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Eryldene: The Professor and the Camellia

Jane Garling explains why E.G. Waterhouse had such a massive influence on Australian gardens.

Visitors to Eryldene, the historic house and garden on Sydney’s North Shore, would recognise the name of its original owner, Professor E. G. Waterhouse CMG (1891-1977). But few may know the wider role Waterhouse played in Australian horticultural history.

Credits: Waterhouse b&w,  Tony Strachan, June, 1973, the Eryldene Collection



A natural teacher, Waterhouse was appointed the Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Sydney in 1936. In the disciplines of botany and horticulture, however, Waterhouse was entirely self-taught. Using the grounds of Eryldene as a laboratory for his ideas, Waterhouse influenced a generation of gardeners through his columns in contemporary magazines and thoughtful lectures to wide-ranging audiences. His successes, and failures, in curating plant choices at Eryldenealso led him to develop a lasting passion for the identification and cultivation of camellias.



On garden design

In forming his views on garden design, Waterhouse was happy to build on the expertise of others and Eryldene can, in many respects, be viewed as a collaborative exercise with its architect, William Hardy Wilson (1881-1955). Taking his cue from the simple Colonial Georgian lines inherent in Wilson’s design for the home, Waterhouse provided an early example in Australia of the division of a garden into ‘rooms’. Spaces were contained to delight the visitor’s eye within a courtyard or lawn area, before leading them to the next space along sandstone paths, so favoured by the members of the English Arts and Craft Movement. Waterhouse rejected the tradition of the Gardenesque, the planting of long borders of bedding plants, favouring a “harmonious combination of forms, textures and colours” in which trees, shrubs and perennials all had a place.

Both indigenous and introduced species were included in the garden at Eryldene. Individual Sydney red gums, Angophora costata, provided counterpoints to plantings of camellias and azaleas, Waterhouse writing that “there is a dignity and personality about a tree which it forfeits in promiscuous company”. In his garden schemes, looking up to a canopy was as important as looking down to a happy combination of cottage plants.



This reverence for trees is also evident in gardens designed by Waterhouse at the University of Sydney, most notably in the Quadrangle where the simple division of space into four quadrants of manicured lawns was broken only by a single Jacaranda. His influence can also be felt nearby in the peaceful Vice-Chancellor’s Courtyard, designed after the war to showcase azaleas and camellias in a contained space. Hardy Wilson’s influence and advocacy for the simplicity inherent in principles of Chinese landscape design are deployed here to create an idyllic space for peaceful contemplation.

The success of his landscape schemes can be measured by their popularity as subjects for significant contemporary photographers such as Max Dupain and Harold Cazneaux. Their evocative photographs of Waterhouse gardens provided visual evidence of his abilities and further disseminated his theories.


All for camellias

Waterhouse acknowledged that his life-long interest in camellias “grew from my desire to add dignity and refinement to my garden at Eryldene”. Although camellias had been favoured by early colonial settlers, the species had fallen out of favour in Australia. Waterhouse set out to rehabilitate the reputation of “this handsome evergreen flowering shrub”. He propagated cuttings from established plants on old estates around Sydney, such as Camden Park and Tomago on the Hunter River and imported cultivars. This interest ultimately led to his development of many hybrids such as Camellia sasanqua ‘Plantation Pink’, a standard in many gardens today, and ‘Eryldene Excelsis’.



His advocacy knew no bounds: Waterhouse established the Camellia Grove Nursery at St Ives in 1939, organised exhibitions of camellia blooms, founded the Australian and New Zealand Camellia Research Society in 1952 and the International Camellia Society in 1952 and served on the committees of both organisations for many years. His scientific and aesthetic appreciation of the species came together through the publication of his two books: Camellia Quest in 1947 and Camellia Trail in 1954.

Beyond national and international awards, this singular contribution to horticulture was recognised in 1970 with the establishment of the E.G.Waterhouse Camellia Garden at Yowie Bay. Now maintained by Sutherland Shire Council, this garden contains more than 600 camellias, including 450 individual cultivars and species, including many Waterhouse cultivars. A winter visit here or to Eryldene, now opened and opened to the public by The Eryldene Trust,would allow an appreciation of his enormous legacy.


See more

The house and garden at Eryldene, 17 McIntosh Street, Gordon are open on the second weekend of each month from April to The E G Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens are at 104 President Avenue, Caringbah.



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Author: Jane Garling