An Unforgettable Tour Of Victoria's Government House

Last week we had a chance to spend an incredible morning at the Government House of Victoria, touring through the vast rooms, peering at captivating portraits, and craning our necks to take in intricate ceiling details. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to peek inside one of Victoria’s most important buildings.

Following yesterday’s introduction to the Peace and Prosperity Kitchen Garden Program, today we take you inside this spectacular House. Since 1934, it has served as the residence of the Governor, the primary venue for the Governor’s constitutional and community engagement activities, and the workplace of the Office of the Governor. This is one especially insightful ‘home tour’!

Elle Murrell

Victoria’s Government House, built in 1876, in the Italianate style. The tower, with the arcaded lookout and decorated cornice, is 44-metre high, excluding the flagpole which is 13.7-metres. The grounds today span 11 hectares, with 18 hectares having been transferred to Domain Park (now Kings Domain). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘We are fortunate that the House was built in the 1870s, following the Gold Rush,’ says the Governor. ‘Victoria is the beneficiary of a purpose-built Government House, the largest in the Commonwealth still to this day, of which the State Apartments form the most significant wing, including the Ballroom.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau AC and her husband Anthony Howard QC in The Conservatory. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Conservatory is an extension of the State Drawing Room and features views of the west lawn and the city skyline. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Small award ceremonies, musical recitals, international welcomes and community receptions are held in the State Drawing Room. The portrait is of novelist Mrs Campbell McInnes (later Angela Thirkell) (1912) by John Collier. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Most of the furniture was custom-made for this room in 1876 and the large casement windows to the left open out to the Fountain Court. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The State Chair is the focal point of the Ballroom. The arched back rail features a crown and has  ‘Advance Victoria’ carved underneath. It includes lions’ heads carved on the arms, the cross of St George (England and Wales), the cross of St Andrew (Scotland) on the legs, and the floral emblem of Ireland, the shamrock, on the skirt of the seat. it is only ever used by the Monarch or the Monarch’s representative. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Three original crystal chandeliers, by Oslers of Birmingham who supplied Buckingham Palace, are striking features of the Ballroom. Converted from gas to electricity, the chandeliers each have more than 1,000 pieces of crystal. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Under the current Governor, the ballroom has been utilised for a trailblazing IDAHOBIT reception, Red Cross blood drive, Circus Oz workshop, yoga class for International Yoga Day, rock concert for teenagers who need support, and reception for The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their visit last year, to name but a few events. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The ballroom and adjoining Minstrels’ Gallery access room were originally white, redecorated in their current striking ‘Hopetoun blue’ colour scheme in 1889 for the arrival of Lord and Lady Hopetoun, the former was the first Governor-General of Australia. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Elle Murrell
28th of June 2019

‘I think everyone remembers how it feels to walk into Government House and to experience first-hand, the scale and the beauty of this heritage building,’ tells the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau AC.

For Victoria’s first Lieutenant-Governor, Charles La Trobe, things looked considerably different, but still made an impact. In 1841, the site was parkland and had been an important meeting place and camping ground for local Aboriginal people. La Trobe saw great potential, as its highest point could provide one of the few vistas visible to Melburnians looking south of the Yarra River. And so, he set it aside for a future Government House.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that the Colonial Government called for design submissions, but the winning entry (an Elizabethan-style building J. G Knight and Kemp) was considered too costly. Another decade later, competition 2.0 saw a French Baronial-style building by Reed and Barnes chosen, however, estimated at £45,000, it was also deemed too expensive.

Cue the economic boom of the Gold Rush… In 1871, Inspector General of the Public Works Department William Wardell (of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral and Gothic Bank fame) was commissioned to create a purpose-built Government House for Victoria. John James ‘JJ’ Clark, who designed the Old Treasury Building, and Peter Kerr, who designed the Victorian Parliament House, worked under Wardell to draw the designs, which were ‘of Italian architecture’. Constructed by Martin and Peacock between 1872 and 1876, the building cost the colony £200,000, including furnishings.

At 42-metres long and 16.7-metres wide, the Ballroom is bigger than the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The majority of the artwork is loaned from and rotated by the National Gallery of Victoria, with the Governor seeking to showcase a diversity of artists including women, indigenous and younger artists. To the left is an artwork, ‘Painting at Kalkutjara’ by Pantjiti Mary McLean, woven into a tapestry (1998) by Irene Creedon. To the right, is Sally Smart‘s ‘Diary (Joey and I)’ (1991). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Ballroom was restored in the 1960s – 700 books of gold leaf were used to decorate the ceiling alone! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.


Not everyone was initially impressed, with the papers commenting on the ‘plain’ exterior, ‘labyrinth’ plan, and ‘vastness’, but then, on the other hand, praising ‘the ornate and tasteful decoration of the interiors’, particularly the ironwork and glass. Subjectivity aside, the Victorian Heritage Register honours it as ‘one of the largest and most beautiful mansion houses in Australia’ and one of ‘the finest examples of 19th-century residential architecture’. It remains the largest Government House in all of The Commonwealth.

The main building is approximately 3,035-square-metres, with its ornamental tower 44-metres high. Including outbuildings, the entire complex spans 240 rooms. The wow-factor State Apartments include the State Hall with cathedral-esque cross-vaulted ceilings, State Drawing Room with stunning adjoining Conservatory, and the Billiard Room featuring a portrait of every past Governor and spouse. There is also the State Dining Room and the unforgettable State Ballroom, which is larger than that of Buckingham Palace and can accommodate up to 800 people! Complementing its warm New Zealand Kauri pine floor, this Ballroom was redecorated in a current striking ‘Hopetoun blue’ colour scheme in 1889 and then restored again (using 700 books of gold leaf for the ceiling alone) in the 1960s.

Much of the State Apartments furniture was custom made for Government House in 1876, though the most iconic inclusion, The State Chair, was crafted c.1859. The Drawing Room includes a 19th century Steinway grand piano once played by Dame Nellie Melba and still in use today, while the Dining Room features a telescopic table in Spanish mahogany and Australian red cedar by James McEwan and Co. Seating 54 people, this design is almost the length of a cricket pitch! Several other furniture pieces and décor items are on loan from the Johnston Collection.

Walls are adorned with captivating portraits, including of the Royal Family and other dignitaries. Several works have been gifted into the Houses’ collection, although the majority of the artwork is loaned from and rotated by the National Gallery of Victoria. ‘When it comes to the art, much of the selection is guided by what is available at the time, but always with an eye to showcasing Victoria’s rich artistic talent across the decades, and the diversity of artists including women, indigenous, and younger artists,’ tells the Governor. ‘The building makes me feel very proud to be a Victorian as well as the Governor of Victoria. But it is the work that takes place within its walls that matters most.’

The State Dining Room features a telescopic table, seating 54 people, it’s almost the length of a cricket pitch. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Brian Dunlop‘s ‘Sesquicentenary portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’ (1984) in the State Hall. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

State Dining Room details, including the portrait ‘A Lady in Grey (Portrait of Mrs. McCubbin)’ (1900), by Frederick McCubbin. ‘I am always proud when I see local and international guests studying and appreciating the broad range of Victorian art on display,’ tells the Governor. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

When the House was completed The Argus newspaper reported: ‘The shell may be a trifle rough, but the kernel is a sweet one. To the stranger the interior of Government House is one series of surprises’, praising the ‘superb’ entrance hall, staircases ‘rich in the wealth of the ironworker’s art’, and windows of ‘exquisitely frosted glass’. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.


From Federation 1901 to 1931 the House went national, as it became the official residence of Australia’s first Governor-General… and the State Governor was sent off to Stonington Mansion in Malvern. From 1934 until today, the complex continues to be: the residence of the Governor; the primary venue for the Governor’s constitutional, ceremonial, community and international engagement activities; and the workplace of the Office of the Governor.

‘For nearly 150 years, Government House Victoria has been the backdrop of important constitutional ceremonies and occasions, where significant charities have been founded or fostered, where the War effort has been advanced (via Red Cross packing stations in the Ballroom), where schoolgirls (from Mac Rob High) were educated during the Depression, and where many, many thousands of good Victorians have been thanked, congratulated and awarded,’ details the Governor.

‘The State Apartments have long been opened up to the community and it is important that we are providing opportunities to broaden the reach and diversify our engagement – whether by welcoming people who have never visited before, through tours and receptions, or by working with different community organisations to showcase Victoria’s vast array of artistic talent and intellect with free performances and lectures,’ she continues.

Since 2015, The Governor and Mr Howard have hosted a number of ‘firsts’, from overnight school camp-outs to mark VicHealth’s 30th anniversary, a trailblazing International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia reception in 2017, to a youth iftar dinner during Ramadan, and more. ‘Tony and I do find it particularly gratifying when we see the magnificent Ballroom being used for events that many years ago, never would have been contemplated, such as a blood bank with the Red Cross, or a circus workshop for newly arrived children with Circus Oz, a yoga class for International Yoga Day, or a rock concert for teenagers who need support,’ highlights the Governor.

This was my very first visit to Government House. From the high-tech bollards at the entrance to the perfectly-racked gravel that I reluctantly drove on and the countless palatial velvet furnishings I was dying to stroke, it was hands-down (*and behind my back) an unforgettable visit. The morning was a visual-feast/crash-course on our State’s rich history. Most excitingly, though, the more recent initiatives I discovered taking place at the House are continuing to keep us ‘on the map’, embarking on a progressive path into the future.

Victoria’s Government House and Grounds will also be open to the public as part of Open House Melbourne on July 27th, 2019, as well as on January 26th each year.

Tours of the Government House Gardens are held on the third Thursday of each month, find more information here.

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