A tribute to… John Coote 1949 – 2012

John Coote

We were saddened to hear in January that Australian designer John Coote passed away at the age of 62 of a suspected heart attack. A specialist in the restoration of classical homes and the design of new classical houses, he built his reputation in the early 1980s with formal redesigns and renovations of the homes of Melbourne’s wealthy and influential. The establishment of design offices in London and New York in 1987 led to work on grand projects around the globe. His status as an international designer of note grew with his undertaking of high-profile projects including the rebuild of the burned-out Libyan Embassy in London in 1987.

Described by our Melbourne editor Annemarie Kiely as the “last of the great larger-than-life designers”, Coote was a mentor to many in the Australian design community. The mythology that surrounded him was to an extent self-perpetuated but he had a sense of humour about it. Kiely recalls him once telling her, “I can charm the birds out of the trees if I want to, and I can put them back there just as quickly.” He had a reputation in the design press as the go-to man for a great quote and was affectionately described in Vogue Living in 2004 as being “renowned as an incorrigible name and place dropper.” Stories of his antics abound, many of which were recounted with much mirth by family and friends at his funeral, including his insistence in the 1980s that lobster sandwiches and French Champagne be present at client meetings. He was also known at that time for riding around Melbourne in his own chauffeur-driven Daimler with a Victorian flag on its front – just one of the nine luxury cars he owned at the time, including Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. When asked about his airs and graces by The Age newspaper in 1987, he said it was all about client expectation; if you’re dealing with the rich, you had to act like the rich. “If people employ me, they don’t want me pulling up in some awful Toyota. They want to see dollars driving up the drive and the want to see Mr Coote getting out of his chauffeur-driven car. They want to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth,” he said.

His family was descended from Irish gentry but he liked to tell people he could trace his lineage back to Joan of Arc. More incongruously, at one of the famed balls at his Irish estate, he claimed he was connected to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell through vague connections related to the slave trade.

His greatest project was perhaps his most personal – the restoration of his family’s ancestral home, Bellamont Forest, an 18th-century Palladian mansion in Ireland’s County Cavan. The estate had passed out of the family’s hands in the 1870s and its recovery had been a childhood dream that became a reality when Coote discovered on a trip to the UK in 1987 that Bellamont was for sale. The house’s restoration project was a true labour of love, and Coote spent 23 years working on the project. He undertook the restoration himself, taking great care to preserve the original features of the home and designing much of its furniture, reinterpreting 18th-century Irish designs. The home was published in Vogue Living November/December 2004, a story you will find republished below.

After receiving several commissions to reproduce the bespoke Bellamont designs for clients, he established Coote & Co, a furniture and soft furnishings company specialising in Irish-Georgian reproductions. Seven years on, he went into partnership with interior designer Gabriel Bernardi. Late last year, the duo opened a new flagship interiors and furniture store on London’s Pimlico Road, Coote & Bernardi and he continued to work with his daughter Charlotte on an Australian-based business, Coote & Coote.

He was a constant traveler and, even after decades of experience working on classical restorations, remained a meticulous researcher. In 2010, Bellamont was sold, Coote citing his relocation to Australia, and that of his three grown up children, as a key reason. He said the most important thing “was to leave the house right for another 100 years”, an objective that design critics and devotees of classical restorations saw Coote as undoubtedly having achieved.

Text: Madeleine Hinchy

A grand Palladian villa in Ireland seems an appropriate home for the larger than life personality of Melbourne designer John Coote. Formerly the estate of his ancestors, Coote’s restoration honours the home’s architectural details and is filled with his own designs based on the past, writes Ruth Thorpe.

Larger than life Australian interior designer John Coote revels in his peripatetic lifestyle. Travelling between projects in Melbourne, the USA and Europe, renowned as an incorrigible name and place dropper, he designs his classical schemes like a Grant Tourist, amassing ideas from around the world. Given his propensity for sallying forth in search of treasures, it’s no surprise to learn that he is descended from a family of military adventurers.

The Cootes were rewarded with estates in Ireland in the mid-17th century, landed the title Earls of Bellamont, and in 1729, built an exquisite Palladian villa outside the town they had founded, Cootehill in County Cavan. Having become poorer, the family sold the house, Bellamont Forest, in 1874.

Coote was 14 and already tracing floor plans in the sand on his father’s sheep farm near the Grampian Ranges when he saw an article on Bellamont Forest in Country Life. With characteristic determination he decided, “I’m going to get that back”. That was in 1964. By the time he visited the house in 1987, he had already established himself as a leading designer in Melbourne, opened an office in the USA and was working on the restoration of the former Libyan embassy in London. As fate would have it, Bellamont Forest was for sale. After more than a century, it was once again in Coote Hands.

First glimpsed from the grand sweep of the driveway, the house looks deceptively modest, sitting naturally in the landscape, surveying private lakes to either side. This though, is no ordinary Irish country house. Designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce after a tour of Andrea Palladio’s Renaissance villas in the Veneto, it is recognized as one of of the finest recreations of the Palladian villa in Ireland, with perfect scale, proportions, and detailing, its original interiors intact. Somewhat Tardis-like, it also runs to more than 30 rooms.

By the time you reach the top of the broad flight of granite steps, Bellamont Forest is looking decidedly grander. The black-and-white stone floor of the vast coved hallway bears the patina of almost three centuries of use. Set high up on the walls, six marble busts, thought to have been commissioned by a Coote on Grand Tour in the early 18th century, have witnessed it all.

The sparseness of the hallway and the rooms leading off it might surprise Australian clients familiar with the Coote style, which often compensates for a lack of architectural character in new homes by bringing a sense of old to new. Here are Bellamont he allows the interiors to speak for themselves. “The house is empty as it is meant to be,” he declares. The colours are light and the furnishings minimal allowing the architectural detail to be appreciated.

While friends and clients appreciate the serenity of the place, for Coote it is the ultimate party house. “The house comes alive when it’s full of people. I adore it when we have a 1930s orchestra playing,” he says. The rooms are arranged for entertaining. Five doors open off the entrance hallway, two to the right, two to the left, and the ballroom door is straight ahead. The ballroom in turn has four doors, two false and there purely for symmetry, the others opening into the drawing and dining rooms on either side, creating an enfilade the full width of the house. Guests flow easily between rooms.

Coote’s children use Bellamont Forest as a regular venue for their house parties – upstairs, myriad rooms open off the bedroom hall, top-lit by a stunning elliptical ‘lantern’ – but it also acts as a showcase for Coote’s work. He has designed much of the furniture in the house. “All the pieces are derived from 18th century Irish designs, but I reinterpret them,” he explains.

The exception is the vast console table in the hallway which he had made up to an original drawing in the Irish Architectural Archive, by the Irish architect Pearce. He had the single marble slab for the top cut from the same quarry in Kilkenny as some of the Georgian fireplaces in the house. Furniture may be arranged formally, but not always bowing to tradition. The chairs flanking the front and ballroom doors in the hall are teak garden benches, based on an 18th century drawing, and painted darkest green. Coote has been intrepid in tracking down pieces he feels are right for Bellamont.

He had the lantern in the hallway copied from one at Malahide Castle near Dublin. The slip covers for the dining chairs are the happy outcome of a trip to an old jacquard mill in Ulster. “I was pillaging the cupboards and found a swatch of 18th century linen check. I had rolls and rolls of it woven.” The stables, he hopes, will soon become a showroom for his “big house” collection of furniture, textiles, rugs, linen and china. Meanwhile, on his visits to Cootehill, Coote rows on the lakes, walks the land and on warmer evenings surveys the 1,000-acre estate from the villa’s impressive portico, as if to the manor born.

‘Heirs and Graces’ was first published in Vogue Living Nov/Dec 2004.

Text: Ruth Thorpe
Photographer: Rene Kramers

10 Responses to “A tribute to… John Coote 1949 – 2012”
  1. I was saddened to hear of John Cootes passing. He was a person of immense enthusiasm and drive whose vision has ensured the survival of his ancestor’s historic residence at Bellamont, in Cootehill, Co. Cavan. As an interior designer, his work was known and respected throughout the world.

  2. dta91082 says:

    I met John through family friends, in Bellbrae, when I was about 15. He was certainly the most bold, hilariously bombastic character I’d ever come across. John said we were very similar; a country upbringing which hadn’t stifled our strong creative personalities. He offered me work experience with him for a week- I stayed with friends in Williamstown & caught the train to Sth Yarra where he’d pick me up & whisk me off to some of Melbournes most impressive homes. I was told to “explore & look around- being shy won’t get you anywhere” while he entertained the owners or berated the builders. His eye for detail, I remember, was INCREDIBLE. As was his ability to get things done. His presence was formidable for many- he found it hilarious too. I finished school, & on his advice, after teaching English in Munich for a royal family for a year, began Architecture at University. I was too young & sought life experience; moved to France, then found myself in Dubai. I eventually got hold of John’s number & called him; “of course I remember you- & I’m coming to visit”. When he arrived I was pleased to see nothing had changed- he scalded me for losing contact. I didn’t know where he lived! “That’s ridiculous! John Coote, Ireland! That’s my address!”
    I’ve since returned to Australia & have only just found my feet- & to see that John is no longer with us, fills me with sadness. I’ve looked forward to seeing him again. I suppose it will have to wait for quite some more time now.
    My sincerest heartfelt condolences to his children, family & friends.

  3. Colleen Newton says:

    As a fellow descendant of the Coote family of Bellamont House, I am very saddened to hear of John’s death and I am so sorry that we never got to meet in person. We have exchanged emails over nearly 20yrs and we weren’t sure of our exact connection but called each other cousin. To his children, who he was very proud of, I extend love from my family to yours. Colleen Newton in New Zealand.

    • Deborah Brockenshire says:

      Dear Colleen,

      I am a descendant of Lady Sarah Coote, and live in Canada. I have just finished the family tree on my mother’s side. Lady Sarah married a Byers, which was my maternal grandmother’s name, and moved to Cavan Co. Ontario, Canada. I am so sad that I just found all of this info after John Cootes passing. Do you know of anyone I could connect with? Thank you very much.

      • Colleen Newton says:

        Hello Deborah. How lovely it is to meet another descendant of this complex family. Do you have your tree on Ancestry? I am as fascinated by others’ lineage as much as my own. My descent from Charles the Earl of Bellamont and Elizabeth Johnston had an echo when his grandson, Dawson Richard Coote, had twin daughters to an Elizabeth Daly, The twins emigrated to NZ 1860s. I have an aunt living in Toronto – which part of Canada do you live in? You are welcome to email me privately at colleen.newton1@xtra.co.nz I have recently returned to Waiheke Island after 8yrs working elsewhere in NZ. Can you send me some of Lady Sarah’s details and I’ll see if I can find contacts for you. Yours sincerely, Colleen Newton.

  4. My mother is the daughter of the late Michael Coote of Dublin. I was brought up in Ireland and visited the house on a few occassions. It was thrilling to watch it brought back to life. Lovely to know that Bellamont along with Ballyfin the Coote’s other ancestral home (in Mountrath) have been saved for generations to come. Simon MH Robeson.

    • Deborah Brockenshire says:

      So sorry for the loss of this great man, blessings to his family. My great great grandmother was Lady Sarah Coote of Cootehill Ireland. She married Robert Byers and they moved to Bailleboro, Ontario, Canada. This is the area I grew up in. His son David married Mary Watson. David’s son George married Henrietta Lockington, was my great grandmother. My mother, her granddaughter, is deceased. I visited Cootehill in the late ’70’s, but did not have any contacts. I would love to connect with someone regarding this. What an amazing estate, I actually saw the pink drawing room in a dream!

      • Doris Goheen says:

        Greeetings Deborah
        I am also descended from Sarah Coote and Robert Byers and also David Byers and Mary Watson through their son John Albert a brother of your George Watson Byers. John Alberts was my grandfather. I am also connected to your family in another way as your aunt Verna married my Uncle Harvey. I hope we can connect. I live in Ontario.

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