My Grandmothers home, a conversation with Lady Anna Cowen

My Grandmothers Home; a conversation with Lady Anna Cowen

by Rachel Donath 

The living room, with a portrait of my Grandfather by Carmel O'Connor

On a visit to spend time with my grandmother last week, I was sitting chatting to her and looking at my surrounds, felt an urge to share a snippet of her home and her exceptional design aesthetic with my Instagram following. I have spent almost every weekend in this home since I can remember, but every time I visit, I am filled with wonder and an appreciation for the exceptional style and creativity she puts into her home, which is warm and homely but also a fantastic example of a (96 year) lifelong love for design and more importantly, love of her family which is what her home signifies.

With her permission, I would love to share with you some of her stories and some more images of her home here in Melbourne, Australia. 

My grandparents have led a very public life, with my Grandfather, Sir Zelman Cowen, holding many prominent public positions, the most well know being his Governor Generalship from 1977-1982. My grandparents lived in some of the most fabulous homes across Australia and the globe as they followed my grandfathers career. In 1990, my grandparents returned to Melbourne and took up residence at the home my grandmother still lives in today. 


Some of the remarkable homes my Grandparents have lived in including "Trevenna" in Armidale, NSW, Government House in Canberra, Provost's Lodgings in Oxford, England.


On my grandmothers home for the last 30 years 

In my grandmothers words,

"This building I believe is ‘out of the ordinary’. It has unusually beautiful lead -lighted windows and doors and generous living spaces. It has some other decorative touches which reflect the style of Walter Burley-Griffin with whom our architect spent some of his formative years. It was good luck that I was able to identify him when reference to academic architects had failed. His name was Esmond Dorney, and he had build these apartments around 1930 for his uncle, who was my parents’ landlord and lived upstairs when they first came to live here. Dorney was a an innovative and versatile architect who designed in various styles as trends developed: from traditional “English” to Art Deco, to international modern, and beyond. I am told that in Tasmania, Dorney houses are prized and eagerly sought."

My Grandmothers current home, where she has lived since 1990

In the entrance of my Grandmothers home, a pair or antique chairs below a portrait of my late Grandfather Sir Zelman Cowen by the acclaimed artist Brian Dunlop next to an original artwork by Robert Dickerson


On modernising:

In my grandmothers own words: "There is a strong trend now for kitchen/family room arrangements, and much to commend it. I once considered removing some wall to achieve that here, but decided against changing the character of the two main living rooms, which I consider rather special. This place does have “character”. It is not often to be found, and I cherish it."

A mix of antiques, a painting by Australian Water colourist Joy Roggenkamp and family photos in a corner of my Grandmothers home.


 On her approach to furnishing:

A favourite piece of my grandmothers is the side board that stands in the entrance of her home, now covered in photos of her 16 grandchildren and many more great grandchildren.  This console is an 18th Century Antique which she bought home  from England after living in Oxford. 

A favourite piece of my grandmothers  is the side board that stands in the entrance of her home, now covered in photos of grandchildren. 

With a keen interest in antiques but a sensible approach to spending, my grandmother sought out auction rooms for items that were neither modern nor antique. In her own words, “this became an interesting occupation” and led her searching for unique pieces that spoke to her design sensibilities. 

Ceramics, books on "mixed interests which we haven't parted with" and collected pieces form a reading nook in my grandmothers home. 

Another anecdote which demonstrates my grandmothers keen interests in design: 

“In shopping for curtains I was delighted to discover a range of Swedish cotton prints in Myers. They were so distinctive and fresh in design that the memory of them sent me searching for their source when I visited Sweden 38 years later. No longer in production, but in old catalogues of “Svengst Ten” in Stockholm, they had been designed by an Austrian refugee, Josef Frank.”

My grandmothers round dining table which is a Parker original and which she has had since the 1970’s, holds many memories for me as a child. We had a family Sunday night dinner at my grandparents house every single weekend until recently, when age has restricted her from entertaining and the Sunday night ritual has moved to a rotation of the younger generations homes. My grandmother always said that she loved a round table as it is ‘very democratic’ and I have to agree with her.

When building and designing my own home, we specified the dimensions of the dining space to specifically accomodate a large round dining table as I saw the benefits first hand of round table entertaining and conversation. 

 Pottery, Artwork and collections: 

My grandmother has amassed a beautiful collection of pottery pieces and I ask her “Why pottery?”  She answers that she loves the feel of handling pottery. My grandmothers collection of ceramics include works by Milton Moon, Shigeo Shiga, Col Levy and David Boyd. 

My grandmother has a beautiful, simple and seemingly effortless way of arranging pieces in her home. She is never fussy or pretentious and never precious - except of her tray of beautiful large shells - which I recall her always moving to a higher surface when us kids would arrive at her home. 

Said shells (top), which we were banned from touching as children and were always placed on a higher surface when we would arrive as children at our grandparents house. 

My grandmothers creativity extends beyond her decor and her home and she has always been a fabulous and creative cook and used to sew our clothing and upholster old couches and chairs as a hobby. 

When I ask my grandmother to describe her style, she says “eclectic”. When I ask her what her advice would be to others when it comes to collecting and curating a home full of wonderful pieces, she says “If you live in a home with things that you love and really enjoy, thats what matters”. 

A personal favourite; A ceramic piece collected by my grandmother during her travels 


A recent(ish) photo with my fabulous Grandmother, who I love beyond measure