Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan: A Personal Eden: The Growing of Heide

This paper focuses on the shaping of the landscape at Heide, a 15-acre property in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, which is today the site of Heide Museum of Modern Art. The land was purchased in 1934 by John and Sunday Reed, who are now known as two of Australia’s most important art benefactors. At the time it was a neglected former dairy farm with a small river frontage on the Yarra, and virtually treeless. Over the fifty years that the Reeds lived at Heide they transformed it into a densely forested parkland and verdant gardens, inscribed with their personalities and with those of the charismatic figures who contributed to life in this idyllic setting.

The Reeds positioned Heide as a creative crucible in the 1940s. It’s avant-garde milieu included artists Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval; and writers such as Max Harris, Michael Keon, and Peter Cowan. Together with the Reeds these people forged a progressive modernist culture that was modelled on international exemplars but fundamentally Australian. Home to the radical cultural journal Angry Penguins and notorious Ern Malley hoax, Heide was also the location where Nolan painted his eponymous Ned Kelly series in 1946–47.

Heide has been the subject of many sensational stories concerning the emotional entanglements of its habitués (notably Nolan’s ménage-a-trois with the Reeds), and our intention in writing our book, Sunday’s Garden, was to take a different approach. While the Reeds are remembered foremost as patrons of the arts, it is less know that they were devoted gardeners with a sustainable philosophy of living. We therefore wanted to rehabilitate the Heide landscape into the discourse surrounding this mythic site and its creators. Not just the backdrop to an important chapter in the story of Australian modernism, this landscape was part of its quotidian reality. It began as a blank slate, ripe for invention, and to borrow the words of Marion Cran, one of Sunday Reed’s favoured gardening authorities, over the decades it became a ‘script of memories’, witness to complex relationship dramas, landmark artistic achievements and significant cultural endeavour and change. Our challenge was to convey how this landscape, fertile on so many levels, evolved not just in a physical sense but in relation to the Reeds’ philosophy of living and cultural vision.

Importantly, Heide was imagined and in a sense ‘written’ as a personal Eden before it was created. Sunday and John’s early letters to one another visualised their ideal environment, as did the extensive garden literature that they mined for inspiration, by lauded experts such as Arts and Crafts garden designers Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, and garden historian Eleanor Sinclair Rohde. When we came to write about the Heide garden there were no early plans or designs to interpret, and only a limited number of photographs, so we relied on written and verbal descriptions, plant lists and the substantial correspondence of the Reeds’ wider circle, to build a picture of its successive stages. We came to recognise that essentially Heide existed and had been shaped in two different dimensions—in its material reality and as a symbolic entity in the minds of those who knew it intimately.

John and Sunday both came to Heide with romanticised conceptions of what a personal landscape should be—their garden had to be a refuge, a place to reflect, self-nurture and restore balance and order to their lives when needed. From a young age they had both found solace in nature and sought respite from the strictures of their respective upbringings in the extensive gardens and grounds they were fortunate to have on their doorsteps. For Sunday this was Merthon, the family holiday home at Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula, and for John it was Mount Pleasant, one of several vast Reed properties outside Launceston in Tasmania.

They both equated these childhood landscapes with a sense of physical and spiritual wellbeing and looked to recapture this at Heide. Sunday wrote to John of evenings at Merthon, lying on the grass in the garden, ‘watching the stars come out, smelling the wood of the trees and the rosemary beds, and listening to the folding noise of the sea’.[1] John described Mount Pleasant as ‘a heavenly place’ that held a ‘wonderful beauty and attraction’ for him, from the spectacular autumnal displays of the trees and the incomparable colours in the flower beds, to the wild natural landscape beyond the homestead’s immediate grounds.[2]

The reality at Heide to begin with, however, was much less romantic. In the first two years there was a record flood of the Yarra which washed away hundreds of their initial plantings, followed by a dramatic hailstorm that gave their young trees, in John’s words, ‘a frightful battering’. We discovered from their letters that at points like this Sunday often retired to the seaside, leaving John to deal with the aftermath.

Acutely aware of the challenges that this as yet unformed landscape was presenting to them, John wrote to Sunday:

We should be able to cope and must cope so that we can feel that we have a stable smooth harmonious base to our habitual life which will give us faith in ourselves and more courage and conviction in everything we do … we must get the place to come together and come round us close and be more intimate.[3]

While John’s words express his anxiety about the enormity of their project, they also acknowledge that life on their own piece of land would be his and Sunday’s ballast in difficult times once they had weathered the necessary preparations and plans to establish it solidly.

The Reeds persisted and were united and driven by their ambition to create a lifestyle that was in contrast to that of their affluent backgrounds. Their vision for Heide included a higher, self-conscious aim to develop a utopian existence that included a sustainable approach and a way of life based on their desire to live close to the earth and in sympathy with the regionalist culture of the Old World, which they had both experienced on their travels. This type of existence was for them a foil against the negative aspects of modern life and industry. They made a deep psychological investment in Heide as the foundation for their future life together and the expression of their beliefs. The landscape reflects the fact that Heide was as much a vocation as a place to live.

Consequently it became a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Over time the Reeds planted three kitchen gardens, an orchard, thousands of exotic and later native trees, a wild garden, ornamental herbaceous borders and hedging, countless roses and a rockery. They also kept hens and ducks, bees and milking cows and made a concerted effort to complete their self-sufficiency.

This return to the earth, however, didn’t necessarily equate to a simpler life. The Reeds’ vision for fulfilment through nourishing body and mind with organic food and a tranquil setting, went hand-in-hand with their desire to nurture the artistic achievements of those they held close. They shared a passion for nature and culture in equal measure, and as they moulded their surroundings so they were fostering a modern, relevant and internationally cognisant Australian culture. At Heide a sense of place and personal satisfaction in living close to the earth ultimately underpinned broader aspirations to make a mark on Australian art and literature. The books in the Reeds’ personal library attest to the way in which they shaped their landscape and their attitudes towards it through their reading: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which describes the author’s two-year project in self-sufficiency in the Massachusetts woods and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, written in praise of nature and as a critique of the effects of urbanisation on the American populace and culture, are two such examples. The Reeds were also familiar with the Back to the Land movement in England which promoted, among other things, living an austere, strenuous intellectual life, communally if possible, with the land fulfilling social and spiritual requirements. While Heide has been viewed by many as an Arcadian zone of pleasure, as historian Nancy Underhill has described, it was just as much ‘a utopian place in which a corrective society could be constructed’.[4]

The Reeds embraced the relational ideology of the Back to the Land movement and made Heide a collective endeavour. There was a high expectation that acceptance of an invitation to visit or stay signalled a commitment to and participation in the Heide project. Working in the garden was a major function. If outwardly the Reeds’ life remained a monied, privileged one, those who were put to work at Heide when they stayed quickly understood in real terms the discipline, routine and labour involved. As one friend remarked, even in paradise there was work to be done. Artist Sam Atyeo was particularly offended that he should have to dig a bed for marrows, while dancer Von Harris was given a cushion while weeding to save her ballerina’s knees. For Albert Tucker, garden chores were the obligatory prelude to his real ambition at Heide: to go into the well-stocked library and ‘read his head off’.[5]

By the 1950s the property was extensively forested and cultivated and was beginning to resemble the ideal that the Reeds had envisaged. While it bore the imprint of all those who contributed to its growth, it was stamped with Sunday’s personality in particular. Her romantic and poetic nature was reflected in some of the symbolic plantings on the property, notably the Heart Garden, a memorial to her love affair with Sidney Nolan. Planted in 1949, this was a heart-shaped bed filled with heartsease, forget-me-nots and other emblematic plants—both a living memorial to a long and profound love, and a creative act worthy of the relationship between artist and muse. Rather than a static shrine of remembrance the Heart Garden was an ongoing performative gesture, which became like a healing wound, eventually allowed to grow out and return to lawn.

More broadly, the landscape at Heide was a vehicle through which Sunday’s creativity and identity can be understood. Heide intimates such as artists Joy Hester, Charles Blackman, writer Max Harris, and above all Sunday’s lover Nolan, consciously crafted in words and pictures a vision of Sunday in nature’s image, in which both her physical presence and spiritual essence are evoked in terms of her beloved plants and flowers. Sunday’s garden as a metaphor for Sunday herself is a constant thread through Heide’s history. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is Nolan’s painting Rosa Mutabilis of 1945. Here Sunday is immortalised as both figure and flower, her form cloaked in the blooms of the old-fashioned shrub rose that she planted by the river. She is shown almost as a physical extension of the landscape—a nature goddess whose hair merges with the paddocks, her eyes and clothing echoing the expansive sky above.

In the Reeds’ later years the landscape took on a different character and they imagined it anew. Their increasing interests in conservation issues and reclaiming native flora for the suburban setting led them to review their approach. Before their custodianship of Heide, successive waves of occupation had destroyed the once pristine pre-colonial environment and the property had been used as a sheep run, market garden then dairy farm. The Reeds reflected on the ancient history of the site as fertile ground for the physical and cultural sustenance of its inhabitants, and wanted to recreate a sense of that bygone age. They sought expert advice and began to plant hundreds of trees and shrubs that were once indigenous to the local area. The new residence they built on the property in the 1960s, now known as Heide II, was complemented by a new and completely native setting. This reflected in particular John’s lifelong love of the bush and birdlife and his desire to bring nature right up to the house.

By this point, the Reeds had also begun to plan for Heide’s future, and the landscape they had initially considered as a private and exclusive domain, they now desired to release to the public, to have a life of its own beyond their tenure. In the 1970s they began negotiations with the State Government of Victoria leading to the sale of Heide II, some of the land and their art collection and on 12 November 1981 Heide opened as a public park and art gallery.

John died a month after the gallery opened, and in the ten days between his death and her own, Sunday made one last planting. The rare and exquisite Black Flag iris still blooms today—a final gesture which reminds us each year of her and John’s presence and their decades of hard work that are the very foundation of Heide as a living museum.

The Reeds’ ashes were scattered at Heide under the 500 year old scar tree on the hillside that is the spiritual heart of the property; a return to the earth that they had tended so devotedly for nearly half a century. One of Melbourne’s most significant ‘marker’ trees, this River Red Gum once signposted five ancient travel routes, or song lines, in the area. The people who passed through Heide hundreds of years ago sang in praise of the land and the responsibilities attached to caring for it. It is a salient reminder that the landscape was shaped and inscribed long before it was transformed by the Reeds, and that its future is yet to be written.

In the last thirty years the Heide grounds have been reworked at the hands of subsequent gardeners who have brought their own predilections and ideas. As it has matured, flourished and grown into itself, the landscape can be seen as emblematic of cultural achievements past and present. It is now home to a sculpture park and various artists’ interventions. One of these, Lauren Berkowitz’s Karakarook’s Garden, is both an homage to the Wurundjeri people and a living, abstract composition that refers to the Reeds’ cultivation of Australian modernism, which metaphorically grew from the Heide soil. The latest additions beautifully encapsulate the entire history of the property, from the Dreamtime to today.

 

[1] Sunday Reed, letter to John Reed, Merthon, Sorrento, n.d., John and Sunday Reed Papers, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, MS 13186, box 16, file 4b.

[2] John Reed, letter to Sunday Baillieu, Mount Pleasant, near Launceston, Good Friday, April 1931, John and Sunday Reed papers, box 16, file 4b.

[3] John Reed, letter to Sunday Reed, 16 June (1937), John and Sunday Reed Papers, box 16, file 4b.

[4] Nancy Underhill, ‘Introduction’, in Barrett Reid and Nancy Underhill (eds), Letters of John Reed: Defining Australian Cultural Life 1920–1981, Viking, Melbourne, 2001, p. 9.

[5] Albert Tucker in interview with Barbara Blackman, 14 July 1988, Oral History Program, National Library of Australia, Canberra, TRC 2298, transcript, n.p., tape 2, side A.