THE SHOALHAVEN RIVER

 

BUNDANON - RIVERSDALE

For Arthur Boyd

by Jenni Mitchell

DURING THE SPRING of 1996 I was artist-in-residence at both Riversdale and Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales.

These two properties were kindly left to the Australian Nation by the world-renowned artist Arthur Boyd. They form part of a larger gift of land made up of four adjoining properties and totalling more than one thousand hectares. The other properties are Beeweerie, also previously owned by Arthur Boyd and Eearie Park, previously jointly owned by Arthur Boyd and the artist Sir Sidney Nolan who died in November 1992.

Arthur Boyd now in his seventies and his wife Yvonne spend their lives travelling by ship between England and their beloved Bundanon where Arthur and Yvonne are lifetime artist's-in-residence.

I have admired Arthur Boyd and his painting all my life, and I still cherish having had the opportunity to paint on these properties and to later meet with him

.

Most of my painting trips had been to the outback; inland regions of South Australia including Lake Eyre and the Flinders Ranges, Tibooburra in New South Wales; or the rugged South coast line of Port Campbell National Park. It was a delight to work with the contrast of this land, the contrast of long horizon lines with the close bush subjects, the Shoalhaven River instead of the sea. To observe the paintings of Arthur Boyd that I have looked at over the years, and to see the subjects that he painted before me, true to life. Arthur Boyd's presence spread across this landscape

I had two weeks of virtual solitude at the Riversdale property before moving across to Bundanon and Arthur's home and personal studio. He was in England at this time. The Riversdale property was the first property that Arthur and Yvonne acquired on the Shoalhaven River. The weatherboard house had a separate kitchen, dining room and a beautiful music room with polished wooden floors and a grand piano. Arthur's paintings hung from the walls. A number of pieces of pottery and other works from the family collection were arranged around the room. The bedrooms and bathroom were in a detached building connected by an arbour of sweet smelling wisteria flowers. I had the house to myself and was able to sit quietly under the lilac wisteria and gaze upon the Shoalhaven river's splendid colours. Colours constantly changing by the minute, like a crystal turning as the rays of the sun moved across the facets. I painted and photographed the early morning mist rising from the golden yellow reflected light, the red of the afternoon sun and the twilight sky mirrored into the wide river and the brilliant stars falling into the darkened water.

The dry hill to the left of the river was wonderfully reflected in a variety of lights on the water's surface. A bright blue sky, contrasted with the deep greens and blacks from the hill, provided an opportunity to really explore the reflected surface. A brilliant afternoon subject, with the dense foliage of the hillside, the depth of the reflections and the stillness of the clear sky.

I was able to experience the bush and the subjects that inspired Arthur. The paintings I'd looked at over the years were all here. The evening painting of a house with one light on across the river- there it was, just as he had painted it. The cows could be seen grazing from here just as he had seen them when he made his painting.

I cherished every minute of my time there. Friends wanted to take me out, show me their home, I declined, not wanting to break the mood. A trip to the nearby township of Nowra to replenish supplies was like an insult to the senses. I couldn't wait to get back to the property. There was something about Riversdale, the house the land, peacefulness, a sense of oneness, safe, unafraid. Some say the house was haunted, a woman had sometimes been seen walking through the night. I fortunately didn't see or feel anything here at all, I was absolutely becalmed.

For my painting I had access to the original studio. Next to this was the new studio that had a one room self contained flat attached. Peter Day was artist-in residence using this space. Only recently married, he and his wife were spending their honeymoon in the studio. I suspect he didn't do a lot of painting work during his stay. We both respected each other's privacy, their time together and my desire for solitude. Occasionally Steve, the property manager would come and visit or attend to other maintenance errands, containing an escapee cow, fixing a pump or just to see that all was OK

.

My days were spent gazing and painting across the river, walking over the dry hills behind the property with my paints, or working in the studio.

These hills were familiar to me. Familiar through the paintings I had seen and loved of Arthur Boyd. The dry bush, crisp underfoot. The noise as you moved through the bush made it hard to creep up on the many lyrebirds inhabiting the hills and gullies. They heard you coming. The landscape was full of spotted gums, grey box and cycads. I particularly loved the cycads and put them into my new paintings. Their deep viridian greens, their mystery, such an ancient form of vegetation. The bright red seedpods that grew from their heart before spilling onto the earth to become new cycads. The discovery of a rock orchid in full bloom growing from the crack in a sandstone boulder. These images give the landscape its particular magic.

There was an electric stillness in this land. A heady smell of the bush eucalyptus, the sound of the birds, the Wonga pigeons' repetitive calls. The sea eagle that would fly along the river, a hawk hovering over a meal in the paddock, the call of the lyrebird, a gentle breeze and the attractive brown Brahman cross cattle with their long floppy ears - all memories of Riversdale.

The evenings were never spent alone. Before dusk I would walk down to the river's edge to watch the lightshow of the reflected twilight skies. Soon I would find myself surrounded by wombats. They emerged earlier here than I was familiar with in Victoria. I could creep up quite close, and occasionally touch their matted hairy backs. They didn't like this, though, and would scurry a few metres away, far enough for them to lose sight and scent of me; but not far; for they have such poor eye sight.

Another delight of the Riversdale house was the satin bowerbirds. These were new for me. The male bowerbird loves blue objects. He decorates his carefully constructed bower with them in the hope of enticing a female companion. He will sing and dance in the bower in a show of his prowess. He is very beautiful with feathers of the deepest iridescent prussian and ultramarine blue. He may be the only male among fifteen brown females. These cheeky birds would approach me under the verandah for any food thrown their way. If they had waited too long, they would tap on the window or come into the kitchen. I loved their shape, their long body, and the almost clumsy line of their back.

This was a wonderful place for an artist to become totally absorbed in their work. I was able to eat, live and paint twenty-four hours of the day. There were no distractions. The artist at home always seems to have to work around other day to day activities, and it is rare that you might have the opportunity to become so totally absorbed in painting. Unless a specific painting trip is organised, a stint in the desert or a remote cottage, there are always other interruptions!

I was able to work well in the bush, carrying my paints, as I am sure Arthur did up and down the hills, across the land and to the waters edge. The studio was wonderful also to work enabling me paint the larger works close to the environment with which I was working. I had only to look at my sketches or, in the case of the river, look out of the window to get the shapes of the land masses, and then paint in the colours I had observed during the early mornings and evenings as I sat by the shore.

During the last week of my three-week residency I was relocated to Bundanon. It was a rare opportunity for an artist to be able to live in the house at Bundanon and use the studio there. The Bundanon property is a fifteen minute drive west along the Shoalhaven river - past Eearie Park. The bush along the dirt road was very pretty. Being springtime, there were many native flowers blooming. The terrain changes frequently - depending on which side of the hill you are driving. Some places had a dry bush terrain, lots of ground orchids, flowering red devils and wattle trees. Other parts of the landscape contained large sandstone outcrops with dense cycad growth and strangling native creepers - the dark side of the hill. Upon entering the gates to the Bundanon property, the Shoalhaven river is on the right in full view. In the 1922 a terrible accident occurred here. The owner's daughter was washing her horse in the river, when she was swept away by the current. Her father dived in, attempting to save her. Both drowned. It was a calm day and they were both apparently good swimmers. An old Aboriginal man was present and not able to save either of them. He took great pride in caring for the many children who lived on the property. Bundanon was once a hive of activity during its fertile occupancy. Many children were born in that house, and there were several deaths.

There is a different presence surrounding this property. It is quite beautiful with the majestic double-story stone house, also with polished floors and the grand piano. Today the house is a museum. It is as Arthur and Yvonne had left it - full of their paintings, collections of books, artefacts, sculptures and family pottery. Works by Merrick Boyd, Guy, Jamie and Penleigh Boyd. Bundanon, like Riversdale has a detached kitchen and bathroom wing. These buildings are of modest construction, timber with low ceilings. There are separate sleeping quarters that the staff would have once occupied. Bundanon is the grand property of the region on the river. Grand from all aspects. A huge Port Jackson Fig tree protects one side of the house, and an old Magnolia tree the other. The cottage garden and roses are another delight for sight and scent. Yvonne and Arthur were very fond of their garden and proud of their collection of old fashioned roses, roses that climbed the stone walls or stand proudly as sentries in the garden beds.

Arthur's studio is a short walk through the garden. The Two of Guy Boyd's and one of Lenore Boyd's sculptures grace the paths. A bowerbird has built his bower on the edge of the garden, outside Arthur's studio door amongst the planted cycads. He has a collection of blue biro lids, blue paint tops, blue pegs, pieces of paper and blue flowers in his bower.

Mervyn, my partner, had come to share the last week of my residency with me at Bundanon. Bundanon didn't have the same sense of tranquillity for me as Riversdale. There was a lot of activity on the property during the day. Evelyn and Steve occupied the office. Nikki, the curator of the Bundanon collection, travelled from Sydney, cataloguing the works, and sometimes the friends of Bundanon would be working in the garden. Daily tours were often organised, a gallery society visit, people everywhere! Looking, picnicking, generally enjoying the gift that Arthur and Yvonne had made.

I felt privileged to be given Arthur's studio to work in and be given his palette and easel to use. The palette was a large sheet of plate glass on a bench, with a sheet of white paper placed underneath to show the colours mixed accurately. Around the edges were substantial lumps of paint that were mixed and ready for use. A skin had formed over them, which could be readily broken to expose fresh paint.

Again I was able to work prolifically in this environment, savouring each day. There was a different bush to explore. Across the paddock towards the hills lay the amphitheatre, a structure that had been formed from a sandstone outcrop and from which grew dozens of rock orchids. It is a magical place, surrounded by cycads in which blue wrens nested and flittered through in their frenzied fashion. Further up the hill the land turns back into dry bush with its variety of native flowers such as the trigger plant and the spider orchid. The top of the hill was another sandstone outcrop, forming the top of the escarpment which fell away steeply to expose, way below, more green farmland and beyond that again the winding journey of the Shoalhaven River.

The river wound around the bottom paddocks from the house. Pulpit Rock, the outcrop that Arthur has painted many times in varying fashions and forms, lies on the other side of the river. A trip across the paddocks and a walk along the river will bring you to another spot easily recognisable from his paintings. - a group of four sandstone boulders that have fallen and rested on the shore across the other side. I painted several of these subjects in homage to Arthur - pulpit rock from the verandah of the home, the rocks and the river with flame trees. The flame trees are really the coral trees that grow in the Bundanon paddocks.

During the evenings, when the manager and other staff had gone, eeriness descended over the property. It was a different presence to Riversdale. Almost uneasiness as if in the past terrible things had befallen the land. There was the story of the drowning, and rumours of Aboriginal massacres in the area. The house itself was not easy to move around at night. A sense that someone was watching you. Although I was not alone and had Mervyn with me for company it was difficult to feel relaxed. We had the upstairs Sydney Nolan room to sleep in. This was the room he used to occupy with his wife Mary when staying at Bundanon. I had stayed totally isolated at Riversdale with no fear what so ever, and yet here was a presence I could not explain. I was glad I was not totally alone!

Two years later, both properties have undergone considerable change. The artist-in residence program has been moved from the Riversdale property to Bundanon, with the construction of several new live in studio spaces near the entrance of the property. These rooms will accommodate more artists at one time with shared kitchen facilities. The Riversdale property is having a large education centre constructed for live in-groups known as the Arthur and Yvonne Education Centre. More people will be sharing the river at any given time. The bush will remain the same, the sunrise and sunset, the wombats will continue to graze in the late afternoon and the Wonga pigeon will still call.

 

'Reflections Shoalhaven'

An exhibition of paintings from Riversdale and Bundanon 1996 - 1999

Some examples of these works -

1. Evening Reflection - Shoalhaven River, Riversdale NSW.
oil on canvas 30" x 30"

2. Sunfire - Shoalhaven River - Riversdale NSW
oil on canvas 3' x 4'

3. Shoalhaven River with Venus reflection - Riversdale NSW
oil on canvas 3' x 4'

4. Shoalhaven River with Buoy - Riversdale NSW
oil on canvas 4' x 5'

5. Shoalhaven River with Creature
oil on canvas 14" x 14"

6. Shoalhaven River - Eearie Park NSW
oil on canvas 30" x 30"

7. Arthur's Bush with Palette - Riversdale
oil on canvas 30" x 30"

8. Arthur's Bush with Cycads - Riversdale
oil on canvas 4' x 3'

9. Bush Floor - Bundanon
oil on canvas 4' x 3'

10. Bush Floor - Bundanon
oil on canvas 14" x 14"

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Jenni Mitchell - phone: +613 9439 3458    2003
email to: jenni mitchell