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The Sydney photographer Harold Cazneaux fell in love with the north shore of Sydney from the first time he visited the area in the early 1900s, and as soon as his finances permitted, he put a deposit on Ambleside at 24 Dudley Street, Roseville. The £100 deposit came from winning first prize in the Kodak-sponsored 'Happy Moments' competition run in The Australasian Photo-Review in 1914.
On a long narrow allotment, 80 feet by 300 feet (24 metres by 91 metres), the house had been named after a village in South Australia by its original owner, Gayfield Shaw. He was Cazneaux's friend, an artist-etcher who built Ambleside for himself in about 1912.
Harold, his wife Winnie, and their daughters Rainbow, Jean, Beryl and Carmen, moved into their new home in May 1915. Two more children would be born at Ambleside – Joan in 1916, and Harold Ramsay in 1920.
Cazneaux's fall and rise
In 1918 Cazneaux resigned from his first job as photographer at Freeman & Co's studio. Out of work and depressed, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was bedridden for a year. Recovery was slow, until a fellow-photographer, Cecil Bostock, who was away at war, lent Cazneaux the use of his studio in the city. With a little capital, his photographic equipment and overwhelming support from his friends, Cazneaux opened his own business in the Little Studio.
Cazneaux processed all his work in his own darkroom at Ambleside, originally a bedroom, and when Bostock's studio was sold and Cazneaux was asked to leave, lack of suitable and affordable city premises sent him back to Ambleside, where he built an adjoining studio. This was Cazneaux's workplace for the next 35 years until his death in 1953.
Cazneaux loved Ambleside, especially its garden and the bush that surrounded it. It was a love that was constantly rejuvenated by the beautiful gardens that he visited on photographic commissions for The Home. Although very little is known about his house, there are many accounts and photographs of the garden at Ambleside.
Cazneaux had begun to design the garden as early as 1916. He reshaped the beds and laid flagstone paths in the lawn with the help of Arthur Carden, a self-taught stonemason who was adept at building footpaths and rockeries. Cazneaux even designed the dovecote – an inverted kerosene tin painted white and fitted with a thatched roof. This rustic object figured prominently in some of his photographs of the garden.
Cazneaux also applied his keen colour sense to the garden. He loved the 'splash of colour' of the golden privet against the dark she-oaks; the white alyssum under the clear blue hydrangeas; the mauve heliotrope and rosemary with orange nasturtiums and cosmos. Hollyhocks and dahlias competed with the brilliant crocosmia, while ribbon grass cohabited peacefully with the flag iris. These plantings were repetitions of those he found in the cottage gardens he photographed for The Home. Ambleside did not have the ordered chaos of an English cottage garden; rather it had an informality more reminiscent of the 'wild' gardens of America's east coast.
In the early 1920s, the family lived frugally and supplemented their pantry with fruit from a small orchard that included peaches, nectarines, four varieties of plums, apricots, lemons, figs and guavas, and a strange hybrid called 'nectacot', presumably a cross between a nectarine and an apricot. The daughters remember the pantry vividly, with its endless rows of jars filled with home-made jams, chutneys, pickles and preserves.
The Cazneauxs kept poultry as well – white leghorns, bantams, black Orpingtons and two Indian Runner ducks that were brought in to eat the snails but ate everything else instead! Surplus eggs were stored in kerosene tins in the pantry to keep from spoiling.
The upkeep of the garden was a family affair, with rosters for the children to feed the chooks and clean out the yards. In later years they took turns mowing the lawns and clipping the imposing privet hedge that ran across most of the street front. The hedge was six feet (1.8 metres) tall, with square columns crowned with domes on each side of the driveway. Whoever was on duty had to stand precariously on the top rung of a stepladder to do the job efficiently.
The garden was the frequent setting for family portraits, which Cazneaux put into albums and gave away as Christmas presents. The photographs consisted mainly of candid shots of his daughters working in the garden, picking flowers or harvesting fruit. Sometimes the girls would parody Elysium scenes and would pose as nymphs frolicking in a glade.
Ambleside was a borrowed garden, especially in design. From the architect Hardy Wilson, Cazneaux borrowed Macquarie Cottage's beds of star daisies and heliotrope and Purulia's circular paths and borders. From Professor EG Waterhouse, who owned Eryldene, he borrowed the concept of garden 'rooms' furnished with decorative pots of azaleas and camellias, under-planted with wild strawberry, violets and alyssum.
Cazneaux not only borrowed ideas from his favourite gardens but also committed a common pardonable gardening sin. He devised devious means to acquire slips and cuttings of desirable plants from the gardens he visited. One of his cunning tricks involved dropping a focusing cloth on the coveted plant and retrieving it with the plant material enfolded in his hand. This scheme involved precise timing and an accomplice to surreptitiously sneak the 'loot' into the bag. Both Rainbow and Jean, who acted as his assistants at that time, admit to being accessories to their father's crime.
A place of solace
Cazneaux found solace in the garden. It proved to be a therapeutic escape from the depression which still visited him on rare occasions. He would become 'lost' in the garden during these low points, sitting under the shade of a tree, alone and still, working through a tangle of problems. Often it would be dusk before he would emerge from the garden and decide to catch up with the backlog of tasks, labouring well into the night, having summoned Rainbow to assist him.
The passing of the seasons at Ambleside delighted Cazneaux. He wrote to Jack Cato, a photographer and confidant, in September 1952:
Every spring over the past few years comes the burst of glorious blossoms. The old garden takes care of itself now … Sitting here at work in my attic workroom I can see this great show from the window … it is certainly a good reward. There is the radio my boy made for me. Often, often, come my inspiring messages. The Bach Toccata and Fugues, the Overtures, 'The Hebrides' and 'Fingal's Cave' … Even a tired-out body and mind comes to life again.
Zeny Edwards, Sunlight and Shadow: The Lifework of Harold Cazneaux, Wild and Woolley, Sydney, 1996