As you may recall, my theme for the 2018 A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists. Today we’re heading off to Hahndorf in South Australia to drop off a letter to German-Australian artist, Sir Hans Heysen (1877–1968). Hans Heysen will be entertained by his good friend, Dame Nellie Melba singing Voi che sapete (1910) Nellie Melba and Hans Heysen were personal friends.
Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen was born 8 October 1877 in Hamburg, Germany. He migrated to Adelaide in South Australia with his family in 1884 at the age of 7. As a young boy Heysen showed an early interest in art and in 1897, aged 20, he was sponsored by a group of wealthy Adelaide art enthusiasts to study art for four years in France In Paris, he studied at the Académie Julian and Colarossi’s Academy under various masters including Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant and at the Académie des Beaux Arts and he later studied in Italy. There were also summer painting excursions to Holland and Scotland, and a hasty visit to Germany. In 1903, he returned to Adelaide in 1903. He later reported that the impact of Australian light as he sailed up St Vincent’s Gulf was like a slap in the face, profoundly affecting his attitude and vision. Almost at once he turned his back on Europe and concentrated on Australian landscape.
Soon Heysen was attracted by one of his pupils, Selma Bartels, known as “Sallie”. They were married on 15 December 1904.
“Its (the gum tree) main appeal to me has been its combination of mightiness and delicacy – mighty in its strength of limb and delicate in the colouring of its covering. Then it has distinctive qualities; in fact I know of no other tree which is more decorative, both as regards the flow of its limbs and the patterns the bark makes on its main trunk. In all its stages the gum tree is extremely beautiful.”
SIR HANS HEYSEN
To the unappreciative eye, Heysen’s works could be dismissed as “yet another gum tree”. Indeed, the artist himself became somewhat of an anachronism as he remained stuck in his ways. Ignoring artistic trends, he remained true to himself, right down to wearing his knee-length knickerbockers and long socks (a rather peculiar sight even in Hahndorf). Yet, when you take the time to appreciate the detail in Heysen’s paintings, the gum trees come alive. Each has its own endearing personality, and his use of light creates a sense of awe and majesty. You feel drawn into the painting, as if into a dream. Indeed, these Arcadian scenes emit a real joie de vivre, happiness, contentment and quite frankly, I’m inspired to pack up my swag to have a long afternoon snooze on the shaded grass beneath their branches.
Yet, Heysen was more than just gum trees. Influenced by French artist Millett who inspired a generation of artists with his famous depictions of peasants working in the fields, Heysen painted Hahndorf locals, capturing a passing era.
This is what drew Hans Heysen into my orbit. He sketched my Great Great Grandfather, Heinrich August Haebich, who owned Haebich’s smithy in Main Street. With the coming of the motor car, clearly the blacksmith was going the way of the slate. Yet, the Haebichs were also progressing with the times, a fact not reflected in Heysen’s work. Indeed, Heysen as well as the artists he brought to Haebich’s, zoomed into a narrow perspective of the place and turned a bustling and often dramatic hive of industry, into a still life.
While Heysen sketched Heinrich August in 1912, he later brought his friends into the smithy at a time when the car was replacing the horse. Sir Lionel Lindsay’s: The Smithy Window, Ambleside was completed in 1924 and Sydney Ure Smith’s: The Blacksmith’s Shop, Ambleside was painted in1925. (Hahndorf was known as Ambleside for a time due to anti-German sentiment). Sydney Ure Smith even included his sketch in his book, Old Colonial By-Ways, which largely comprised on historic Sydney buildings, but also had a handful of sketches of Hahndorf thrown in and seemed a little out of place.
Frankly, you have to ask why these three artists drew the blacksmith’s shop. Moreover, having heard my grandfather’s descriptions, their still life perspective doesn’t sit right. After all, a blacksmith’s shop was a hive of industry. Even as an old man, my grandfather’s face would light up when he talked about watching them make cart wheels. He and his sisters would walk past the smithy after school. They loved watching the water whoosh up when the red hot, steel rim for the wheel was dunked in water, producing an incredible gush of steam. There was so much theatre and it was a pretty dangerous place too. They had to stand back. So, clearly this wasn’t a place of still life.
I have visited Hahndorf a few times over the years, and on our last visit we toured Hans Heysen’s home, The Cedars. Visiting an artist’s home always changes your relationship. While you never become “friends” as such, with a good guide loaded with stories and an eye for detail, you can feel like you’ve at least taken a short walk in their shoes. Or, in my case, peering through the lens and seeing things through his eyes. Indeed, his house reminded me of my grandparents’ homes with lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and was a real delight.
A Letter to Sir Hans Heysen
I wonder what it would be like like for you to walk through that rusty gate again and come back home? A few of your old gum trees are still around, and thankfully they managed to save the historic German houses from the bulldozer. Destroying all that heritage would’ve been a crime. Indeed, I am rather grateful for the watercolour and sketches you did of Haebich’s Smithy, which was owned by my Great Great Grandfather, Heinrich August Haebich. Along with the parallel works undertaken by your friends Lionel Lindsay and Sydney Ure Smith, they provide a detailed study of the workshop and his tools of trade.
My grandfather has spoken to me about the intense anti-German sentiment associated with WWI and WWII, and I wonder if you were ever tempted to change your name? From 1914-1935 Hahndorf was just one of many German towns in the Adelaide Hills whose names were changed to English alternatives. Hahndorf became known as Ambleside and many German families changed their names. Indeed, my grandfather attended Ambleside Public School and during his time there, the Principal changed his name. Families who didn’t change their names, often lost jobs, despite the high percentage of German descendants in South Australia. My grandfather was thrown into a blackberry bush when he started high school due to his German heritage.
These problems have resurfaced recent years, although this time it’s Muslims and people of “Middle-Eastern appearance” who are being targeted due to the perceived terrorism threat. Women wearing the hijab have been particularly targeted, and many women felt unsafe leaving their homes and catching public transport. This led to the #ridewithme campaign, which has at least raised more awareness.
I feel I live in a bubble much of the time, and don’t get exposed to these troubles. However, I think we each have an obligation to be as inclusive as possible and to challenge our own beliefs and behavior. Try to knock down walls of prejudice and hate and build bridges of understanding, acceptance and compassion in their place. Indeed, we need to do this each and every day with everyone we meet, because no one is the same. We’re all different.
Anyway, I’m sorry I’ve got back up on my soapbox again. I should’ve joined you out in your studio instead. I could use a few lessons on how to paint a gum tree, and you seem to be the artist who knew them best…the Gum Tree Whisperer.
PS I hope you like the photo. It was taken by my grandfather at the Hahndorf Centenary Celebrations in 1938. I spotted you in the foreground.
A Letter From Sir Hans Heysen.
We had a saying in Hahndorf back in my day: “The Geese go barefoot everywhere”. It is a good thing to keep in mind, as you journey through life. While we humans focus on our differences, we really do have more in common once you scratch beneath the surface. We just need to get to know each other better.
You have a good head on your shoulders, just like all the Haebichs I knew. Keep watching, analyzing what’s going on around you and feeling with your heart, instead of getting swept up in the momentary impulses of the crowd, which have caused unfathomable destruction throughout our human history. It’s little wonder that I loved the gum tree. What have they ever done to hurt anyone?
Thank you very much for the photograph, although I’m not so keen on seeing my derriere on centre stage.
Next time you’re in Hahndorf, please pop round to my studio for a portrait. I might paint you writing in your notebook under a gum tree.
Greetings to the rest of your family.