E G Waterhouse – Creating Harmony from Chaos

By David Tunny

The grounds of Sydney University during the inter-war period were described by former student Sir Norman Cowper as “like goat walks or builders’ yards… made worse by neglect or mistreatment”. It was a time when few were concerned about urban design yet it was to be the highpoint in the landscaping of the University. Remarkably, the transformation came about almost by chance.

Portrait of E G Waterhouse

Eben Gowrie Waterhouse (BA (Hons) ’01), who lectured in French at Sydney Teachers College, was keenly interested in the aesthetics of public and domestic design. After taking the Chair of German at Sydney University in 1925 he showed great interest in the development of the University grounds.

He had built a house – Eryldene – at Gordon in 1913 with the visionary architect William Hardy Wilson. Waterhouse’s feeling for scale, harmony and form was to result in “the most exquisite place in the country” according to Peter Watts, former director of the Historic Houses Trust. Although self taught as a landscaper he was a man of refinement and curiosity, yet above all, he possessed an unerring eye for creating superb spaces.

Waterhouse’s design talents came to the attention of the University when he was asked to care for the inner garden or Pleasaunce at the University Union when someone went on leave. He reconstructed the garden, putting form into a previously unconnected collection of plants. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mungo MacCallum, noticed his success and asked him to lay out a garden in the Vice-Chancellor’s courtyard. Years later, after the garden had matured, Gwen Meredith writer of the long running radio serial, Blue Hills, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The Vice-Chancellor’s Court is now worthy of the title. It reminded me of a little secret garden tucked away behind high walls… It is a very charming and inviting place. It makes one forget for a moment that one is in the heart of a busy city.”

Free reign

The Vice-Chancellor

Sir Norman Cowper felt the University authorities were uneasy about turning an amateur loose on the grounds but nevertheless, whenever money was available, Waterhouse was given free reign. Often he would move grown trees donated by friends into the grounds. His aim was to bring order and beauty to the University where before there had been ugliness. His view was that the University had a duty to the younger generation to make it aware of the design possibilities in a large institution.
Students were not always responsive to his attempts to educate them. Three times he planted a young jacaranda tree in the Quadrangle only to have it removed by exuberant students. He finally overcame the problem by planting and staking down a large tree and this survives today.

One who remembers Waterhouse’s work was Richard Clough, a student who went on to be Professor of Landscape Design at the University of New South Wales. He recalls, “I observed him at work and that really was the high point in the landscaping of Sydney University. While he was able to use his influence and see that the plants were shaped and controlled in the way that his taste dictated, those parts of the University were very good. The personal touch was there and in moving from the main quadrangle, into the Vice Chancellor’s quad, into Science Road, through the Union, into the Pleasaunce is much the same as walking through the garden at Eryldene.”

In 1931 he was invited to design the area in front of the McMaster Laboratory. A record of his proposal shows his thoughtful approach and his concern to achieve harmony and refinement. The first paragraph sets the tone:

‘The building presents a simple façade in red brick of pleasing colour on a foundation of creamy yellow sandstone. The lay-out envisaged preserves this simplicity and uses this colour in association with pleasant textures of green’.

Other designs and awards

He also designed a walkway in adjacent Victoria Park leading up to the University, a project which added interest and form to the park but which sadly no longer exists. In addition he replanned the garden at nearby Royal Prince Alfred Hospital as well as undertaking design work at the University of New England.

His talents were rewarded when he won a Carnegie Scholarship to study the layout of university campuses in America. He had been travelling in Europe in 1934 where, through his connections to the Goethe Institute and the Dante Alighieri Society in Sydney, he met Mussolini in Rome and Hitler in Berlin, leaving him uneasy about the future. The scholarship enabled him to return home through America where he visited 29 educational institutions.

Scultpture in Vice-Chancellor

Waterhouse was influential well beyond the University. With figures such as Professor Leslie Wilkinson, architect John Moore and other forward thinkers of the day, he played a key role in changing the fussiness that pervaded house and garden design in Sydney. Eryldene became a lively centre for discussion where artists, architects, designers and photographers met.

His horticultural expertise meant he was regularly consulted by many people and organisations among whom was the Governor’s wife Lady Hore-Ruthven. When Sir Alexander became Governor-General, Professor Waterhouse spent a weekend at Yarralumla pottering in the garden with Lady Hore-Ruthven, pruning and tending the plants.

Retirement

On his retirement from the University in 1945 his life was full of activity. He was a Trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales; he founded Camellia Grove Nursery at St Ives; in 1962 he was made an OBE and in 1975 a CMG. At 80 he began the study of Japanese.

A great achievement was his research into the camellia and through his efforts its return to popularity in Australia. He founded the Australian and New Zealand Camellia Research Society and was a long time member of the International Camellia Society, even travelling to London to preside at a board meeting at the age of 94.

He summed up his devotion to beauty in his surroundings saying, “I have not studied botany, have taken no course in landscape design but have had always sensitivity to beauty and form about me”.

Professor Waterhouse’s sensitivity to his surroundings can be seen at his camellia garden at Eryldene. Now owned by the Eryldene Trust, the garden includes his garden study, an oriental tea house, a temple and a charming pigeon house, all designed by William Hardy Wilson. Together with the house, the property is the embodiment of all that Professor Waterhouse believed was important in design.

Eryldene

Image captions

Top: Portrait of Eben Gowrie Waterhouse
Second: Vice-Chancellor's garden at the University
Third: Sculpture in the Vice-Chancellor's garden
Bottom: Eryldene's gardens