Rediscovering Hans Heysen
Talks / Lecture
What happens to an artist's legacy, home and archive after their death?
Explore the life and work of Hans Heysen, his legacy and the role of families and estates in managing the artistic afterlife. Speakers include art historian and publisher Lou Klepac, Treasures Curator Nat Williams and members of the Heysen family.
A Treasures Gallery Access Program supported by the Nora Heysen Bequest.
The Treasures Curatorship has been assisted by the Australian government through the Department of Communication and the Arts’ Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund
Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Lou Klepac (L), Chris Heysen (C), Nat Williams (N)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudibles caused by diction/distance from mike
M: Good afternoon, everybody and welcome to the National Library. I think my colleagues are just getting a few more chairs just in case we need them. I want to just check can those of you at the back of the room hear me? Great, thank you very much so you know just lift your hand if you find that you can’t hear so – so welcome, guests, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and I’m lucky enough to be the Director General of the National Library of Australia.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for the land that we now are privileged to call our home.
I’m delighted that you’ve joined us this afternoon to explore a subject that goes to the very heart of the National Library’s role to collect, preserve and make accessible the documentary heritage of Australia. Now an artist’s legacy can be big business or no business at all but it’s certainly of big interest. Google the phrase an artist’s legacy and you’ll be offered some 12 million results to trawl through. These include stories of artists such as Henry Moore or Mark Rothko, information about establishing foundations, the role of wives in preserving and promoting reputations. You’ll discover that the legacy extends beyond the works of art themselves, it can involve homes and studios, sheds and storage units, executors and foundations wrestle over the management of careers that after death can rise or fall on the basis of their decisions. And researchers will pore over collections of personal papers looking for that nugget of information which can secure an artist’s reputation for posterity.
This afternoon we’re exploring the legacies of two artists, Hans Heysen and his daughter, Nora. The Library is privileged to be a custodian of some of their work but perhaps more significantly given our role of their personal papers which live down on the second floor and the fourth floor of this building. We’re also the custodians of a bequest left by Nora to promote her father’s legacy and that bequest has made a number of activities possible including today’s event.
Now our first speaker this afternoon has championed the reputations of many of Australia’s finest artists including Lloyd Rees, Judy Cassab, James Gleeson, Russell Drysdale and Nora Heysen and in fact Lou has also been a very important partner in collecting with the Library, we were just talking about my first introduction to James Gleeson which was with Lou some years before James died. The result was that James’ personal papers came to this library.
An historian, curator, author and publisher and advocate – tireless advocate – he is really just a standout in the promotion of the work of important but perhaps neglected artists seeking to bring them to the attention of art critics, curators and the wider public. Lou is determined to restore Hans Heysen’s reputation as one of Australia’s great artists, not just a good painter of gum trees and sheep so please welcome Lou Klepac.
L: Thank you very much. I’ve been told to be very brief ‘cause I’m very longwinded so I’ve condensed my bit and if you don’t get what you expect from me you can ask me a question later on. In the 1980s I became interested in Hans Heysen, particularly his drawings. I had been a curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia when he was a trustee and I went to his studio with him and so on but this is a long time after in the 1980s I became interested in his drawings. Though he had been a household name for decades his work was little to be seen on the walls of art galleries though their collections had a great many very fine examples. This neglect prompted me to consider doing a book on his work to redress the situation. In order to do a book I arranged a large exhibition of drawings and water colours for the S H Ervin Gallery. I did this in order to get to grips with his vision and to see his evolution as an artist.
While I was doing this exhibition I went to see Nora Heysen whom I’d never met and when I got to Nora at her house in Hunter’s Hill I discovered that she was far more neglected than Hans Heysen and I won’t go much into it because Nat Williams will tell you all about her rediscovery and all that but one thing that she did when she became much more famous than she had been, she said Lou, you must promise me to do a book on my father that you are going to do when you diverted your attention to my work.
So for many years Hans Heysen work was very popular with the public but when younger artists and critics began to become interested in modernism they made a target of Hans Heysen in order to stop the public’s adulation of the subject matter of trees, the things they didn’t like. In Heysen’s lifetime people were made to feel ashamed if they liked his work and when Heysen died in 1968 at the age of 91 he had already been relegated sideways as someone from the past.
In Adelaide however Heysen was an institution. Not long before he died Colin Thiele, a marvellous writer, was commissioned to write Heysen’s biography. Thiele stayed at Cedars, the house at Hahndorf where Heysen had purchased in 1912 the house and where he lived all his life surrounded by the landscape he loved and the source of his inspiration. The book was published in 1968 – I had something to do with it. If you look at the book you’ll find there’s an acknowledgement to me, I helped – I found some things for Colin Thiele and he actually acknowledged me in the book. It was a fantastic book. No-one writing on Heysen can do without this fantastic book and I must say an inspiring volume. And yet if you consult Colin Thiele’s entry on Heysen in the Australian Dictionary of Biography published in 1983 this is how he assesses him.
In spite of his achievement Heysen's vision was limited. His art tended to remain static, to lack variety and experiment. From a twentieth-century standpoint he was unsophisticated and unscholarly.
This is from a champion. This is a cock crow if you get my meaning. This gives you a good indication at what level Heysen’s reputation had sunk and it coincided exactly at the same time as my interest in doing something about Heysen, the early 1980s.
Heysen was a very prolific painter. There was a great demand for his work and he was ready to supply the demand. He had a large family to support, eight children and a property to look after. Not all his works are masterpieces, some are sometimes less than great and it is these examples that he has been judged on. These are the works that come up at auction and as his finest works are in museums and are seldom seen he has been at a disadvantage.
Collectors used to have seven to eight pictures by Heysen and when the father died he left the pictures to the children, they kept the best ones and they put the lesser ones on auction so all the not the very best ones come up and people kept the best ones and so people started judging Heysen on the wrong examples. However I must point out that even the slightest sketch by Heysen is worth looking at because it is always based on some truth.
One other factor I think had a bearing on Heysen’s neglect, his friendship with Lionel Lindsay. They met very early in Heysen’s career after which Lindsay became Heysen’s champion. It was very good for the shy Heysen, he was incredibly shy and people thought that a person who’s shy is also not intelligent. For someone like Lindsay to write and tell the world how good an artist he was, especially as Heysen lived in Adelaide and Lindsay was an influential figure in Sydney, but Lindsay was very right wing and heavily prejudiced against the kind of painting which was produced in Europe, modernism. Lindsay would have none of it and in 1942 published Adult Art where he claimed that modern art was a conspiracy by Jewish dealers and collectors. Not a very good time to publish such a book when Hitler was equally railing against degenerate art and sending Jews to the gas chambers.
In my book I also ask the question about how much did Lindsay really like Heysen? I’m rather pleased that Hans Heysen does not get a mention in Lindsay’s autobiography published posthumously. It is incredible, if you look in my book, Peter Lindsay who’s published the book says if my father was alive there are seven to eight people who would love to have been mentioned and he mentions all these people but not Heysen and I’m very pleased that he didn’t. Heysen may have been somewhat concerned about the new art of Europe but I think that he would have been somewhat uncomfortable with Lindsay’s very right wing views. And if you look at my book as well you’ll find that Heysen has some nice things to say about Cezanne which you wouldn’t expect him to say whereas Lindsay would have killed him for it.
One of the problems with getting to grips with Heysen’s achievement is that we have for too long looked at his work backwards, looking at the old man knighted, photographed with the Queen and a household name, an artist whose achievement was well behind him. And this is how I came across him way back in the 1960s, he was someone who was once very famous and even I, though I wrote an obituary in the paper and so on and respected him, didn’t understand him at that particular time. But how and when did he really make his mark? To do this we need to go back and look at his work from the beginning because it all happened then and very quickly.
The young, talented, fledgling artist had explored the landscape that he would paint for the rest of his life before he left for four years in Europe. Now this is terribly important. He was talented and he did a lot of painting of the Adelaide hills and trees and so on, wonderful water colours and he knew the subject very well before he went. It’s like someone who had a gun and he went to get a couple of cannons and a tank. He came back home fired with enthusiasm and ambition, how quickly he achieved success and what success is amazing, it happened just in 12 months.
Back home at the end of 1903 he soon sent some works to an exhibition in Sydney. There, hung among 500 works, he was immediately singled out. The trustees of the Sydney Art Gallery – remember, no one ever heard of him before – the trustees of the Art Gallery acquired the Coming Home for 150 guineas and awarded him the first of what would be nine Wynne prizes. And when Mystic Morn returned to Adelaide and was exhibited the Adelaide Gallery acquired it for 150 guineas as well so that in December of 1904 Hans Heysen was able to marry his fiancé, Sallie Bartels, within 12 months.
In 1913 he painted the magnificent Red Gold in the newly built studio at The Cedars and in 1921 after some difficult times - and this you will have to read in my book – he finished two of his greatest paintings, the Three Gums in Ballarat and Droving into the Light which is in the Art Gallery of Western Australia and it was presented there to them in 1922 by a man called Vincent who was the father of my English lecturer at university. Heysen’s large paintings are not a response to a scene discovered by an artist tramping with these looking for a subject, they are compositions in which Heysen like the old master that he had studied in Europe, consolidated his experiences and discoveries of light, volume, space and air with great regard for the poetry that nature inspired in him. These are the ingredients that make a great Heysen picture. They’re painted with mastery and knowledge and given us a vision of landscape that has not been – that has been compressed like carbon into crystal.
Heysen may have been shy and quiet but he was extremely intelligent. Now I’ll tell you that in my view Heysen was far more intelligent than either Tom Roberts and Streeton put together. And if you consider these great works you will see that he was able to – he was also very serious and sophisticated. In order to create a composition like Droving to the Light one needs far more than talent, one needs brains. Now remember that once someone asked Constable what do you mix your paints with? And he said brains.
Heysen’s secret was that he was a great draftsman, neither Streeton nor Roberts were draftsman. Draftsmanship is connected to intelligence. Drawing is an intellectual activity, it is basically an abstract in nature and proves an enigma to the man in the street. Drawings never sell as well as works with colour, we respond instinctively to colour but for black and white we need to engage the intellect. Through drawing Heysen was able to extract the essence of landscape and this enabled him to create compositions into which he could add element to element and elevate the result into something very special. Through them he was able to show us an Australian landscape without that colonial fear of the unknown that you get in the Heidelberg School of paintings. For him landscape was never the bush, it was always nature. Having created a vision of rural landscape where humans toiled he travelled into the interior, the Flinders Ranges where he painted the grandeur of a landscape which had a different dimension to the daily routine of human existence. So much for being static and not changing.
As a child Heysen suffered poverty, he had some very difficult moments during his long career, especially during the first world war where his allegiance to Australia was questioned, he was even left out of an exhibition because of that only because he was born in Hamburg but he had arrived in Australia before the age of seven. Lambert came at 15, Tom Roberts came at 14 and so on.
In 1917 when he was under great strain he met Elliott Gruner in Sydney. Gruner was – who became a very important painter later on and won I think - Heysen won nine Wynne prize, Gruner won seven – Gruner wrote him a letter after their meeting. The letter is in the National Library among Hans Heysen’s patients, it should be in a glass case with a light shining onto it. I will let Gruner have the last word on Heysen. After thanking him for a book on Clausen he says that he regrets that they had not seen more of one another and then he says apart from Streeton who was to me an absolute disappointment there was no Australian artist that I had looked forward to meeting with so much pleasure as yourself. And I was delighted to find unlike Streeton that you were exactly what I had hoped for.
That’s pretty good, thank you.
M: Thank you, Lou. I think Hans is blessed to have you championing his career so poetically and you might like that letter to be in a glass case with the light shining on it but then you wouldn’t be the one who found it so it’s exciting to have it in a box too.
All of us have I’m sure or many of us will have visited the homes or studios of artists from Monet's house and gardens to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico which I’ve visited. Artists’ homes have become museums, research centres and places of pilgrimage. Closer to home we can visit Brett Whiteley’s studio in Sydney or take a weekend drive to Bundanon to Arthur Boyd’s property on the Shoalhaven River. Margaret Olley’s Sydney home has of course been recreated in a purpose-built facility at the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah. And of course there’s Heidi near Melbourne, home to John and Sunday Reed and the many artists of their circle.
Now nestled on a hillside near Hahndorf in South Australia is The Cedars and this is the home Hans Heysen lived in from 1912 until his death in 1968. It’s the home that Heysen’s daughter, Nora, grew up in. Following Heysen’s death his family opened the home and the gardens to the public, providing visitors with an insight into the life and work of both Hans and Nora. The property is also home to some 200 works of art.
Now managing a property like this is a major task, buildings require restoration and adaptation to safely accommodate visitors, artworks require conservation, visitors expect a certain standard of service, bathrooms, cafes, gift shops and plans need to be put in place to secure the future of the property. The Hans Heysen Heritage Foundation has been working to secure the future of The Cedars and here in a short film by Scott Hicks we can find out some more.
One of the great joys for me in travelling in Europe is visiting the studios and the houses of artists whose work I’ve always admired. Not far from Paris is Giverny where you can go to Monet's house and beautiful garden. All over the country and in Germany and Austria as well are places of artistic pilgrimage, the places where artists worked and lived, sometimes if you’re lucky still with their tools of trade, still as they left it. We have no such place in Australia except here. I’m standing in the studio of Sir Hans Heysen, perhaps Australia’s greatest landscape painter. Sir Hans built this studio in 1912 and it’s as it was, as the artist lived and worked in it for all those years until his death in the ‘60s.
I was lucky enough to meet him in the company of my friend, David Dryden, who’d been a student of Hans Heysen. This is really a time capsule, David, isn’t it?
D: Certainly is.
It’s only 14 years ago they took down the partition and discovered it exactly as Heysen had left it.
D: Well these are all the history, I mean these - I don’t think any of these today would be available –
They are exactly as you left them, I mean amazing. This turpentine smells vintage to me. And look at these colour samples. Now if this material was in a museum it’d all be arranged and catalogued, wouldn't it?
It would be indeed sanitised. But here we see a great Australian artist as it were in his own juice.
In a museum you could see paintings and drawings by Hans Heysen but you wouldn’t see his process, would you?
D: Not his tools of trade. He told me some of my watercolour brushes are 50 years old, these were precious to him. That’s special, isn’t it?
We are in a way looking in on the creative process of a major figure, the fact that the artist still seems to inhabit his studio makes all the difference to the spiritual intensity of a place. Well it’s here in Hans Heysen’s studio and home just down that little path down the hill, that’s where he lived.
I hope very, very much that you’re going to help us keep this place as it is.
Male: That’s the old car, isn’t it?
Female: That’s the original car.
D: Heysen was so important in the history of the heritage of South Australia and Australia that anything that was originally part of his life is still alive, this kitchen is alive still because his spirit’s still here.
This is a place of beauty and great interest, all his things are here, all his materials, his brushes just as he put them down after finishing a little touch to this, his last canvas. This is an international campaign to raise funds for the purchase of this major cultural asset, the last surviving record of an important Australian artist and I commend it to you with much love for the place and for Australian art.
End of film
M: I’m wondering whether the red spotted scarf struck a discordant note in that lovely landscape so – anyway it’s a wonderful vision and we’re delighted that today a member of the Heysen family is with us. Chris Heysen is a grandson of Hans. His father, David, was the family’s oldest son and Chris, I’m imagining that The Cedars played a fairly important part in your childhood so please welcome Chris to share with us the story of what we can see as a family home and to tell us more about the vision for the future. Chris.
C: Thank you indeed. The video you’ve just seen reminds me that Barry Humphries or David Dryden took Barry Humphries to visit my grandfather in 1967 not long before my grandfather died and my mother was looking after Grandfather at the time and reported that amazed at how smart and quick my grandfather was because as the lovely visit ended Barry Humphries turned to my grandfather and said please may I have the name of your tailor? Because I’d love to have knickerbockers like yours. And my grandfather quick as a flash replied I don’t think they’d suit you. And – because I’m sure he imagined that Barry Humphries’d be up on stage in knickerbockers portraying my grandfather so – and indeed that quickness of mind and Lou referred to it too, that always amazed me. In his 80s he was as sharp as a tack in so many of the discussions and things I was privileged to be a part of around the afternoon tea table.
My memory of The Cedars starts when I was very young, earliest days and the aromas of The Cedars, the cedar trees, the pine needles around – spread all over the garden from these majestic old radiata pines that surrounded the house and the paddocks nearby. And also I think the cedar panelling inside the house and the beeswax that nurtured it all have a special scent. Some of it still remains but I don’t think my mother and – nor grandmother have been beeswaxing the timber quite as lovingly as it was then so – but those aromas have a special memory.
There were pine needles all over the garden and a bit later in my – aged about nine or 10 I think I decided I’d do a good deed one day and rake up the pine needles. I thought that was a wonderful thing to do and when my grandfather came down from the studio to see this he was very, very disturbed and very critical, the pine needles weren’t meant to be raked up so I’d committed a sin of some kind there. But I remember the afternoon teas at The Cedars, they were legendary. That was the general routine. There were many visitors, many famous visitors that were entertained there and my grandmother was very much the gatekeeper and kept the hours to a minimum and so afternoon tea – late afternoon tea was usually acceded to so that it didn’t disturb my grandfather from his painting and his studio work. But the afternoon teas as I said were legendary, a round table with – laden with homemade cakes and biscuits and always beautiful coffee.
They always had – and in fact still at The Cedars the various very interesting-looking inventions for distilling coffee, some of them look like they could have distilled other things as well but the coffee was always a very, very important part of the afternoon tea menu. And the cakes and biscuits were also just absolutely amazing. Unfortunately my grandmother was very protective about her recipes and so not all of them were passed on but – and I remember one tale that the American Ambassador and his wife were visiting for afternoon tea and they loved the coffee kisses or – I can’t do the American pronunciation correctly but the Ambassador’s wife asked for the recipe. So my grandmother some days later cut a recipe out of the Women’s Weekly and sent it to her, she wasn’t going to give away her recipe.
But around those afternoon teas were just fabulous discussions and I – by the time I was allowed to be present at them it was in my teens and obviously my grandfather was getting older, in his 70 – late 70s, 80s and – but even so I was just amazed at his awareness of the social life, the political life and he was – even though he was extremely shy at those afternoon teas he could talk with anyone and – at any level and his intellect indeed was just amazing to me.
The – it was a special occasion when Nora was visiting from Sydney. I remember when I was about three, four, five, I think five it was, I had to impatiently sit in her studio – it was still maintained as her studio even though she’d been living in Sydney for many years – sit there for a portrait as we all did as children and sitting there but of course she was so perceptive in her line, in her drawing and immediately captured all of us as children and there are some beautiful sketches still showing at The Cedars of us as children, my father and some of my aunts and uncles.
The – Nora was - among the rest of her sisters there was quite a – they must have had a – I think the best description I could say was a very catty young life there together because they talked quite critically of people and made us as children quite terrified of what might eventuate. And I can remember being the victim of one of these sessions too one day when I think I was in my late teens and Nora was visiting from Sydney and breakfast was about to be served with my grandfather and Nora there. And so down stairs I came from the bedroom upstairs and I thought I better be respectable for this breakfast with these people there so I brushed my hair for a change and polished my shoes, I thought that would be the best thing to do. So walked into breakfast and the first thing Nora said was you’ve polished your shoes, that ruins the taste of breakfast. So – but in spite of her gruffness which as I say we were all terrified of she was such an interesting person to talk to and had so many wonderful stories and again her intellect was amazing, she had so much to say.
I remember visiting her when she was married to Robert Black and his portrait is in the Portrait Gallery nears hers. I think I was on a – way back from a trip to New Guinea and stayed there. He was a ham radio operator, a professor at university in tropical medicine but at night he was a ham radio operator and one of the rooms at Hunters Hill was absolutely chock-a-block with all these radios and amplifiers and microphones and things and he’d be on short wave all over the world and I was very impressed with this. I think I was – at that age I was probably more impressed with that than the paint – beautiful paintings hanging around the walls but they were very entertaining couple at that time.
The – some of the other memories about The Cedars in my early days were that there were turkeys gobbling around the yards, there were hens and horses in the paddocks and cows in the paddocks so it was very much a farmyard environment around The Cedars. Cliff Hill was the man who milked the cows and helped my grandfather and drove him to trustee meetings in Adelaide for the Gallery trustee meetings ‘cause my grandfather never drove, neither grandmother or grandfather ever learnt to drive so they always had to be driven everywhere, I think probably a very wise thing, we should all do that but – and so off they went, not in a regal car but my grandfather had a Riley sports car with a hard top but a low-slung car and so he climbed into this with Cliff at the wheel driving. It was very sporty, really, for a very old man but looked an absolute classic. Quite different from the days when he was driven around in the model A Ford that you saw in the video and I did neglect to mention that of course Scott Hicks is a relation by marriage ‘cause Kerry Heysen Hicks is a relation of ours by marriage.
But he drove in this A model Ford driven by various people and the last few trips were by – were with my father. They slept in a caravan up in the Flinders Ranges and for weeks on end – meanwhile my mother and my siblings all stayed at The Cedars and were looked after there. But the caravan there was a wonderful thing for us to play in when it was in residence at The Cedars and we often had our lunches and breaks in there as children and enjoyed that. It later became a great asset for the canaries, they lived there for many years after the Flinders trips had stopped but my father in the ‘70s got it restored back to original by the very people that built it in the first instance so that was really rather wonderful, 40, 50 years later the same firm renovated it.
And you know my father told us all these stories about the trips to the Flinders, how they had short wave radio and the breakfast announcer in Adelaide knew they were on the trip and would send them cheerios in the morning and things like that but my father was the chief cook and bottle-washer while my grandfather drew and painted and sketched. And the story goes, and I’m never quite sure whether – who was kidding who in this story but Heysen Hill which was a centre of the Brachina Gorge view of many of his paintings, very – rock faces and my father after breakfast climbed up the back of it and put a cairn – built a cairn on the top of it and then climbed back around and by lunchtime my grandfather said that there seems to be something on the top of that hill that I didn’t see before. It’s still there too, the cairn, I’ve been up there years ago and saw it but I think they had a lot of fun together including one night when they camped in the – made the classic mistake of camping in a river bed. There was no rain that night but there was further upstream and a couple of feet of water carried all the pots and pans and a lot of their provisions away. But they were great times together.
The early times at The Cedars also showed me some of the life that existed around Hahndorf, the Adelaide hills, the German community there. Everything was always delivered to the door. Crumb, the local greengrocer, would come with his van, ask what was needed and produce cabbages and cauliflowers and lettuces and all sorts of lovely fresh vegetables straight from the van delivered to the kitchen so there was no such thing as going out for supermarket shopping or anything like that, just not necessary, people would deliver and each of them were great characters, great friends and certainly treasured the opportunity to talk with my grandparents.
The thing I remember about my grandmother is that her after lunch sleep was always very important and we had to creep around the house during that time and when it came to afternoon tea or lunch she had the ability to shout cooee which resonated through the whole of the Onkaparinga Valley, I’m sure, to summon my grandfather from wherever he was out sketching or even in the studio. So this cooee was just amazing, very Australian of course but never mind.
And although they both had such a strong German heritage, grandfather and grandmother, because of the situation during the two wars where Hahndorf for instance changed its name to Ambleside in the first world war, back to Hahndorf in between, back to Ambleside in the second world war and back to Hahndorf afterwards which was all perhaps not important but an indication of the attitudes of people. And just recently came to light that some police records which indicated that during the second world war my grandfather was under observation by the police because he had been – he was a pacif – a very strong pacifist so any antiwar sentiments were always considered to be anti-Australian, I suppose, but there were those difficulties so English was always the language spoken at home, never German even though they were both very fluent in German and French etc.
But my great-grandmother I remember only just, she lived to 100 or 101 and she as Lou indicated came when Hans was very small in 1883 and so she never spoke English at all and I remember her speaking German. And her – one of Hans’ sisters, Martha, had – I think had polio and couldn’t walk properly so she was always pushing a chair around the wooden floors which I distinctly remember even though I was only three or four at the time. But – so she never spoke any English and I don’t know if you realise but Colin Thiele who wrote that wonderful biography of my grandfather, at the age of nine he started to learn English because he’d lived in an entirely German community in the Barossa Valley and – where the schools there were still teaching in German so there was definitely – there was a lot of German culture surrounding my grandparents and The Cedars.
I remember clearly the Christmas times there, always celebrated on the 24th, Christmas Eve and the routine was that as children we weren’t allowed near the studio on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile my grandfather and father would be fetching a wild cherry tree from out in the paddock somewhere and put up the Christmas tree and decorate it and I think the horror of it now because it was all decorated with live candles in a completely wooden-lined room and linseed oil and everything floating around in the studio. It’s a wonder it didn’t go up in flames completely but – so Christmas Eve, we’d be summoned at 6:00 or thereabouts and it was the tradition with my siblings and my cousin that youngest first to eldest, Indian file, in through the studio door to surround the Christmas tree and the celebrations there. So very much a German style Christmas was still - and gingerbread in abundance, baked by my grandmother. So they were wonderful times.
Barbara and I tried to – my wife and I tried to recreate this a couple of years ago and I have eight children also so I have also a lot of grandchildren and so it was time we did something like that so we went to The Cedars with the idea of recreating such a Christmas and did in fact go through this routine except for the live candles in the studio. But one of the treasures of that gathering was to hear my children tell me as they observed their children, my grandchildren, in the garden playing and saying that’s just like we used to do. And of course I can relate, that’s just like we used to do so the tradition has carried on and The Cedars - after my grandfather died in 1968 The Cedars was looked after very lovingly by my father and first of all with my mother, she died and then my father remarried to Sue and they carried on renovating and maintaining the place and really looked after it so well.
When my father died what I regard as prematurely because he got motor neurons disease and died at 75 and he was very fit and would have lived well into his 90s if that hadn’t occurred, I’m sure. Then the place was left to me and my two brothers and sister, the four of us and so we were at a situation where we have I think 17 children among us and I’ve already given you a figure of my lot in there and I’ve already got 13 grandchildren and they’ve got plenty so it just would become impossible for the family to properly manage The Cedars as a family unless we narrowed it down again to just a single person or so. So we’ve established Hans Heysen Foundation and subsequent to when the video was shot the – I’m very, very happy to say that the federal government, the state government and the local council, Mt Barker Council have all contributed substantially with funds to purchase The Cedars. There’s – so that has been – that has actually taken place and it’s now owned by the Foundation however the next step in the development of The Cedars and the preservation of The Cedars is that the – that there’s still further blocks of land, paddocks to be purchased.
The family has – I think the total of that – those contributions by the government authorities is 3.5 million. The family has given about 2.5 million towards it all and other private donors have contributed some very generous amounts which has been just wonderful. But there is a lot more to do, the property around needs to be maintained and kept as part of a whole, I think it’s very important that for instance on one of the paddocks is a stand of white gums which is – we are told the biggest remaining stand of white gums in the Adelaide hills so it’s very important that some of these things are maintained. And we believe it’s going to be very important to provide an arts centre on the property a bit away from the house but on the property so a good gallery can be set up to show more than - there’s not enough space in the house to show all the paintings we’d like to show and other interpretive facilities there I think will be very, very important to make sure The Cedars is maintained.
The idea the family have always had of maintaining it is that if my grandfather woke up today and walked into the studio he’d find it very much as he left it. Now obviously a few pictures have moved around and things like that but basically it’s as he left it. And it certainly has that feel and look about it. The Onkaparinga Valley in which The Cedars overlooks is such a beautiful, tranquil valley, it has a peace that is just absolutely infectious when you go there. And as soon as I drive ‘round the corner on Heysen Road into The Cedars you can feel it absorbing this wonderful tranquillity. And I remember my grandfather’s perception just amazing me when everyone knows that he loves nature, nature was his guiding light but to be so observant with it even at the age of 85 or something I was out – standing out the front of The Cedars with him looking south and beautiful sunny day and he said – turned to me and said there’s a cool change coming and there wasn’t a tree moving, no cloud in the sky and he made that prediction and sure enough about an hour later clouds came over and a wind whipped up and the south wind whipped up and the temperature dropped dramatically.
I went to him later and said how did you know the weather was going to change, what – and he said the light became hard. A blue light through the cold air, he could pick up that difference which I thought was absolutely astounding so that’s how in contact he was with nature, the weather and the surroundings so – so please visit The Cedars, it’s a wonderful place to visit and absorb all this history and my grandfather’s nature. Thank you very much.
M: Thanks, Chris, for bringing us – I think we’ve had smell, certainly sight, colour and even the sound of your aunt’s chair being pushed around the wooden floors for taking us right back to that place in time this afternoon. Now Hans’ daughter, Nora, was keenly aware of the need for artists to have champions. During her lifetime she watched her father’s work achieved enormous critical success and before the onslaught of modernism left him in the shade as Lou has told us. Now Nora herself was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize but by the 1970s although she was still painting her work was not well known and exhibitions of it were scarce. Lou in fact became her champion, bringing her work into public view. Before she died Nora agreed to the establishment of the Nora Heysen Foundation and in her will she left the Library a bequest to foster the artistic legacy of her father. Now to tell us more about Nora, her legacy and the Library’s collection is Nat Williams, the Library’s Treasures Curator. As Exhibitions Director Nat was instrumental in the Library’s 2000 exhibition, Nora Heysen, which was curated for us by Lou. He knew Nora and has continued to be an advocate for her work. Please welcome Nat.
N: Firstly I’d like to acknowledge that the Australian – acknowledge the Australian Government for supporting the Treasures curatorship through Catalyst, the Australian arts and culture fund.
What I’m going to say to you today will be partly personal memoir and partly shaped by the remarkably diverse Heysen holdings which we are privileged to hold here. I hope to give you a sense of how the Library collects, preserves and makes accessible our documentary heritage with Nora and Hans Heysen as the focus of my remarks. I will show you the variety of Heysen material in our collection and also a short film produced by the National Portrait Gallery. This film examines Nora’s early life and art and is based on our 1965 Hazel de Berg oral history interview with Nora and on numerous images we hold in the collections here.
So first to the personal recollection. I distinctly recall meeting Nora Heysen for the first time. Nora left an impression on one. It was at her house, the chalet, in Hunters Hill. Lou and Brenda Klepac took me to meet her and to talk to her about an exhibition we were planning to celebrate her slightly obscured long life in art. While she worked for seven decades or more as an artist she seemed remarkably reticent about becoming a more public figure. We sat in Nora’s garden at the rear of her memorable 150-year-old prefabricated Baltic pine home. She had lived there for 45 years often alone after separating from her husband, the eminent tropical medical specialist, Dr Robert Black, in 1972. Surrounded by nasturtiums, daisies and other flowers Nora sat with ancient Bosey, her dog, a loving – a constant, loving though now elderly companion and you can see Bosey here.
She was wonderful to look at. Elegant, stylish, beautiful and with a deeply lined face bearing the traces of much laughter, sadness and the nicotine still coursing actively through her veins. We chatted comfortably, Lou as guest curator and I as the exhibitions director. She appeared not all that keen to have this exhibition and we had to persuade her to make that happen.
I seem to recall that she would have preferred it to be a joint show with that work of her father. Later in the day though and after a whisky, which was also a comfort to her, and to me and Lou I think on that occasion, we agreed it could be a solo exhibition and that it would celebrate her 90th birthday.
Nora’s deference to her father, Hans, was a dedicated project. She admired him ardently and took his comments about her work or other artists’ paintings very seriously. The history of that commentary over more than 30 years is held here in the Library’s manuscript holdings. Regular letters between Nora, Hans and Sallie Heysen give glimpses of both their interests and of their opinions but also the great love and respect they had for one another. Nora signing off as Norrie while in her early twenties and Hans as Daddy gives us an idea of this intimacy and the world they inhabited.
Sallie though is always Mother in Nora’s letters but it is she that sends her hungry daughter food parcels from home, The Cedars. While daughter, father and mother were often separated by space they were not separated in spirit or in their regular remembrances of one another. In this intimate correspondence they share reviews of exhibitions seen or favourite works of art experienced, people met in the art world, favourable or unfavourable reviews of their works, the joys of travel and the respective landscapes seen. The qualities of light and its centrality to both their art is discussed. Nora awakens slumbering memories of Europe in Hans and both wish to be where the other now is. Art world gossip is relayed and museum acquisitions and appointments are dissected.
The letters are engrossing and fascinating and I heartily recommend chasing up a copy of the excellent Heysen to Heysen book written by Dr Cathy Speck and published by the Library in 2011. Nora’s devotion to Hans was such that she left a generous bequest to the Library in 2003 aided and abetted by Lou’s advocacy <inaudible> 59:03. This was not long before her death and the funds were to be used specifically for activities that promoted her father’s work and legacy. This was typical of Nora, not thinking of her own legacy but wanting to – wanting her father to remain in the limelight into the future after she had gone. And this is why I want to slant my remarks towards her life and work and the joy that the exhibition here brought so many people and to Nora herself. Cathy Speck’s memorable book examining the legacy of Nora and Hans was supported by the Nora Heysen Trust, something I’m sure Nora would have been really delighted to see.
So back to the exhibition and my memories of it. Working with Lou to develop the <inaudible> 59:53 was great fun and as he energetically narrowed down the list of works to be included to the final 80 that were included in the show. Lots of loans from private and institutional collections were requested and granted. A lovely exhibition book seen here was developed and after opening quickly sold out and I think this is now a collector’s item so if you see one buy one.
There was a lot of media interest in the show and the opening was featured at length on The 7:30 Report on the ABC. Visitors loved the exhibition. Over 37,000 people saw it and the visitor’s book reveals heartfelt comments, pages of superlatives and fond birthday wishes to Nora. I would venture to say that it was perhaps our most warmly received exhibition ever and that this says something about the public appetite for the untold stories of Australian art and history, particularly as they revolve around the achievements of ground-breaking Australian women.
It’s interesting to note in terms of Nora’s legacy the increased interest in her with more exhibitions and books being produced since this timely and memorable survey show. The exhibition neatly wove elements of the visual narrative and the archival record together and the public were engrossed reading the displayed letters sent between Nora and Hans and with the other material that documented Nora’s many achievements.
Just to conclude my personal remarks I’ll tell a story quickly about the exhibition’s opening night. Having arrived at the Library after being driven down to Canberra Nora was astounded to see herself on the outside of the building on one of our building banners, the image was one of her self-portraits but over 7m high. Always well dressed Nora looked gorgeous and was wearing a Vermeer blue silk jacket, a homage to the Dutch still life painters she admired so much. The opening was lovely and a memorable occasion but there was a slightly surreal twist to it, Nora had strenuously resisted the opportunity to make any public utterances about the show or her life in art. Fine, we thought, we can deal with that. However at the opening it was as if Nora was suddenly possessed. Casting aside her usual humility and bashfulness she stood up and spoke and thanked people, of course. It was a memorable and slightly surprising moment however at the dinner afterwards we talked to her about it and she had no recall that she’d ever made the speech so I think whether it was purposeful, I’m not sure.
Now I want to show you the short film which was crafted by the National Portrait Gallery that runs for about two minutes largely from our collection materials using our de Berg oral history recording and I think it should give you a snapshot of Nora’s recall of her youth. You can hear her lovely voice and her great admiration for her father who features strongly in our brief recording.
N: Like all children I began painting when I was about seven or eight and we all used to settle down in Father’s studio and lie on our tummies and draw. I used to go out with my father when I was a child. Father used to ride a bicycle with his satchel on his back and all his sketching gear, I used to have my little bicycle with my satchel on my back and by the time I’d got all my oil paints out and my palette fixed up there was Father with a finished picture. He’d say what on earth have you been doing? You haven’t even got a beginning yet. My nature didn’t lend itself to this quick watercolour painting, I wanted to model things and get things in the round.
Numbers of artists used to visit the old home. Father asked us children to bring out our work to show what we could do and I can remember that mine got the first prize and that was the first step towards giving me confidence really to go on. I used to milk cows before I went down to the art school each day and when I got home at night and my father was all in favour of this because he said if you’re going to be an artist you need to be healthy and physically fit and how true he was. But I’m thankful to this day because I have an enormously strong right arm.
My first interest was perhaps flowers and people. I remember when I was a war artist right up in the steaming jungle of New Guinea I’d arranged myself a beautiful native bowl full of flowers and I was sitting in the mess painting this when I had a signal to be moved on down to Lae and I ignored the signal and said go away, I’m in the middle of painting flowers and I continued. Now I think I’ve found my own environment in an old home in Hunters Hill in a very wandering wilderness of a garden and the atmosphere is peaceful and very inducive to my work.
This peaceful spot is not so remote that I’m not all too aware of what is going on in the art world, it is very hard to find what is true to one’s self, one’s own individual way of saying something is the important thing.
End of film
N: I’ll just escape from that. You notice there was a cigarette in her hand just about in every occasion there was a photograph. I urge you to listen to Nora’s digitised recording online which you can do through our website now. You can also listen to Hans speaking about his work in a 1960 de Berg recording as well. We hold quite a range of other sound recordings, for example interviews conducted with Hans and others by South Australian writer we’ve been talking about, Colin Thiele, for his important biography of Heysen. There are also lengthy interviews with Nora conducted by Heather Rusden and Denise Hickey about 20 years apart. We even have a recording of Nora’s memorial service in 2004, which I attended and which was held at the south – S H Ervin Gallery in Sydney.
But just to give you quickly the flavour of Nora’s de Berg recording here are a few of the biographical highlights. Nora speaks of Dame Nellie Melba visiting the home and giving her her first palette, which she used throughout her life, and to start her oil painting career. She relates how she offered numerous brothers and sisters a shilling to sit for her for portraits, which was very tempting for them at the time. She speaks of selling her first picture and having the money to set up her studio at The Cedars, which still exists today; and a sell-out show in Adelaide which generated £1,000, quite a lot of money at the time, to travel to and stay in Europe for several years. She mentions returning home from Europe and deciding that two artists in the one household were too much and that she decided to move and establish her independence in Sydney. She also speaks about painting portraits and her love of flowers and the importance and primacy of light and of drawing from life, echoing Hans’ sentiments and she speaks of her love of the chalet at Hunters Hill, its peace, flowers and wilderness and it being full of white cats, life before Bosey came along, I think. This composite image displays just some of our works by Nora which time will not allow me to discuss but to give you a sense of the breadth of the collection.
I want to conclude by briefly speaking about the Library’s splendid holdings of material documenting both Hans’ and Nora’s lives and the richness of this archive for past, current and future researchers. We represent of course all of Hans’ and Nora’s exhibition catalogues and the many, many books published about them through their long careers. The Library also holds extensive manuscripts and material, which we’ve heard about, nearly 90 boxes of letters from Hans and Nora. Nora deposited 32 boxes of correspondence after her death so that future scholars could appreciate the rich and revealing dialogue between them. This is a key part of their joint legacy and as I mentioned earlier was successfully plumbed by Cathy Speck in her book.
Given their prominence in Australian cultural life there is also other material in their manuscripts collection relating to the Heysens and the family. We hold Nora’s imaginative artwork for Woggheeguy, a children’s book of Aboriginal legends published in 1930 and as told to Catherine Stow, the writer, and copies of the book itself, of course and in the middle on the bottom there is one of the wonderful – about 30 images that she creates for that book.
Within the Library’s pictures collection we hold memorable photographic documentation of Hans’ and Nora’s lives in Australia and overseas including this image of Nora and friend, Evie Stokes’ Christmas tree in Nora’s studio in London in Kensington in 1934. We also hold the letter to her parents written on Boxing Day in which she proudly mentions this decorated tree. We also hold more ephemeral items such as Hans Heysen’s bookplate in the pictures collection. This ex libris symbolises a friendship and correspondence between Hans and its designer and engraver, Sir Lionel Lindsay. They corresponded a lot and there’s a lot of letters in the papers.
This object uniquely illustrates the deep connection between the father and the daughter, and also, the role of Hans as a mentor to Nora. This paint box and palette were used by Hans and sold as part of his estate after his death in 1968 and were acquired by Nora and she held onto these important relics of her painting life until her death. And then the Library subsequently acquired them in Sydney in 2006 and I think they add an interesting dimension to the Heysen archival record here.
Here we can see a fine, searching and self-portrait by Nora dated to around 1932. Nora told me that she always painted a self-portrait when moving into a new room, studio or home to establish herself, just like a dog does, as she said. She probably crafted this work when she had access to her father’s studio as he was away and she quickly painted about a half a dozen self-portraits using his materials, frames, stretchers, the whole lot and got into trouble – not from Hans but from her mother instead. This work was not included in Nora’s exhibition here because it wasn’t known at the time. Sometime after the show I received a call from Alan Campbell who manages The Cedars property and he said that he’d found two of Nora’s paintings rolled up under one of the beds in the house and might we be interested in them? And I directed them to the pictures collection and the funds from the sale - we selected one and the funds from the sale went to the Support the Nora Heysen Foundation based at The Cedars. So it’s a wonderful addition to our collection and seems particularly apt in a way as it’s the version of the Art Gallery of New South Wales portrait which we borrowed for the exhibition and which provided us with a signature image for the show to promote it and which Nora came face-to-face with on arriving at the Library.
In our pictures collection we hold these lovely renderings of Nora as a child by her father. Her strong personality seems to come through even at the age of only about nine and then around 14. There are – these are nicely complemented by these drawings by Nora of her father at the age of 75 and the portrait of the family member, Joseph Heysen on the right.
Given the iconic nature of the gum tree and Hans Heysen’s “Irve” and – be – and part of his reputation, it seems significant that here we can compare gum tree sketches by these two artists who worked together early on as Nora described in the film, Wandering in the Adelaide Hills. That these images are held here alongside these watercolours by Hans of beloved South Australian scenes, the Flinders Range and a devastating fire around Hahndorf I think gives a fuller sense of the richness of our Heysen collections and the many correspondence between them.
So to conclude, by the time Nora was 20 she had three works in the State Art Gallery collections. Six years later – sorry, in 1938 she was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, six years later she was the first Australian woman to be appointed official Australian war artist. Like her father her career quickly ascended the heights of the Australian art world and like her father her career then became obscured for a variety of reasons, albeit much less so as Lou’s observed than Hans’ career.
I found this time capsule through the wonders of Trove and it represents a different part of our representation of the Heysen legacy. The article appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly after Nora won the Archibald Prize. It emerged in the surrounding press coverage that she’d been in the kitchen when she was told of the win. So what could be more logical therefore than to ask her about her favourite food? Surely she must have been the first Archibald winner ever to have been approached to supply their favourite recipes. And what were her favourites? Hungarian goulash, duck with olive sauce and Chilean stuffed green peppers, a global palate for a sophisticated young woman. Search Trove for the delicious recipes which you’ll be able to find and produce at home. Clearly Australia had a long way to recognise women’s rights and to free them from their kitchens, a place ironically that Nora found increasingly hard to escape from to paint and to continue her remarkable career while married to her husband, Robert Black.
Nora said earlier today that the important thing was to find what is true to oneself, one’s own individual way of saying something is the important thing. This was obviously something that Nora lived by and practised around the needs of others, her busy and oft travelling husband, for example. Of course by some she was seen as the famous Hans Heysen daughter he painted. I think by the end of her life she had a robust sense of her own artistic identity and achievements having had plenty of time on her own to review them. Interestingly in 1962 in an interview in The Age she was quoted as saying because my father is Hans Heysen I don’t know if I exist in my own right or not. I suppose I never will now. I hope that with the great success of her show here 16 years ago and our ongoing care for her legacy that she could face the end of her long and remarkable life knowing that not only she did exist, she excelled and she made us all see the world differently. Thank you.
M: Thanks very much. Well I think you heard earlier Lou saying if you want to ask me questions you can do so over afternoon tea and I’m sure that Chris will be happy to do the same and the same with Nat because it is actually time for you to join us for refreshments downstairs. I just would like to say that before we leave and that we were very grateful to a number of supporters for making today’s event possible. As Nat said we thank the Australian Government for supporting the Treasures Curator through Catalyst, we thank our National Library patrons, supporters of the Treasures Gallery Access Program and we especially thank Nora Heysen whose bequest has made so much possible and my colleague, Margie, might remember that when we started to think about how to use Nora’s bequest I felt so frustrated. I was a steward of the manuscripts collection at the time and of course she had said this is to promote the work of Hans Heysen and we had to stretch things a little bit so that we could also promote Nora Heysen. Stretch it we did and I’m really glad that we did so.
Lou will be happy to sign copies of his book downstairs with a 10% discount and oh he’s got something else to say. Always, Lou.
L: <inaudible> 1:16:26.
M: Oh indeed, okay we’ve got another show and tell and then after that we’re going to go downstairs and have afternoon tea in the foyer. We hope you’ll all join us after this.
L: I’m answering a question that I’ll ask someone to ask me but I’ll actually – it’s you, Nat, you said Nora Heysen for a long time thought that she was the daughter, the talented daughter of Hans Heysen and at the end we proved to her that she was more than that and so on but one thing happened which made her feel that all that was nothing and this was the answer. I came to her one day and she said I had a letter from Thames and Hudson in London and they’re doing a book on women’s self-portraits throughout the ages and they’d like to reproduce my picture which is in <inaudible> 1:17:15 Museum and Art Gallery. And I said what did you say? I said I’d be very happy, I’ll be pleased when I see it. And I went back a couple of weeks later and she said I had another letter from them and they said could they put my picture on the cover of their book of women’s self-portraits through the ages? And she said I’ll believe it when I see it.
L: That made her feel really good.
M: Yes. So thank you very much, Lou, and please join us downstairs for afternoon tea.
End of recording