Rick and Suzy Miller don’t watch TV. They don’t even have one. Instead of consuming things other people have created, they are far more interested in creating things themselves.
Just outside Bathurst, New South Wales, between a road and a railway line, sits a perfectly proportioned Georgian house, with two old lilac bushes growing either side of the front door. Its plastered walls are chipped, the faded green window shutters hang wonkily on their hinges and the window panes rattle when a train whizzes past.
The lady of the house sits upstairs stitching a quilt that she has been working on for months. The sound of the piano keeps her company, drifting up the central staircase from the room below. The house is surrounded by curved garden beds of chocolate alluvial soil, brimming with dahlias and cosmos and towering cardoons, while inside it is dark and cosy. The rooms are filled with taxidermy, exotic textiles and old furniture from all over the world.
I didn’t know houses—or rather, atmospheres—like this existed in Australia. Not a downlight in sight.
The lady of the house is Suzy Miller and, when she saw Rainham was for sale 10 years ago, the house had been sitting empty for six years. Its former owner had moved to a nursing home, the garden was tired and even the real estate listing said the property needed some tender loving care. There were other buyers sniffing around, but they dropped away: ‘too much work’, they said. Suzy, meanwhile, thought it was perfect.
‘This is the one,’ she said, to herself first and then to her husband Rick, who, until five years ago, was the timpanist for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a job he had held for 42 years. They owned a holiday house in the nearby village of Rockley, but were on the hunt for something more private for the long term when Rainham—built in 1832 for Captain Thomas Raine, father of Tom Raine of Raine & Horne Real Estate—came up for sale.
Rick initially wasn’t as enthusiastic as Suzy. He was worried the house was too close to the road in front and the railway line behind, but Suzy was sure.
‘This is where I am going, whether you come or not,’ she said. The Millers, who met as musically gifted teenagers playing in what was then known as the ABC Training Orchestra, have been married for 50 years—long enough for Rick to know Suzy meant business. So they bought Rainham, with its four upstairs bedrooms, convict-quarters wing, horse stables and accompanying 31 hectares, all for $500,000.
Before you mistake Suzy for a naive romantic, you should know that she had spent years restoring a run-down Victorian boarding house in Stanmore, Sydney, single-handedly ripping out old carpets and bringing the three-storey terrace, with its grand Gone with the Wind cedar staircase, back to life. She knew that historical proportions mattered more to her than nice bathrooms and aircon. She wasn’t at all deterred by the threat of hard work.
Today the two-storey house near Bathurst remains faded, but gloriously so. Rick and Suzy have had the confidence to leave much of the house alone, choosing to tease out the layers of its history rather than wipe the slate clean.
‘Suzy always describes the house as an old lady with a bit of powder on her cheeks. She hasn’t had a facelift,’ says Rick. Both of them laugh.
There are no plans to give the old lady a facelift either. They reinstated an opening from the main house into one of the wings at the back, into a room that was ‘either a prison or a food store’—complete with bars on the window openings—which Rick now uses as his music room. It’s where he plays timpani and other percussion, and it’s just around the corner from the lounge room where he plays the piano. ‘But not very well,’ he insists; ‘I play for enjoyment’, while Suzy is upstairs working on her quilts.
‘I love listening to Rick. He plays the piano every night,’ says Suzy, ‘and I sit up there and stitch.’
In other parts of the house, they removed the wall-coverings to reveal walls layered with old paint, the different colours merging together in an impressionist wash: ‘the walls over here, they’re like a Monet. We’re so grateful that nobody ever painted them,’ says Suzy. And they replaced the modern addition of an enclosed back verandah windows with a wall of old conservatory-style steel windows found at the local tip. Other than that, they’ve left the bones of the building untouched.
‘The bathroom is very basic. We’ve toyed with the idea of redoing the bathroom or putting in a new bathroom, and then we wonder if we can really be bothered?’ says Suzy.
Instead of renovating, they have filled the house with textiles, taxidermy, job-lot art and old furniture that Suzy had spent a lifetime sourcing from auction houses and markets. Cupboards and sideboards from Cairo sit alongside finds from the tip and huge Chinese wall hangings. Suzy turned 16 in a Macau casino after she and her family moved to China in the 1960s. It was the time of Mao. Her father, photographer Geoffrey Powell, with his ‘very left’ political ideals, decided to stay, while Suzy returned to Australia with her mother and sisters a year later.
I follow Suzy out of the music room to the enclosed verandah, where piles of folded quilts are stacked on the table. At a guess there are about 30. Suzy opens them up, one after the other, and I can’t quite believe what I am seeing. There’s exquisite appliqué, patchwork, fussy cutting—every stitch done by hand. By Suzy’s hand. I ask her how long it takes her to make a quilt and she very casually says, ‘Oh, about six months’. I gasp.
‘The process is what I love,’ says Suzy. ‘I love searching for the fabrics, I love stitching, but once I’ve made them, I fold the quilts up and put them
in a cupboard.’
By this stage I’ve just about fainted. I know the journey is meant to be the reward, but I didn’t know people who weren’t enlightened monks actually lived this way.
Suzy learned how to sew as a child by her mother’s side and, when she moved to New York to study the flute as a 19-year-old, her mother posted homemade sewing kits to her.
‘Rick was already in Los Angeles studying drums and percussion and my mother used to worry about me being lonely. She thought she needed to keep me busy. So she would send me piles of fabric, all cut, and pieces of The Mosman Daily cut in hexagon shapes to use as templates for the patchwork. And as I was making that quilt it would take me mentally back home: I’d see little references to Mosman.’
Suzy shows me the first quilt she made in New York. The handiwork reminds me of my own attempts to sew name tags on school uniforms. ‘You’ve got to start somewhere,’ Suzy laughs.
As we go through the pile of quilts, the stitches become neater, the work more complicated. The poignancy of seeing the evolution of Suzy the sewist—and, by extension, Suzy the person—in quilt form took me by surprise. There was a lifetime of work folded up on the table. Suzy the young music student, Suzy the mother-of-four, Suzy the quilting teacher and now Suzy the gardener, with the quilts, knitted blankets and embroidery acting as signposts along the way.
Rick tells me how, as an 18-year-old, Suzy would play concertos with the Sydney Symphony, out the front with her flute. I wonder if the discipline of playing music at the level she did set her up to not only apply this same discipline to other passions in her life—sewing, and now gardening—but to also enjoy the process—the work—more than the result. The playing of music is primarily an experiential thing. Unless you’re in a recording booth, you play it and then it is gone. It’s ephemeral: all process. To me it seems that Suzy makes her quilts in the same way. It’s much less about having a quilt than it is about experiencing the act of stitching. She wants to do the work because it’s the doing that she wants.
While Suzy and Rick have left their house relatively untouched, what they have radically transformed is the garden. A space that was just the lilac bushes and a few other trees is now an explosion of well-tended garden beds filled with more than 100 varieties of dahlias, as well as cardoons, clary sage, cosmos, hollyhocks and zinnias. Colourful fake flowers have been threaded through the metal entrance gate. Huge Miscanthus grass balls sway with the breeze out the back. Colour and movement embrace the house.
The couple have set up a dahlia farm at the back with between 110 and 120 varieties growing in neat rows, supported by metal frames that Suzy designed. When the flowers are in season, Rick and Suzy sell big bunches for $15 at the Bathurst growers’ markets, as well as at their farm gate. ‘We keep them at a low price so that everyone can have them,’ says Suzy matter-of-factly.
It’s not a small garden and—something which will not come as a surprise to you by now—Rick and Suzy do all the work themselves.
‘You’d have to put someone on a full-time wage, and then you’d watch them, so you may as well be doing it yourself,’ says Suzy. Walking around the garden, Rick makes clear that it all came about through Suzy’s vision.
‘She has this magnificent ability to feel the rhythm of the garden. Her choice of flowers, what’s going to flower when, what will replace that… It’s her genius.
‘She’s brilliant. She is a brilliant [music] sight-reader, a brilliant gardener: she knows how to put it all together.’
Whether it’s quilting, collecting, gardening or music, Rick and Suzy are always creating and doing. They have talent, but also discipline; discipline to pursue their passions and develop competence, but also the discipline to not sink into the couch every night and watch Netflix. They have consciously built rich creative lives for themselves, imbuing the house and garden with an atmosphere that comes from a place of creativity rather than consumption. ■
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