Art History of Eltham

by Jenni Mitchell 2002 ©

Acknowledging artists who have contributed to the development of visual arts in Nillumbik I feel fortunate to have been born in Eltham and grown up in my mother’s pastry shop where meeting artists, writers and creative people was an everyday occurrence. These people were the customers that came to our shop; and the people I believed predominately, were Eltham. Living in this environment, it seemed natural for me to take up painting and music lessons; they were an integral part of an Eltham childhood.

At times, it is easy to take our district for granted and see it as just another outer suburb of Melbourne. Not until we move away and return with fresh eyes do we realise what captures the imagination for others. There have been many changes and developments in the district in my lifetime, some wonderful and others make me sad. One aspect does not change – the legend of the artists.

The Nillumbik Shire’s leafy environment gives the Shire a pleasant ambience throughout and attracts people to make it their home. The well-known historical and artistic reputation of the area is another reason people give for wanting to live here today. However, newcomers sometimes remark that the art is hard to find and perhaps, the ‘artistic heritage,’ is just a myth.

It is interesting to reflect on what may have first attracted artists to this region and why they spent time ‘roughing it’ in the bush. Usually, arriving by train from the city, artists were captivated by the smell of the gum trees and eventually settled in the hills where they built mudbrick houses and studios. An obvious enticement was the cost of the land. It was cheap. Being at the time, considered a fair distance from Melbourne, the land was not highly sought for traditional farming because of the generally poor soil and dry terrain. Much of the area is clay. There was farming in the Eltham district, but the better land was north, around Kangaroo Ground. The rough land that farmers abhorred attracted artists who found the subtleties of the dry bush hills visually stimulating. There was also the Yarra River, Diamond creek, summer cicadas, wildlife and spring flowers.

As the Shire’s borders move, so do artists. All of these areas were at one time or another within the shire’s boundaries – only the name changed – Shire of Eltham, Shire of Diamond Valley or now, Shire of Nillumbik.

Many artists who have lived and worked in the district have gained national and international reputations and their work is keenly sought after. Records of women artists are the minority, more a product of social history than the number of women painting.

Among the earliest painters to inhabit the Eltham district were Walter Withers and his family who bought a property on the corner of Bolton and Brougham Streets (Eltham) in 1903. This house is still standing today and is acknowledged on the Shire’s heritage building register. A friend of Withers, Sir Hans Heysen, came to stay with the Withers family and took lessons from Walter. Walter’s daughter Margery Withers became a painter and worked mostly around Diamond Creek.

Jock Frater lived on the corner of Arthur and Bible Streets (Eltham) in 1916 and Peter Newbury, painter and father to painter, David Newbury, in Cromwell Street (Eltham). Will Longstaff lived at Stanhope in Peter Street (Eltham), later to become the home of writers, Nina and Clem Christensen.

In the 1920s, Percy Leason came to live at Eltham in Lavender Park Road where he built a house and studio, frequented regularly by writers and artists. Guests included the painters Max Meldrum, Justus Jorgensen, Colin Colahan, John Farmer, Clarice Beckett, Jock Frater, Jim Minogue, Dick McCann and writer Mervyn Skipper. It was here Percy, best known for his cartoon work, began his renowned series of paintings of Aboriginal portraits with the assistance of his friend and neighbour, the anthropologist, Dr Donald Thompson.

Max Meldrum, a regular visitor to Eltham, also stayed at the home of his painter friends Peter Newbury and Dick McCann. He loved the district so much he eventually rented a house opposite Wingrove Park and thought the earth highly suitable for mudbrick building. It was during this time that some of Meldrum’s students visited him, including Justus Jorgensen.

Montsalvat played an important part in the early attraction of artists to Eltham. In 1934, artist and architect, Justus Jorgensen and his wife Lil bought the land at the top of Hillcrest Avenue and spent their lives creating the now famous artists’ colony. The buildings were constructed from local stone, pise and mudbrick and built by the painting students, patrons and friends of Jorgensen.

On weekends, they would travel by train, or if fortunate enough, by car, to Eltham and build enthusiastically. Women worked on the building site beside the men making mudbricks, carving stone and timber sculpture and gargoyles that are embedded into the eclectic buildings. Jorgensen was inspired to re-create a French Village on the hill using architectural influences of the Gothic and Medieval periods.

It was a lively centre for creativity, philosophy and progressive thinking. Evenings were spent around the long dinner table listening to Justus Jorgensen espouse wisdom through his mind-expanding conversations. Mervyn Skipper recorded many of the talks in notebooks.

Among the young artists to visit Montsalvat were George Chalmers, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh, Roy Opie, Mervyn Skipper, Matcham Skipper, Helen Skipper, Sonia Skipper, Lesley Sinclair, Betty Rowland, Alistair Knox, Arthur Munday, Helen Lempriere and Joe Hannan.

Artists began to live permanently at Montsalvat after the students’ quarters were completed, seen today along the pool with the students initials embedded in tiles on the doorsteps.

Alistair Knox, inspired by Jorgensen’s teachings, gave up his day job at the bank and began building mudbrick houses for a living, thus adding to the district’s history by pioneering the new earth-building movement. Among his team of workers were Gordon Ford, later to make his name landscaping natural gardens, and painter and sculptor, Sonia Skipper, Alistair’s forewoman. There were early difficulties, apparently, with the young men taking orders from a woman!

A few miles out from Eltham, Clifton Pugh bought land at Cottles Bridge, and established a land co-op that became known as Dunmoochin. This area attracted artists and potters who over the following years bought, lived
and settled in this dry landscape. Some stayed and worked only a short time, others continue to make their home at Dunmoochin.

Artists alongside Clifton Pugh included Frank Werther, Leon Saper, Rick Amor, Peter Laycock, Alma Shanahan, Myra Skipper, Bruce Davidson, John Howley, Kevin Meynell, John Percival, John Olsen, Albert Tucker and
Joy Hester, (who lived in Eltham prior to moving to Hurstbridge in the early 1960s), John Serle (the first artist to serve on the Eltham Council), John Bell (also lived in Fordhams Road Eltham before Dunmoochin), Gareth Jones-Roberts, Andrew Sibley and the printmaker, George Baldessin.

The excitement for the artists was the dynamic groups that made friendships and inspired each other’s work with much discussion and passion.

The Dunmoochin artists loved the native bush. They didn’t want to ‘Englishfy’ the land, tame the bush, or conquer nature. The dry bush with its hidden delicate orchids, birds, summer grasses and wild life was enough.

The environmental painter, Neil Douglas, moved with his family into Eltham and worked in Tom Saunders’ pottery on the Main Road near Dalton Street. Among his first paintings were the decorative glaze paintings of Australian landscapes and animals worked onto the ceramic pieces made at the pottery. The family later rented a timber cottage in Research on land that is today the Eltham College sporting ovals. Neil worked as a gardener across the river in Bulleen at Heide home of art patrons, Sunday and John Reed.

The Reeds, like Jorgensen drew artists into their lives and gave creative sustenance and much support. It was here Neil met with the Angry Penguin artists John Percival, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Danila Vassilieff, Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Sam Atyeo and those who came and went among the circle of Reed’s friends.

Later, separating from his family, Neil bought land in Kangaroo Ground and started a new life with the painter Abbie Heathcote. The Bend of Islands Environmental Living Zone was born. This is another region in the shire to attract artists to live in harmony with nature, within a set of strict guidelines that include no dogs or cats and a community spirit towards responsible bush management.

Neil has since moved away from the district, leaving a legacy for many artists to continue to work in and cherish. Among these are Hilary Jackman, Piers Bateman, Peter Burns, Ona Henderson and Syd Tunn.

Much earlier, Clara Southern was the first of the painters to settle in the Warrandyte district. She lived along the Research-Warrandyte Road and was an inspiration to the painters Penleigh Boyd and wife Edith Anderson, Jo Sweatman (Estelle Mary), Jane Sutherland, Charles Wheeler and Louis McCubbin.

Later, in the 1930s and 40s a new generation of artists made Warrandyte their home including Danila Vassilieff; who built his home, Stonygrad by hand from local stone. Danila taught at the nearby experimental school, Koorong and later taught art across the river at Eltham High School.

Many of the artists of this period were not only painters, but writers, potters and intellectuals who held strong interests in the world around them, particularly politics. Many of these artists were also associated with the newly formed Contemporary Arts Society. These included Frank Crozier, Harry DeHartog, Nutter Buzzacott, Harry Hudson, Herbert Rose, Adrian Lawler and James Wigley.

The sculptor Inge King settled in Warrandyte. Ceramic artist Deborah Halpern was born in Warrandyte and has returned there to live. Stephen May lived there for several years. Rupert Bunny found inspiration in the Warrandyte landscape and spent much time in the district.

Eltham has continued to attracted artists for 100 years, some staying, choosing to live out their lives in the area and others staying for just a short time. The poetic painter, Sam Fullbook lived in Gum Tree Road in the 1960s. John Street, Eltham is an address which has been home for many artists including the watercolourist, John Borrack; Meldrum pupil, Peter Glass; Joan and David Armfield.

David Keys, Richard Crichton and Lindsay Edwards, all abstract painters, often worked together and lived in the Eltham/Lower Plenty district. Near Eltham High School lived another group of artists Hal and Joy Peck, Kevin Engish, (writer of the Victorian Education Department Arts curriculum text books), Betty Burstall and filmmaker husband Tim Burstall. The painter, Ian Hassall opened the first open-air gallery Hassall’s Gallery along the Main Road in East Eltham, near Coleman’s Corner.

Don Vidler and Ian Bow lived in the district. Painter, David Lawrance, one time conservator for the National Gallery remains in Eltham today. Many academic painters lived in the Nillumbik area whilst lecturing in art colleges. The contemporary painter Dale Hickey and the printmaker, Danny Monyihan both lectured at Phillip Institute, working from their Eltham and Hurstbridge studios.

George DeNeemes, painter and potter lived in Research before making his home in the Greensborough district, where he continued to hold a strong tie with Eltham through his exhibition program.

Many galleries have come and gone or evolved over the years. Among them, Stringybark, Wiregrass, Eltham Gallery and Papillion. In Eltham, both Hassalls and Eltham Gallery survive, with an evolution of owners and name changes. Eltham Wiregrass and Eltham emerged to become Eltham Wiregrass Gallery. A number of smaller galleries operate in Hurstbridge and Kinglake.

These galleries gave many local artists their first opportunity to exhibit and many artists went on to gain larger reputations. Artists such as Drew Gregory, Tony Muratore, Joseph Zubrick, Janet Boddy, Paul Cavell, Tony Harkin, Max Dimmack, Peter Wegner, David Moore, Herman Pekel, Mark Page, Alan Satori, Margo Kroyer-Pederson, Adriane Strampp, Tony Trembath, John Wakefield and many, many, more.

In my childhood, during the 1960s, one of the Eltham experiences I enjoyed was the opportunity to visiting artist’s studios during their open days. I remember visiting Margo Knox, Neil Douglas and Alan Martin’s studios. It is perhaps, these experiences that lay the foundation for my life as a professional artist.

Other memories are the strong influences in the arts that came from Eltham High School where art was taken seriously and had a prominent place on the curriculum. Progressive opportunities existed for girls to take metal and woodworking classes, and boys to take cookery classes if they wanted; commonplace today, but rare in the 1960s and 70s. The school encouraged all aspects of the arts and today maintains its support and reputation in the arts, particularly in music.

A new generation of artists in the Shire of Nillumbik upholds the firm artistic tradition. Montsalvat is still a centre for the arts nurturing painters, sculptors and jewellers. Dunmoochin continues to be a place for artists to work and live and maintains an artist-in-residence program. The tradition of artists opening their homes and studios to the public is maintained. Artists go on being inspired to live in Warrandyte and Eltham and across the Shire of Nillumbik.