Grand plans are envisaged for the old home of Hans Heysen but not everyone is happy
Michael McGuire, SA Weekend
August 24, 2018 9:30pm
The small crowd gathers outside the famous house. It’s a glorious winter’s day in the Adelaide Hills. Blue skies, a faint rustle of a breeze exercising the top most leaves of the surrounding gum trees.
They have come to see where Sir Hans Heysen lived and worked as he made his name as one of the nation’s foremost landscape painters. The house is called The Cedars and sits just on the edge of Hahndorf.
There are about 10 of us on the tour. Most are from interstate. We have already been through the Heysen’s studio, a small stone building perched on a hill not far from the house. And now it’s time to go inside the family home, which at first glance carries an air of faded grandeur.
But this is a beautiful spot. You can see why Heysen was so attracted to the place. The magnificent gum trees, which were his trademark, the quiet ponds, the tranquility.
However, change is on the way. Big plans are in the wind. The original target of $7 million raised from a mixture of public and private money has more than tripled as the scope of what is possible has become far more ambitious.
And again you can see why. The Heysen story is fascinating and inspiring. The German immigrant who moved to South Australia as a six-year-old, and became one of Australia’s greatest artists, has left a legacy of not only his art but the original house and the studio he had built in 1913.
First, back to the house. Heysen bought the colonial style villa in 1912 and lived here with wife Sallie and their eight children. It’s still a grand old building. It gives heart to the whole place, but there is also an undeniable sense of dilapidation.
Every wall in the house is decorated with art or books. There are cracks in walls and in the ceilings. The ceiling in one bedroom is peeling away. It’s fine outside but cold inside and little blow heaters are in constant use. In the chill of the house it feels like the walls are bleeding with damp. Many walls carry ugly brown stains created by the urine of the nest of possums that lived in the roof. It’s impossible not to wonder what impact all that is having on the millions of dollars of art in the house. Heysen’s most loved work Sewing (the artist’s wife), which is valued at around $500,000, sits on one such wall. Another room, referred to by the guide as the schoolroom, has two etchings by Rembrandt in it. Some work has been undertaken recently. The roof has been fixed, there is new guttering and electrical work and outside walls painted. The possums have been evicted and trees near the house have been cut down to make it harder for the critters to jump on to the house. But there is much, much more to do.
What should be a remarkable experience ends up being a little dispiriting.
More so because in March 2016 there was a grand announcement of a fundraising plan that was designed to safeguard the house and its treasure. In addition, plans were floated to build a visitors’ centre, which included an art gallery and a café. Altogether, the fundraising effort aimed to generate $7 million.
Of that $5 million was to go to the Heysen family and $2 million was earmarked for the visitors’ centre. The house, the property, studio and the land would then be run by a body called the Hans Heysen Foundation. Big names were wheeled out in support. Barry Humphries was named as international campaign president. Oscar-nominated director Scott Hicks contributed a film outlining the glory of The Cedars. The list of patrons include brewer Glenn Cooper, ex-MP Alexander Downer and successful business people Carolyn Hewson and Robert Gerard. Ambassadors include fishmonger Michael Angelakis, cycling commentator Phil Liggett and TV presenter Rosanna Mangiarelli. There are appeal committees in Sydney, Melbourne, New York and London.
There is no doubt the Heysen name and home is something of an underrated South Australian tourism gem. Heysen was a significant figure in his day. At his house he hosted world-famous names such as actor Sir Laurence Olivier, opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, French mime Marcel Marceau and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.
There is enormous potential to develop a globally attractive tourism attraction. Those backing the project use two touch stones to sell the idea of what is possible with a rejuvenated Heysen: Hobart’s acclaimed Museum of Old and New Art and the house of French impressionist painter Claude Monet.
At the moment though you could easily drive into Hahndorf and not be aware The Cedars is there at all. There is only one small sign on the road in from Adelaide and, unless you are looking for it, it could go completely unnoticed. Even if you do spot the brown sign and make the sharp left turn-off, you will soon find yourself on a narrow road where in spots it is difficult for two cars to pass simultaneously.
Mt Barker-based real estate figure James Sexton is co-chair of the Heysen Foundation, with chocolate identity Alister Haigh, and says the upkeep of the house is a priority. He says $500,000 has been earmarked from the next round of fundraising to bring it up to standard.
He also says a heritage architect is likely to be engaged in the next few months to give a report on all the work that needs to be undertaken.
“We don’t want to go into it half-baked,” he says. “If you want to do the heritage properly and restore it properly it’s a pretty major job.”
W hen Heysen died in 1968, the property passed to his eldest son (and fifth child) David. His death also caused ructions in the family related to the distribution of the estate, which continue today, with various arms of the extended Heysen clan not talking to each other. David Heysen took over the running of The Cedars, and opened it to the public, his son Peter assuming the role upon the death of his father in 1990.
But the family would eventually decide the job of maintaining the property and safeguarding the Heysen legacy was too much. The Hans Heysen Foundation was established in 2011 with the idea that it would eventually take on responsibility for the upkeep of the physical facilities and the legacy of the painter.
With the money raised from the initial fundraising target, the Foundation paid the Heysen family $5 million for The Cedars home, which included art valued at $2.5 million, the studio and around 31 hectares of land. The 2016 fundraising document said the actual value of the package was $7 million but the Heysen family had agreed to take $5 million, effectively donating $2 million towards the project. That $2 million was to be used to build the visitors’ centre.
However, a lot has changed since March 2016. The scale of the project has grown exponentially. It was decided $2 million wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough to build a visitor centre of sufficient quality. The fundraising goal is now more than $22 million and the visitors’ centre, once imagined as a low slung single storey building is now a much more modern “light box”.
The light box is a cube which measures 20m by 20m by 20m, giving it similar dimensions to the d’Arenberg Cube in the McLaren Vale. The architectural concept drawings have the box spread over four levels. A ground floor would house a shop and a café, while level one would be a gallery for the work of Hans Heysen and his daughter Nora Heysen, who in 1938 became the first female winner of the Archibald Prize and who was also the first woman to become an official war artist. Level two is set aside for visiting artists and level three would be a function space.
The father-daughter combination is also the reason why the property, but not the house itself, will become known as The Heysens rather than The Cedars when the project is complete.
The expansion of the project has some concerned, even among those who have already donated money or appeared in fundraising booklets listed as patrons or as being on the appeal committee. There are complaints about a lack of communication regarding the sudden leap in the size of the project and whether the light box is a suitable addition to the environment. None, though, were willing to speak on the record about their concerns for The Cedars.
It’s also likely the full extent of the development is still to be fully fleshed out. The Cedars and surrounds are within a primary production area but to accommodate the development the Department of Planning Transport and Infrastructure instructed the Mt Barker Council to insert a special “Cedars precinct” within its Draft Development Plan.
Listed among the possibilities for this precinct are shops, a restaurant and short-stay accommodation.
Sexton says the idea of the light box is not final, and that the plan could revert to the single storey building first envisaged. The whole thing is still at the “concept stage”. But for now, the idea is that the light box will also include features such as sliding panels that could be moved to keep out direct sunlight and even provide added protection in case of bushfire.
He is confident that when a final design is settled upon it will win the approval of most.
“When the architects do their final concept and everybody gets to see it and understand how it works then I think most people will be very happy with it,” he says.
So far, a little over $8 million has been raised. There have been $1 million contributions from the state and federal governments, as well as a $1.5 million grant from the Mt Barker City Council. The Mt Barker grant, though, comes with a few strings attached – the primary one being a first mortgage over the property, which could be called in if the Foundation ceases to exist or sells some assets.
Peter Heysen is the son of David Heysen who took over The Cedars when his father Hans died. Peter knows some are unhappy with the plan for the light box, but insists his grandfather would be behind the plan. He points out that Hans modernised The Cedars in the 1920s and the 1913-built studio was also “up-to-date” for its time.
“There is a fair bit of criticism about the light box,” he concedes. “They say it’s modern. People have told me we should build something in keeping with the house.
“I would have thought that if he was building there next year, he would not reproduce the past, he would put something there for the future. Therefore I am happy with the modern concept.”
But the future of the ambitious idea will depend on how much money can be raised, with the Foundation looking to generate another $14 million on top of the $8 million raised to date.
More is being asked of both federal and state governments, with proposals already before both. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had a tour in July, Education Minister Simon Birmingham has had a dinner at The Cedars. At a presentation to the Mt Barker Council this month, the Foundation’s professional fundraiser Rossana Montaniero said even Australia’s US ambassador Joe Hockey had offered to help.
Sexton is coy about saying too much about how much they are asking for, but it’s safe to assume if they are successful it will comprise the majority of the $14 million.
“We are raising money, but ideally we would like to get it locked in place in the next 6-8 months then start work from there. It will take probably several years after that.”
The effort to attract private donors continues. Groups of 10 targeted donors are invited to The Cedars and around “30 to 40 per cent” of them will donate at least $30,000 over three years. Donors are also offered an opportunity to sponsor individual art works. $500,000 gets you Sewing (the artist’s wife). Galleries and areas within the proposed light box will also carry naming rights.
But fundraising is also an expensive business. According to the Foundation’s most recent financial statement lodged with the Australian charities’ regulator, fundraising costs totalled almost $500,000 over the last two financial years, spent on items such as brochures and cocktail parties as well as the services of Montaniero, who has been involved since the start of the project.
In July, about 60 people turned up to a swish fundraiser held in the Sydney offices of law firm Clayton Utz. Potential donors gathered for the speeches in the firm’s 14th floor boardroom before heading on to the outdoor terrace, with its harbour views, for drinks. The gathering was described as “not great” by one attendee, who is also a firm believer in the potential for Heysen. The observer was struck by a level of negativity in the room but was also surprised when it was announced the fundraising target had been raised to $22 million and the plan for the light box was unveiled.
More events are planned, including in Melbourne next year when the National Gallery of Victoria hosts the first major exhibition featuring the combined works of Hans and Nora Heysen. It will run for four months from March. The logic for the extra development at The Cedars is sound enough. To survive in the long run and to preserve and even propagate the Heysen legacy, a new revenue stream has to be established. And that means providing more activities for visitors beyond just visiting the house and studio. Thus a new gallery, plus somewhere to eat and possibly to stay.
In that same financial statement, the Foundation said it made $92,843 from tours in the year to June 30, 2017. That equates to around 10,000 visitors a year, or about 200 a week. Dramatically escalating that number is seen as the key to the future of Heysen. The catch being at this point, the house itself is not capable of taking more visitors and the extra development is still several years away.
Greg Mackie is chief executive of the History Trust of SA, and is part of an advisory panel that gives advice to the Foundation. He is an advocate for change at The Cedars and believes the new and the old can co-exist.
“I think the concept is ambitious and exciting,” he says. “I think the potential to grow visitor numbers around the legacy of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen is very positive.”
Critics of the scale of the project may not be assuaged, especially in the short-term, but the Foundation’s Sexton insists plans are about the future and protecting the Heysen legacy.
“The critical thing we want to do is have an environment where the art is protected in the long-term for the next 100 years because it is such a unique part of Australia’s history.”
And, in the short-term, hopefully keep out the possums.