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The Bizarre and Brilliant Rock Work of Charles Robinette

Strolling through Gate B entrance at Melbourne Gardens, it's impossible to miss the charming rockery, designed and built around 1887 in the style of a grotto (small cave). It boasts a very special claim to fame - it's one of Charles Robinette's masterpieces, with Robinette considered to be Australia's rock-work aficionado at the time of its construction. Featuring succulents and ledges for sitting, and kitschy displays of unusual detailing of clam and other seashell insets, Gate B grotto is the quintessential poster child for the ‘heyday’ of rockeries.

Rock mania

Rich with character, rockeries built mostly between the 1870s and 1930s are found in several Australian public and private gardens. Dating back to the Renaissance, rockeries resembling natural fern gullies or mimicking limestone caves were common embellishments in European gardens.

Early rockeries or 'grottoes' were influenced by grottesca, a whimsical decor inspired by wall paintings discovered in buried Roman ruins. By the 1700s, the fashion had veered towards ‘nature-inspired’ collections of shells and fossils, with water features brought in for added theatrics. 

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, Europe's fascination with grottoes had waned. In England, however, rockeries were incorporated into the ‘picturesque’ movement, with nature-inspired aesthetics moving to the forefront of grotto design. 

Introducing Robinette

Of the rockeries remaining in Victoria and South Australia, many were crafted by Charles Robinette, a unique and important figure in Australian landscape design. 

There is no evidence that Robinette, who arrived in Australia from England in 1876, had any formal training in gardening or landscape architecture. Self-taught, he learned basic surveying and engineering principles from textbooks and manuals and quickly developed a unique expertise in rock work, which is evident in his surviving creations and high regard from his peers. 

Working in Adelaide and Melbourne, Robinette’s design philosophy was largely based around a desire to craft creative grottoes that evoked naturalistic rock features. He designed and built a series of ferneries and rockeries that were unique in their quality of workmanship, picturesque effects, and grotesque forms inspired by marine paleontology.

When Guilfoyle met Robinette 

Around late 1886, William Guilfoyle,  Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria at the time, was dismayed with the lack of rock work at Melbourne Gardens. His predecessor, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, had highlighted in his landscape design philosophy for the Gardens an interest in rockery design 'of bowers, grottos, and rockwork'. Guilfoyle, however, had a bigger vision for these rockeries and sought to construct more aesthetically interesting and unique spaces, in line with his vision for a picturesque landscape.

After seeing Robinette’s work in Adelaide and realising these unique rockeries required out-of-the-box thinking, an inspired Guilfoyle commissioned him to craft a major rockery feature in the Gardens, and so the Gate B grotto was born, clamshell insets and all. Guilfoyle planted with typical nineteenth-century period choices - succulents, cycads, a palm, Acanthus, and bromeliads.

The grotto caught the attention of many newspaper journalists, though often in a negative light. One critical reporter in 1887 commented that the polarising structure was placed ‘as though it had dropped from the sky', describing it as 'totally out of place in such a position, being in no way connected with its surroundings, and is certainly as great a piece of incongruity as ever was perpetuated.’

Despite mixed reviews, Guilfoyle's rockery frustrations disappeared from the Garden's Annual Reports after Robinette's appointment, and several other works were instigated in addition to the Gate B rockery, though most of them and their plantings have been removed or significantly altered over the years.

An Enduring Legacy

Robinette went on to construct many more rockeries after his work with Guilfoyle, including the iconic grotto in the Melbourne General Cemetery. His craftsmanship is evident to this day in the Gate B rockery, which remains a classic example of grotesque rockery construction and design. 

Though it’s still standing, its ponds sit empty, and two of its sections that have been dislodged and rotated from their original positions. Despite this, it's possible to see how whimsical Robinette’s Gate B rockery could be if properly vegetated and repaired.

With your help, we can prevent Robinette's masterpiece and other heritage gems in Melbourne Gardens from further deteriorating, and ensuring they are restored them to their former glory so they can be enjoyed by future generations for years to come. Your donation can see to a Gardens rich in character and charm we head in to the future


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