A Philanthropist's 1855 Home

Preserving history is philanthropist Krystyna Campbell-Pretty’s full-time job.

She spent close to 40 years working as a highly regarded management consultant, alongside her late husband Harold Campbell-Pretty, before retiring and becoming an National Gallery of Victoria Foundation board member.

“My husband and I began supporting the NGV Foundation around 2004,” she says. “It was something we began together and that I developed after he passed away.

“I became aware there were lots of things I could do to support the gallery and the passion unfolded,” she says of her philanthropic role.

Since 2015, Campbell-Pretty’s contribution to the NGV’s Fashion and Textiles collection has amassed 250 garments and over 3000 pieces that form the library research archive.

Think very early designer sketches, fashion magazines, photography, and embroidery samples that help tell the story of fashion.

“It’s a relatively short period but a very powerful period in terms of what’s been achieved in really transforming the fashion collection,” says Katie Somerville, the NGV’s senior curator in fashion and textiles.

The Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Fashion Gift currently has 150 of her acquisitions on display among the gallery’s permanent collection.

The major fashion exhibition focuses on haute couture from the 1890s through to contemporary fashion, including 15 pieces from Yves Saint Laurent, a rare suite of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s little black dresses, and even a highly coveted Elsa Schiaparelli two-piece.

“It’s been on our wish list at NGV for as long as I have been here – and I have been here for 24 years,” Somerville laughs. “It gives you a sense of how dedicated and driven Krystyna is.”

While admitting the haute couture she has collected is “just as beautiful as the art” displayed in the gallery, for Campbell-Pretty “women’s fashion is about history”.

“If you walk through the exhibition, you will see a complete change of women’s attitudes to themselves and people towards women,” she says.

Campbell-Pretty’s collector spirit and desire to preserve history also extends to her private inner-city Melbourne residence.

The Victorian home was built in 1855 and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.

“It’s a very important building and one of the earliest still standing from the period,” Campbell-Pretty says of the property she and her husband purchased almost 30 years ago.

Before the couple acquired the home, the property had operated as a church-owned private hospital since the 1930s.

The premises had undergone quick-mend cosmetic changes – the floors were covered with Masonite and shag-pile carpet and rooms were divided with thin plaster partitions – but the build’s original blueprint remained intact.

It would be another 15 years before the couple moved into the property.

“We initially bought it as our main corporate headquarters,” Campbell-Pretty says. “After we sold the business, we decided to take on the mammoth task of taking it back to a private home.”

As the building’s new custodians, the couple knew the site had to undergo extensive restoration to bring the heritage property back to its former domestic glory.

They were careful to retain the original structure of the home but everything else was “completely gutted”.

The Campbell-Prettys engaged heritage architect Bruce Trethowan for the job. “He had a very great sympathy for this sort of building,” says Campbell-Pretty. “We had to bring the home back to something like its original shape and remove the partitions and strip out all wiring and plumbing – everything, you name it.”

Campbell-Pretty says while the home had been adapted over the years, they were fortunate that those changes were easily reversed and the original build was never destroyed.

Thin plastered partitioned walls were removed and once the carpet and Masonite floors were stripped, original details and parquetry floors were revealed.

Once the property had been structurally restored, the interiors came next. Campbell-Pretty wanted to retain the feeling of the Victorian home with casual, modern living.

Original features were kept in the front formal areas, while the modern living area out back is open plan and looks out onto the gardens. The rooms were painted in light colours to replicate a Victorian-era palette.

Combining her love of fashion and collecting, the home is decorated with key pieces of sentimental value to Campbell-Pretty.

Thin plastered partitioned walls were removed and once the carpet and Masonite floors were stripped, original details and parquetry floors were revealed.

Once the property had been structurally restored, the interiors came next. Campbell-Pretty wanted to retain the feeling of the Victorian home with casual, modern living.

Original features were kept in the front formal areas, while the modern living area out back is open plan and looks out onto the gardens. The rooms were painted in light colours to replicate a Victorian-era palette.

Combining her love of fashion and collecting, the home is decorated with key pieces of sentimental value to Campbell-Pretty. Similarly to the current NGV exhibition, she has some of her favourite garments on display.

“I’ve actually put some of my old dresses on mannequins around the house,” she says.

Campbell-Pretty also proudly displays her collection of early 20th-century Italian alabaster lamps and paintings by Australian impressionists, including Charles Conder. “He was actually born in England but spent much of his life here.”

Through a sympathetic restoration, Campbell-Pretty achieved her goal to create a home with a “classical and modern but also comfortable environment”.

It takes the work of a true collector to see the beauty of yesterday and bring it back to life for tomorrow, which is exactly what’s she done.

This article was originally published in The Age Domain, photo from the Krystyna Campbell-Pretty Gift for The National Gallery of Victoria.

Lisa Marie Corso