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If you’re a lover of interior design and styling these days, you most likely ogle over the Instagram feeds of Vogue Living, Architectural Digest and The Selby. If it was the 1920s and Instagram was a thing, the lady you’d be following is Ruth Lane-Poole.
Back then, Ruth was well-known for her impeccable credentials, well-informed design aesthetic and social credibility. Her articles on interior decoration in popular magazines introduced many homemakers to her ideas on good taste and practical design.
When the Federal Capital Commission was faced with the challenge of furnishing Canberra’s two new official residences—Government House and The Lodge—in time for the opening of Parliament House in 1927, Ruth Lane-Poole was engaged to work with the architects on matters relating to interior furnishing.
Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) is celebrating the life and talents of Ruth in a brand-new exhibition: Ruth Lane-Poole: A Woman of Influence. Opening this Sunday 10 July, the exhibition will run until 2 October.
Ruth was born in Ireland in 1885, and after her parents’ marriage broke down, she was made a ward of her cousin, Susan Mary Yeats, known as Lily. Ruth grew up surrounded by the creative talents of the Yeats family, the celebrated artistic and literary family whose names are immortalised as prominent exponents of the Irish Celtic Revival movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In particular, Ruth learned embroidery from Lily, who had studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin before working as an assistant embroiderer at her father William’s business, Morris & Co.
Ruth later met her future husband Charles Lane Poole in Ireland, and they later relocated to Australia when Charles was appointed as Conservator of Forests by the West Australian government in 1916.
The couple went on to have three daughters, and in 1925 they moved to Melbourne, where Charles had been appointed as the Commonwealth’s Forestry Adviser.
They were welcomed into the city’s thriving artistic and creative circle and counted well-respected artists and other high society types amongst their friends.
It was during this time that Ruth’s influence expanded through her articles published in The Australian Home Beautiful, as she guided her readers through the challenges of home-making and furnishing.
Then in 1927, Ruth was the first Australian government-appointed woman to provide advice on matters of furnishing and decorating in an official capacity.
Her brief was to prepare the Canberra residences to be occupied by the Australian Governor-General and the Prime Minister in time for the opening of Federal Parliament in May the following year.
The new exhibition at CMAG tells these tales, and many more, of the incredible woman, and is curated by Margaret Betteridge, who is the former Fine Arts Adviser to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“My introduction to [Ruth Lane-Poole] happened in 1986 when I worked for the Prime Minister’s department, and I was involved in the restoration and interior work at The Lodge in Canberra. And as part of that work, I researched some of the historical photos of the 1927 period when the Ruth Lane-Poole furnishing scheme was introduced,” says Margaret.
“I started to realise, through historical photographs and information in the archives, that there was still quite a bit of furniture of hers in The Lodge and in storage, and also at Government House in Canberra. And I wanted to give that the recognition that it deserved. And so we set about putting some of those pieces back into the Lodge.”
As part of Ruth’s designs, she commissioned a range of furniture, all emphasising Australian native timbers, and some of these pieces are still at the Lodge and Government House today.
“In both houses, the dining chairs commissioned by Ruth are still in use. And the really great thing is that, in both houses, the dining rooms originally were quite small and only seated, in the Lodge it was 12 people and in Government House it was 22. But in both houses, the dining rooms were expanded. And at the time that was done independently of each other, they commissioned additional chairs to match the existing ones, which was fantastic, because it maintained the tradition.”
An original chair from each features in the exhibition, along with other items never exhibited outside the official residences plus embroidery by Lily Yeats, archival material documenting Ruth’s role, and drawings of her furniture designs.
The free exhibition opens this Saturday 10 July, and while CMAG is usually closed on a Sunday, the Gallery will open on Sunday July 11 as part of the launch, with the cafe also open 11 am-2 pm.
What: Ruth Lane-Poole: A Woman of Influence
Where: Canberra Museum and Gallery, Cnr London Circuit and City Square, Canberra City
When: Exhibition on 10 July—23 October 2021. CMAG is open Monday to Saturday 10 am—5 pm. CMAG will also be specially opening Sunday 11 July for the exhibition’s opening weekend.