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Adelaide's hidden arts treasure


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Behind a great wall on a main road through North Adelaide lies a national treasure that most South Australians have never heard about.

It is a villa filled with beautiful objects – the result of one man’s obsession with art and antiques. It is the legacy of the late David Roche.

Roche died last year at the age of 83. While he may not have been well-known in Adelaide, he was internationally renowned as a collector and also as a dog breeder and All Breeds judge.

Starting with the acquisition of his first piece at the age of 13, Roche amassed a vast anthology of antiques spanning two centuries of European design, from early French Rococo to Russian Faberge. The David Roche Foundation collection is arguably one of the richest and most important private decorative arts collections in Australia that has been made available for public viewing.

It was not until the very end of his life that Roche realised the value of his collection to others and the need to share it. So with the help of his friend Martyn Cook and other advisors, he set up the foundation in 1990 in order for the collection to be displayed, managed and maintained into the future for the benefit of those who are interested in viewing it.

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Martyn Cook in the Green Entrance Hall with the massive Russian malachite vase containing David Roche’s ashes and a part view of the walking cane collection. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

Cook, who is an antiques dealer, is now the curator of the collection and continues to manage it with the assistance of Lorraine Felix, who was Roche’s secretary. The pair now sits on the board of directors, along with an accountant and a lawyer who have also had many years’ experience working with Roche. Roche’s former housekeeper, Jeffrey Fischer, also remains as caretaker.

“The reason this collection is largely unheard of is due to the fact that David had an inherently private nature,” explains Cook, who spent many years professionally accompanying Roche on overseas buying trips.

“He collected for his own pleasure. His collection is also not the average person’s aesthetic. It requires an appreciation and knowledge of design history or at least an interest in it.”

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View of the Yellow Drawing Room featuring a gilt bronze statue of a standard hunting poodle after Jacques Caffieri. Photo: Nat Rogers/Indaily

The opportunity for Roche to form such a collection came from the success of his father, Jack Roche, who in 1922 founded the Adelaide Development Company, a real estate and property development business which still exists today. Success meant the family had the means to regularly travel to Europe, and Roche Senior introduced his son to the world’s great artistic masterpieces.

“David’s father was also a collector and his five siblings were collectors,” Cook says. “Even his nieces and nephews are collectors, so there’s a rich history of collecting in the Roche family.

“David was also interested in other collections, such as the Sir John Soane collection in England, The Johnston Collection in Melbourne and Carrick Hill here in Adelaide, but very few collections can be compared to David’s. His collection is very much focussed on French Empire and English Regency from 1750 to 1850.

“David collected every day of his life. He collected chandeliers, paintings and furniture that monarchs would have had under their roofs.

“The collection contains pieces that were once owned by Napoleon and the King of England, and furniture and objects and pottery and silver and toys that would have belonged to the King’s subjects. David also collected pieces that would have been found in a farmhouse – some of the simplest things amused him.

“David had an incredibly good eye. He could walk into an auction and pick out the best piece in the room. That eye extended to his dogs, which is why he was probably also Australia’s most successful exhibitor and a judge of international renown.”

The collection is housed in Roche’s former residence, a grand villa on Melbourne Street.

“David lived alone amongst his collection,” Cook says. “Everything David bought was for a reason, including bookcases, secretaires, chests of drawers, carpets, stools and vitrines (display cabinets) – even his kitchen has an outstanding Robert Adam centrepiece.

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Martyn Cook in the Roman Room, moving a German KPM porcelain vase among Russian, German and French objects. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

“He collected specific to each room, and assembled lists over the years of what he needed to upgrade and what he needed to trade and move on. He narrowed his list down to three or four things that if they came up for sale and the money is right, that he would acquire. But there is so much here that the collection really doesn’t need to buy anything. When he passed, he was reasonably happy with it.”

Felix, who has worked for the Roche family for more than 20 years, says David Roche left his board with clear ideas regarding how he wanted the collection to be displayed and was confident in the board’s ability to implement his wishes.

“It was Mr Roche’s wish to have the house remain as much as possible as it was when he passed,” she says. “But as the collection is so vast, it is difficult to display it in its entirety and make it accessible for proper viewing.

“Now that Mr Roche has passed, we have a building program to develop the property by adding a purpose-built pavilion so that the collection can be redistributed through the house, the gallery and the pavilion. These buildings will jointly display the entire collection.

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Detail of a French Paris porcelain and gilt Charles X period vase decorated with landscapes. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

“Mr Roche was very keen to link into the education system so that the collection was available for close-up study for serious students of decorative arts. In the right circumstances, he wanted people to be able to actually hold the objects, not for them to be behind glass screens.”

The plan is that renovations will be complete and The David Roche House Museum will open in early 2016. “It will be a very good venue,” says Cook. “It is an amazing gift to Adelaide and we hope it might also become a home for items that will be donated.”

In the meantime and until the renovations start in earnest, Cook is still taking small group tours through the house by appointment, and the foundation viewing gallery exhibitions will continue. The current exhibition, The Human Form in Artrefers to Roche’s first purchase of porcelain at age 13: an English bone china statue of a terrier and a figurine of Queen Mary’s pet dog. This exhibition is open until April 30, 2015.



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