Gavin Wilson

Hill End

Gavin Wilson

In this essay, I hope to impart some of the ambient qualities associated with the old gold rush town of Hill End, the site that inspired Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale to create some of the finest Australian landscape painting of recent times. From a contemporary perspective, the good news is that artists are once again living and working in Hill End. This has been enhanced through an Artists-in-Residence Program that provides a direct link to the work of Donald Friend, Russell Drysdale, David Strachan, Jean Bellette, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley and many more. It appears to me that, in Australia, it is a rare phenomenon to experience three generations of artists creating a continuity of artistic engagement across a diverse range of practice. Later, we will look at examples of contemporary work inspired by the Hill End experience.

To begin, I think it is necessary to gain some grasp of the character and historic significance of Hill End. Back in 1872, at the height of the great gold rush, Hill End was the largest inland settlement in New South Wales. Situated 85 kilometres from Bathurst in an isolated upland valley, the township of over 10 000 people boasted a kilometre of colourful shopfronts including 28 hotels, an opium den and an oyster bar! Fortunately for us, the great pioneer photographer, Beaufoy Merlin, recorded the social and commercial fabric of the town at the height of the boom. Merlin’s patron in the venture, B.O. Holtermann, was a partner in the mine that had the distinction of unearthing the world’s largest specimen of gold. This strike made Hill End world famous. It wasn’t long before a multicultural population of Irish, German, English, Welsh, Cornish, Greek, Chinese, American and South Sea Island adventurers began to transform the landscape and the provisional nature of the settlement. Yet, within a few years, all this would end. Dwindling gold resources, the high operational costs of reef mining and dubious speculative practices all contributed to the township’s decline.

From the 1880s, Hill End experienced a steady exodus of population and capital. It was only a diehard group of resourceful individuals that stayed on in the decades of decline. By the 1940s, the locals had adapted remnants of the gold rush to create a largely self sufficient community that lived by rabbiting and fossicking, enjoying the occasional ‘spree’ at the Royal Hotel, the last pub left in Hill End.

Meanwhile, back at Merioolain Sydney, Donald Friend found himself restless from the daily round of distractions that constantly interrupted his work. He was dreaming once again of escape. At the time he considered going to live in Tasmania. As luck would have it, in August 1947, he came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by George Farwell, ‘The Mailman’s Time Machine’, describing the defunct gold rush towns of Hill End and Sofala, as well as the countryside beyond. Friend was captivated.

From Tambaroora to Hill End … the country is pitted with diggings that twist and burrow like the trenches of some old battlefield. This is the region which broke world records for its gold strikes … only the Royal Hotel recalls the days of its prime … Sofala, remote, half forgotten has a beauty I have rarely seen equalled anywhere. (SMH, 6 August 1947)

Within a couple of days, Friend persuaded fellow artist Russell Drysdale to ‘run in’ his recently acquired Riley Tourer and explore the old gold rush sites. For Friend this seemed a better idea than escape to Tasmania.

After an epic bone-shattering drive into the hills behind Bathurst, Drysdale and Friend arrived at Sofala, ‘a lovely crazy old village—perfect!’ (diary entry, 22 August 1947). Both artists were soon at work sketching Sofala’s main street and Drysdale also took a number of photographs.

In his diary, Friend records Drysdale completing his Sofala painting and went on to explain how utterly different both pictures of the same subject were and how he found his own efforts wanting.

I stayed at Tas’s, and worked on a gouache while Tas in a frenzy of painting, unusual with him, worked on the final stages of his picture of Sofala’s main street … it is very good and makes my own picture of the same subject look pretty foolish, shallow and flimsy. (diary entry, 31 August 1947)

While both the Sofala paintings are devoid of any human presence, the impression one gets from looking at Drysdale’s work is of loss and abandonment, or perhaps death. On the other hand, Friend’s Sofala without a figure in sight, is imbued with life. These paintings demonstrate the disparate characters of the two friendly rivals and point to the contrasting nature of the works to follow.

 After exploring Sofala, Friend discovered there were no properties for sale so they decided to drive a further 35 kilometres along a winding dirt road to the isolated village of Hill End. They spent the night in the Royal Hotel and the following morning were shown around by one of the locals. The apocryphal romantic tales of Hill End’s extraordinary past were among Friend’s first impressions of the place and were noted in his diary.

Hill End is an old mining village living on the memory of its former 50 000 inhabitants and fabulous tales of gold strikes. Now there are only a handful of rather sordid, jovial, mad peasants who live by fossicking and rabbiting. (diary entry, 22 August 1947)

The historic landscape these men saw in winter was extremely beautiful. The place possessed a kind of poetic tranquillity and romance that neither Friend nor Drysdale could resist. The village of Hill End conveyed the clear passage of time: of boom, bust and abandonment along with signs of renewal. The total environment reflected time passing. The casual desolation amidst the relics of past mining activities was in stark contrast to the exuberance of the mature avenue of exotic trees planted in the aftermath of the great gold rush of the 1870s.

On returning to Sydney, Friend resolved to buy a cottage in the district. After convincing his old wartime friend Donald Murray of the historic beauty of the area, plans were made to secure a small holding.

In early September 1947, Friend and Murray explored Hill End in search of a cottage with enough land for a garden. After examining a number of ruinous structures, they settled on a small cottage of wattle and daub with four rooms and a well, on an acre of land. The cottage was ideally situated in Beyers Avenue behind an ancient Monterey pine, only a short walk to the Royal Hotel and general store. The owner of the cottage, a Mr Lister, accepted an offer of $140 (£70). In a short time, Friend and Murray acquainted themselves with the surrounding landscape and were on amicable terms with many of the locals.

Life here is delightful, the local people are very pleasant, pronounced individuals. At the pub, the food is very good, and the Eyre family who run the place, very nice. (diary entry,12 September 1947)

In a diary entry two days later, Friend describes the scene at the Royal Hotel.

The place is packed with characters. When we returned in the evening the Hill End Saturday Night Drinkfest was in full swing. The bar is an Hogarthian scene of peasant drinking and merriment. A little man called Tommy who took a fancy to me showed me a nugget of gold, or rather a nob of quartz heavily studded with gold—the bar was very full and so were most of the drinkers. (diary entry, 14 September 1947)

Over the next couple of months, Friend and Murray settled into village life and began restoration of the cottage and its garden. Donald Murray, a keen horticulturalist, designed a layout for a vegetable garden and an orchard. Murray’s design was similar to other historic gardens in the village, with an orchard at the back of the site and an axial path to the front of the cottage planted with ornamentals. Today there is still evidence of a wide variety of plants used by Murray such as roses, honeysuckle, succulents, bulbs, as well as apple, peach and plum trees. Murray shared his horticultural interests with the locals, who in turn introduced him to rare cultivars of fruit trees and other plants whose origins dated from the mid-nineteenth century settlements.

Friend and Murray enjoyed the refurbishment of the cottage and garden. They both took great pride in this achievement. The interior was decorated with masks and carvings from Friend’s earlier travels in Africa and the Torres Strait. To complete the scene they built sturdy bookshelves for their extensive library and installed a few interesting pieces of colonial furniture and a gramophone. Yet Friend was constantly haunted by the fear that the whole bucolic affair might be brought to a sudden end by malign forces out of his control.

Beyond my personal passions and the Hill End landscape the world is vaguer and more remote than ever, tho’ I read the newspapers and find with a faint shock that England is still hungry; that America and Russia are getting closer to war. (diary, 5 February 1948)

The most ambitious work Friend was to undertake during his early years at Hill End was a large-scale drawing The Apocalypse of St John the Divine, 1948 (152.5 x 457cm). At the time of its execution, in the early years of the Cold War, the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear cataclysm.

Donald Friend spent over twelve months working on The Apocalypse of St John the Divine. While world events must have played on his mind, he recorded the work’s progress in his diary, making an effort to appear more concerned with solving formal problems than dwelling on any apocalyptic vision.

I see at last just what I have done in this picture. It is a mass of research, a translation, a store of various sorts of erudition. It contains absolutely nothing of belief in what purports to be the subject—no fear of the Hells, no hope of the Heavens, no credence in the prophecies. It is an expression of certain lusts and admirations and its main concerns are with art, imagery, fecundity of invention and a delight in showing just what can be done with the medium. The net result is broadly a decoration with a strong literary appeal (diary entry, 5 July 1948)

The finished work was exhibited in Sydney in March 1949. Many of the pundits considered the picture a masterpiece. The art critic for the Sun, Harry Tatlock Miller; reviewed the work:

Donald Friend’s The Apocalypse of St John the Divine is a prophetic vision of the end of the world and the coming of the glorious NEW millennium—it is the finest work of its kind in my opinion to have been done in this country.

It is the destruction of Babylon—here we see it as the fall of Hill End (the landscape depicted is the whole defunct mining town of Hill End, including Mr Friend’s own house) watched by the merchants in their ships who cry out upon a sea of glass. ‘OH woe to that might city!’ Babylon falls but the new Jerusalem with its gates of pearl is brought down from Heaven. It is a summary of Donald Friend’s work to date with satire and tenderness and something of the visionary qualities of Blake. This procession of 300 figures is confidently controlled by a fine rhythmic compositional sense in a moving and intricate pattern of shapes richly coloured, textured, hollowed, massed and lined. (Sun, 3 March 1949)

While Friend immersed himself in village life, he maintained a correspondence with Drysdale which is preserved between the pages of Friend’s diary. Drysdale encouraged the younger artist and described in a letter his feelings concerning Friend’s relationship with Hill End. At the time Drysdale was working in his Sydney studio on Picture of Donald Friend 1948. In the painting Friend is standing outside the rear of Hill End’s Presbyterian Church, striking a confident pose reminiscent of a nineteenth-century explorer triumphantly claiming the last vestiges of a vanished civilisation.

Hill End with cultivated and intelligent detachment achieves its real and significant beauty to any artist, its sense of history, its charm, of form and dignity, its life of contrast that its roots in the past give it in this day and age. But to a Hill End citizen, what does it represent? Can he see these things in his accepted environment that you can see? (Drysdale to Friend, April 1948)

In his letter Drysdale maintains that an ‘outsider’ will often highlight a neglected or overlooked element in a landscape that may have no significance to an ‘insider’ yet it may possess real historical or aesthetic value to the wider community. As an ‘insider-outsider’, Friend desired a rich direct experience from his chosen environment. He revelled in the intricate fabric of Hill End’s insular mid-Victorian society. A deft deployment of his social skills in time revealed a vast collection of tales both historic and apocryphal, that were to form the basis of his highly entertaining 1956 publication A Collection of Hillendiana.

A rigorous daily routine underpinned the pattern of Donald Friend’s life at Hill End.

In the morning around 6.00 am he was at work in his studio, continuing on into the afternoon if necessary. The evenings were time for relaxation and entertainment. There was a drink at the Royal Hotel or music on the gramophone—Mozart, Handel, Beethoven and Fats Waller—as well as reflections to be noted in the diary, books to be read and occasional visitors from Sydney curious to see for themselves the landscape and village that had absorbed Friend’s creative energies. Among the friends to visit were artists Margaret Olley, David Strachan, Fred Jessup and Jeffrey Smart as well as Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger who would also purchase a cottage in the village. All these artists in turn would be inspired by the remnant structures and heroic landscape of the place to create significant works that are now all a part of the Hill End art legacy.

During his visits to Hill End, Drysdale devoted a great deal of his time to sketching and photography. The paintings evolved back in Sydney in the solitude of his studio. What Drysdale created was not the historic landscape of Hill End, it was his own highly charged version of the place. At Hill End, natural processes and human development struggle for supremacy. Drysdale seized on this tension, purging his imagery of all superfluous incident. The shock of recognition we experience in paintings like The Cricketers, Woman in a Landscape and The Rabbiters, is now an essential part of the Australian experience.

At times, the local inhabitants reacted anxiously to Drysdale’s painterly experiments. His methods of taking Hill End landmarks and people and placing them in his seared vision of the Outback often shocked them. Not surprisingly, they were only accustomed to the notion of art as a form of straightforward illustration. It was only after a number of sessions with Tas, as Drysdale was known to all the locals at the Royal Hotel, that they began to glimpse the Drysdale vision. Over a few beers he readily discussed his fascination for the great survivors of the bush—the old men, the women, the shearers, the nomads, the rural workers, the characters that persevered in such an unforgiving landscape. Drysdale, along with Friend and other members of the Hill End group, encouraged the local people to acknowledge and celebrate the significance of Hill End as one of the few surviving nineteenth-century towns with much of its landscape and many original buildings still intact.

Black and white, pen and ink sketches constitute the main body of Friend’s output at Hill End. In drawings such as Houses on Big Oakey, careful attention is given to rendering the vernacular elements in the landscape. The houses, sheds, fences, shrubs. rocks and gully are orchestrated in this ensemble to create a poetic scene that is a total landscape. It is these ‘small episodes’, so ruthlessly purged from Drysdale’s paintings, that make Friend’s Hill End imagery such a revealing cultural resource.

Friend, like Drysdale, was also keenly aware of the environmental degradation surrounding Hill End. In his diary he describes his attempts to come to grips with this reality as an artist.

I want to evoke the sensation of that and, brutish, brutal, ignorant Australian feeling that half man-made environment of ruined eroded rock and earth (ruined by ignorant men) and its concomitant of rusted tins and old bottles, that anti-human environment that is partly indifferent nature and partly the creation of indifferent, raw unthinking people. (diary entry, 4 February 1950)

Friend’s Hill End 1951 is an important painting from this period that owes a debt to British neo-romantics Nash and Sutherland. The work reveals a number of significant landscape elements. The steeply intrusive erosion of Nuggety Gully dominates the foreground, while the centre of the painting is delineated by the plantings along Beyers Avenue, with the Royal Hotel commanding the central position in the village streetscape. Friend has also revealed the rounded red and ochre landforms devoid of allotments. Forty years later, Brett Whiteley would also investigate a number of these elements in his final treatment of the Hill End landscape.

The Hill End paintings articulate continuity in the landscape; a continuity that reveals the cycle of destruction and renewal that has shaped the distinctive character of Hill End. Among the Hill End painters, it was through Russell Drysdale as well as Donald Friend that much of the shocking environmental degradation surrounding Hill End was revealed and at the same time transformed by the imagination of the artists into scenes of compelling beauty.

By the beginning of 1957 the Hill End group was breaking up. Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger had decided to leave Australia permanently and establish a European base on the island of Majorca. They maintained their Hill End cottage for infrequent visits in the following years. Russell Drysdale had departed for London where he was preparing for an exhibition of paintings at the Leicester Gallery in 1958. Donald Friend was restless, feeling the desire to immerse himself once more in a foreign culture. He set sail for Sri Lanka, where he lived and worked productively until his return to Australia in 1961. Donald Murray continued to live in the cottage at Hill End until his death in 1988. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hill End had gained a reputation as a painter’s paradise, attracting a diverse group of artists including John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Michael Johnson and John Firth-Smith.

The active participation of artists in the life of Hill End, particularly Friend and Drysdale, and the interest their paintings generated, was a vital factor prior to the village being declared an historic site in 1967. One of the key local people who played an important role in the process of recognising Hill End’s significance was the General Store proprietor, Bruce Goodwin. He recalls his encounter with the artists:

From my personal point of view, Donald Friend, Russell Drysdale, Jean Bellette, David Strachan and Donald Murray were all very cultured people. This was the first time in my life that I had been able to talk to and interact with such people. I speak of these people because not all artists, or well educated people, are cultured, and not all cultured people are able to communicate with ordinary people as this group did so magnificently. (conversation with the author 7 May 1994)

The Hill End paintings and drawings provided the public with a tangible record of the various associations and places that comprise the contrasting landscape montage of Hill End. The artist’s perceptive selection of potent landscape symbols and the subsequent public celebration of those symbols ensured the recognition and continuity of this tough historic landscape.

In preparing the Artists of Hill End Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1995, the Artists-in-Residence Program was established at Haefliger’s cottage. The cottage/studio had remained unaltered for 40 years, with works of art, books and furnishings echoing the presence of those who had lived and worked there for extended periods from the early 1950s. Since 1995, over 30 artists working in various media have participated in the program including Richard Goodwin, Wendy Sharpe, Peter Wright, Tom Spence, Stephanie Sheppard and Colin Lanceley. At present, the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery is negotiating from the National Parks & Wildlife Service a lease for the Donald Friend cottage/studio that will consolidate the venture of artists once again living and working in this historically charged landscape.

The elusive ambience of this place is never easy to define. Today, Hill End is essentially a landscape of the imagination. The true character of the place was shaped in the tough decades following the brief years of the great gold rush. The scarred red earth, the scattered houses, the silent ruins, the leaden skies and the resilient locals remain a part of the compelling ingredients that continue to make Hill End such an intriguing location for the creative spirit.

Visit the residency site at: www.hillendart.com

Back to the top