This valance relates directly to the family of Sir Henry Parkes, a former premier of New South Wales and one of the founding fathers of the Australian constitution. It was made by his daughter-in-law, Isabella, who in 1884 married Varney Parkes. The previous year Isabella had accompanied Sir Henry on his tour of America and Europe after the marriage of her sister Mary to Varney. Whilst they were overseas Mary died suddenly. Isabella and Varney had five children,
of whom three survived (Mary, Murray and Norman). The family was often short of money as Varney had a chequered career as an architect, politician and businessman. Although not a distinguished architect, his practice seems to have flourished in the early 1890s, when he designed the 'Marble Bar' for George Adams' hotel in Pitt St and other buildings in the city. However he was extravagant, lost money in various unsuccessful ventures and was declared bankrupt in 1895.
Varney was notorious for his extra-marital affairs. Isabella left him to live in Edinburgh in 1899 and sought a divorce three years later. This was not granted and she returned to bring up her family alone, settling in the suburb of Waverley. A resourceful, independent woman, Isabella found employment and raised her children frugally but successfully. She lived with her daughter Mary (even after Mary's marriage) until her death in 1927.
This valance which was designed to edge a shelf or bracket is typical of the work of well educated women at the time. Flowers were a popular embroidery motif with the journal 'Castner's Monthly and Rural Australian' advising in November 1886 that 'flowers must be true to nature - in fact nature must be as carefully copied as possible'. Native plants often featured and in the lead up to Australia's Federation in 1901 wattle was increasingly common. Valances like this were the height of fashion in the late 1800s. It was not enough to have lavish displays of ornaments, vases and statuary, even the mantlepieces and shelves had to be embellished with embroidered drapery.
Marion Fletcher, 'Needlework in Australia: A history of the development of embroidery', Melbourne, OUP, 1989