A home among the gum trees

This week, along with a group of 40 Holdfast Bay residents, I travelled up to the German village, Hahndorf,  in the Adelaide hills, specifically to visit The Cedars, the family home of two of Australia’s more well-known artists—Sir Hans Heysen, and his daughter Nora.

Surprisingly, it was the first visit to The Cedars for at least two-thirds of this group of people who have travelled the world and interstate on sight-seeing holidays throughout the years.

We had  an enthralling visit to The Cedars and left me wondering …Why are we always so reluctant to explore and celebrate what is in our own back yards? Why had people never bothered to explore this fascinating site, which is a popular Adelaide destination for our international tourists, but not it  seems (if our group is any indication) with Adelaide locals?

Most South Australians know that Hans Heysen was a famous artist and painted gum trees, but know little else about him. Less still is known about his daughter Nora who was the first woman to win the  prestigious Archibald Prize, and the first woman to be appointed as a war artist.

It highlights a sad fact of life, people get forgotten when they die, unless there is someone actively marketing the legacy they leave behind.

Sir Hans came to Australia as a seven year old with his family in 1884.

He grew up in  and around Norwood and then as a young man he was encouraged by four Adelaide businessmen who appreciated his talent and supported Heysen financially to undertake a study tour in Europe. In return Heysen promised to send them all the work he produced during his years overseas.

He returned to Adelaide, married, and started an art school.

Heysen’s first interstate solo exhibition, held in Melbourne, was opened by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin! This brought his work to the attention of prominent buyers, including Nellie Melba.

He purchased the Cedars in 1912, on the back of a second art exhibition in Melbourne. He lived on the Hahndorf Property for the rest of his life, raising a big family and significantly leaving us with a picture of rural life and of the men and animals toiling in the fields around the town of Hahndorf  in the Adelaide Hills, in addition to his wonderful landscapes, still-lifes and other activities in the art world. He also became a ‘greenie’ conservationist before his time, buying up surrounding land parcels only because he wanted to save the gum trees and habitat corridors for birds and animals. The original 40 acres he bought in 1912 expanded to 150 acres in 1938, and remains that size today.

Visitors are welcome to walk the grounds and follow Heysen’s footsteps to 11 of his favoured painting locations, with interpretive signs that match his paintings to the real life gum trees on the property.

Sir Hans was well travelled and well-connected and despite being in this country since the age of seven, he was subjected to the local prejudices of being of German  origin during wartime. He had financial success in Melbourne and overseas, yet he chose to still remain in Adelaide as his home. He was famous for his landscapes and his still-lifes – including one he famously refused to  Russian ballerina, Anna Pavolva, when she saw it, because it had been specifically painted for his wife, Sallie. (Pavlova subsequently famously refused a replacement painting he did for her, because it wasn’t the one she wanted!)  You can see the painting Pavlova wanted still hanging in the house today and it is exquisite, almost giving the effect of three dimensional flowers, when viewed in the light Heysen intended for it. However, when his daughter Nora began having success with her still life painting, Heysen graciously stopped doing them, because he thought his daughter’s technique was better.

Today, the home and studio are pretty much as the artist  left them, when he died at the age of 90 in 1968. In the home, you immediately feel that this has been a happy, warm and welcoming home, even before the guide tells you the stories of a happy marriage and visits by Dame Nellie Melba, Pavlova, Vivian Leigh, Lionel Lindsay and Harold Cazneaux, among others. A bedroom with its double bed and wooden cradle and a formal dining room complete with raised stage and piano give insight to a simpler, but somehow more genteel, yet sophisticated, time of life that has probably been lost for today’s generations and beyond.

The formal sitting room with its beautiful Bay window looking out to the familiar Heysen landscape against a backdrop of bookshelves laden with the books of Hans and Sallie Heysen and family photos are further proof of a life well loved, and lived.

A short distance from the house is the Heysen studio, famously photographed by Harold Cazneaux. You enter this building, again, just as Sir Hans left it, and he is everywhere – his art supplies, his travels, his quirks, his personality—you don’t need interpretive museum signage to explain this man. The windows in this studio are specially treated to ensure the right levels of light for the artist through imported glass that Heysen shipped from Europe in barrels of molasses, so that the glass did not break.

Our host for our visit was Glenelg resident, Peter Heysen, the eldest son of the eldest son of Sir Hans. It is largely his love for his grandfather, and his desire to pay tribute to the achievements of Sir Hans and his wonderfully talented aunt, Nora Heysen, that has ensured this family estate has been preserved after their deaths as a tourism landmark.

It has been a struggle that is increasingly difficult to maintain  as a family enterprise in modern times and generational change.

Peter Heysen is now attempting to create public ownership through a Foundation to ensure the long-term future of this property for the enjoyment of art and history lovers. Let’s hope that this is a hugely successful venture and that our children’s children will still be able to experience this wonderful era of Adelaide’s art and culture in times gone by and the Heysen legacy will live on.

In the meantime, if you have not been there…now is the time to visit!
Details about getting to The Cedars are on this link www.hansheysen.com.au .

Jan Smith

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