ago, Lady Vestey also passed away, leaving the property without a custodian.
Enter passionate Melba Estate Manager, Daniel Sinclair Johnson!
Originally from London, Daniel came to Australia 13 years ago, and has been managing the Melba Estate for the last 12 years. He spent the first 8 years at Coombe Estate with Lady Vestey, Melba’s Granddaughter, and during that period gained an enormous insight into the family history and provenance of this unique property. Four years ago, upon Lady Vestey’s passing, Daniel became responsible for developing Coombe Estate, to allow public access to the gardens and to re-energise public interest in the estate, thus ensuring its future.
Daniel redesigned and developed the outbuildings at Coombe Estate, creating a restaurant, gallery and cellar door. Though Melba’s own home is not open to the public, the estate now plays host to garden tours, events, weddings and daily visitors.
Daniel still lives on the property with his wife. ‘I am very fortunate to have lived on this beautiful estate for the last 12 years. It is a special place.’ says Daniel. An enthusiastic spokesperson for the Melba family, Daniel says he feels an immense responsibility to ensure the future of Coombe Estate is secure for many years to come. ‘I find it incredibly cathartic to have been here during the recent development phase, knowing that I have played a part ensuring the legacy is secure’ he says.
Coombe Yarra Valley garden tours operate from Monday to Saturday. Visit the website for more info and bookings.