12 April 2016

Melbourne's decade of Bohemian art at Heide

This is a period of art history in Australia that I have written many individual posts about. In this post I have cited The Roaring 40s written by Fiona Gruber in The Australian 9/4/2016 and will integrate my own work into the structure of Gruber's essay.

In 1935, John and Sunday Reed, newly married and wealthy, bought a dilapidated farmhouse and 6 hectares of orchard land down on the river flats of the Yarra. They called it Heide, both as a nod to the suburb of Heidelberg across the river and an even bigger acknowledgment of the Heidelberg School of artists who had painted in Melbourne in the late C19th.

In the years leading up to WW2, Melbourne was for the most part staid, stolid and buttoned-up — but the Reeds’ purchase created a place where bohemianism and modernism could put down fertile roots. And as a result of their circle’s experiments in living, thinking, and making art, Australia was never quite the same again.

The Reeds shared a fascination with the left-wing cultural ideas that were setting Europe and the USA on fire. They couldn’t abide their bourgeois upbringings. They wanted a free, simple life filled with new ideas and new art. And they were going to do it, they decided, not just by reading and buying but by surrounding themselves with creative people whom they’d support and collect.

Heide I
The Reeds bought an old farm house in Melbourne in 1934

Heide II
The Reeds commissioned a new house and gallery on the same estate in 1963. 

Art historian Richard Haese*, whose 1981 study of Heide was seminal in establishing their intellectual and personal relationships in the public imagination, said their influence has been profound. The Angry Penguins were artists who have retained a central position in Australian art;
our perception of Australian art is based on these artists.

There have been several exhibitions through the years exploring various facets of the Reeds’ story in all three of Heide MOMA’s exhibition spaces. Now the museum plans to go further by making the original farmhouse the focus of a series of semi-permanent exhibitions in the years to come. These aim to more fully explore the legacy of the Reeds that spanned 50 years until their deaths, 10 days apart, in December 1981. The first exhibition called Making History: The Angry Penguins, an examination of the 1940s, which will be at the Heide Museum of Modern Art till Nov 2016.

Christmas at Heide in 1946.
Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed, John Sinclair and John Reed.
Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday and John Reed, and friend 
in the Heide Kitchen c1945. 
Photo: State Library of Victoria

Visitors can examine the seldom-seen archival material, paintings and personal artefacts illustrate how influential the Reeds were, in a practical sense. See the photos, many by Tucker, that show the group’s youthful vigour and stylish assurance, striding through the paddocks, grouped around the kitchen table, ranged around the library. The exhibition includes Sunday’s contributions to Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly pictures and John’s leadership of the Contemporary Art Society. He later created Reed & Harris Publishing, which specialised in avant-garde novels, poetry and political essays and the journal Angry Penguins. I was fascinated by Sidney Nolan’s paintings of Australian Heroes. 

The Reeds embraced a rustic way of living that included growing vegetables and keeping cows. Sunday had the wrought-iron verandas removed from the house to make it look more like a French provincial cottage and, belying her cosseted upbringing as a member of the powerful Baillieu clan, immersed herself in productive gardening and cooking. Which is why, alongside the personal effects and furniture, the exhibition includes her recipe book.

By the early 40s, with a global war in full swing, the house had become the hangout and even the home for some of the brightest artists and thinkers of the time. Foremost among these was Nolan, who was also Sunday’s lover in a complicated menage-a-trois. Albert Tucker and his wife, fellow artist Joy Hester, lived on the property in a tin shed that doubled as a jazz club while Arthur Boyd, the scion of an artistic dynasty, was a frequent visitor to the sometimes hothouse environment. Another member of the group was his close friend John Perceval, who married Arthur’s sister Mary Boyd. (Many years later Mary married Nolan.)

Arthur Boyd
Butterfly Man 1943
 56 x 76 cm, 
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

The sixth member of the inner-circle was Danila Vassilieff, a father figure and Russian emigre who was a generation older than the others. He was an artist with first-hand experience of the European art scene. His insistence on the importance of an artist’s visceral response and having a social mes­sage were particularly influential on the whole group, and Hester’s haunting ink drawings, which she dashed off very quickly, were in the spirit of this immediacy and an emotional rather than an intellectual responsiveness.

I am assuming that Gruber meant there were only six inner-circle members (Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Albert Tucker and Danila Vassilieff) in the Angry Penguins, not six members at Heide. There were certainly other artists who spent long periods living or working at Heide eg Yosl BergnerSam Atyeo and his wife Moya Dyring.

The public’s thirst for more information lies behind the decision to dedicate the Heide Cottage to a permanent exploration of all things Reed. Including the recent additions to the archives eg the papers of Joy Hester. Most of the exhibits are shown in display cases and on the walls. With its white sofa, portrait of Sunday and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with works of the period, only the library shows the group’s literary and publishing interests.

As I discussed in Angry Penguins in War Time, the name now attached to them originally referred to the radical journal of surrealist and modernist writing and art. It was founded in Adelaide University in 1940 by an 18-year-old poet Max Harris and friends. John Reed became the patron of Angry Penguins in 1942 and moved it to Melbourne where he became its co-editor. The periodical became a mouthpiece for the art and writing of the Heide circle, a forum to debate radical social and cultural ideas. Tucker con­tributed frequent articles on social issues and Nolan was put in charge of the cover and layout.

Angry Penguins magazine
Autumn 1944
Cover design by Sidney Nolan

Despite the common purpose of those behind the Angry Penguins journal, it’s not clear whether the Reeds and friends saw themselves as a coherent collective. Art historian Nancy Underhill argued that the six personalities at the heart of the Angry Penguins grouping only overlapped for a short period. So she believed that there was no Angry Penguins group; that only the magazine carried the name at the time and it was one of several literary magazines around the world with avant-garde content. The UK had the Bloomsburys in London; we had the Angry Penguins.

Haese however thought they were a proper group, with certain values and attitudes in common.” This included membership of the Contemporary Art Society. They also shared a passion for creating a uniquely Australian mythology from the bush and the city, one that embraced modernist ideas of colour and form: these included Nolan’s Ned Kelly series and Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series. They also pored over the international art journals that they believed came closest to the aims of the Angry Penguins. And although some of the group flirted with communism, the anarchist philosophy of English art historian Herbert Read was far more appealing to them.

Throughout this period, war was raging. Boyd and Perceval met in the army while Tucker was initially frantic in his attempts to avoid war service. He spent most of his time in the army at the Heidelberg Military Hospital drawing patients suffering from wounds and mental illnesses. Nolan deserted in 1944 when faced with the prospect of being sent to Papua New Guinea. All of the group were influenced by the war but each responded in different ways.

Despite being away from Heide, Nolan wrote daily to the Reeds by letter. He was also contrib­ut­ing cover art for the Angry Penguins journal. His most famous cover painting, Arabian Tree, illustrated a poem by a previously unknown but brilliant young poet called Ern Malley, to whom the 1944 edition of the magazine was dedicated. Harris had fallen for the great hoax and trumpeted the special edition with a letter to Herbert Read, in England, claiming the discovery of a major new voice in modernism. Others, including the Heide circle, suspected a hoax but thought the poems rather fine. [Two army intelligence officers in Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks had decided to lampoon what they saw as the pretentiousness of the surrealists and modernists].

Heide III Museum of Modern Art (top), built in 1993 and extended in 2005
Heide gardens (bottom)

Angry Penguins never fully recovered from the public ridicule and the journal folded in 1946, even though Harris (who was prosecuted for publishing obscene poems) and the Heide circle maintained their belief in the poetry’s worth. The Ern Malley affair was a boost for the conservative literary establishment and sent a chill through the modernist ranks.

Since then other significant groupings of artists, architects and writers at Heide have been inspired by the Reeds and their coll­eagues. And The Angry Penguins group retained their very attractive and dramatic reputation.

Richard Haese wrote Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art (Allen Lane 1981). The book’s title came from a 1962 Heide group exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Victoria 

Heide curators Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan published Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed (Miegunyah Press, 2015) to coincide with the Heide exhibition. Heide enjoyed more of a bohemian, experimental and sexually complex lifestyle than the authors had anticipated.


CAE Melbourne said...

Join a CAE course called Bittersweet Heide: The Reeds, The Artists, The Legacy in July 2016.

This famous creative hotspot was centred around a group of Australian patrons and artists living and working at “Heide”, purchased by John and Sunday Reed in 1934 and re-christened after nearby Heidelberg. Their vision, the artwork of colleagues and friends, plus their passionate inter-personal relationships have become the stuff of legends. Join Andrew Gaynor and explore the origins, the Reeds, their famous colleagues including Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, George and Mirka Mora, the notorious literary magazine Angry Penguins and the development of the Museum of Modern Art.

Andrew said...

I've not been inside the farmhouse and it will be interesting to see the interior. I was a little underwhelmed by the new house. I posted about our last visit at the time and I guess I was a little disappointed. Heidi could be so much more but as usual, I suppose it is about funds. As you may or may not recall, from 1982 to 1988 we lived next door to Albert Tucker's sister and his family life was terribly complicated and tragic in ways. I think your excellent researching would not be wasted on a separate post about the Ern Malley affair, if you have not already.

Hels said...


just at the right time for people who plan to visit the Making History: The Angry Penguins exhibition! The exhibition will be on display at the Heide Museum of Modern Art at the same time.

Hels said...


I had forgotten you had been to Heide and you wrote it up as far back as June 2007. But you are absolutely right... lots of complications and tragedies, and experiments that often went badly awry.

I think we moderns will understand the Heide world best from Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan's book Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed. There is no-one left alive from that decade, so the authors have been much more honest in 2016 than any of the old Heide books used to be.

CAE Student said...

We went to a summer wedding in the gardens at Heide. Very romantic. Good to see the CAE course.

Hels said...


I saw a film of a wedding held in the Heide gardens... it looked utterly serene. But here is my question. How do we know if John and Sunday Reed, and all their long term guests, planted up the garden themselves from 1934 onwards, or was it a relatively recent incarnation?

Here is what The Planthunter reported. Sunday Reed was an excellent gardener. They immediately planted three kitchen gardens, an orchard, thousands of exotic and later native trees, a wild garden, ornamental herbaceous borders, countless roses and a rockery. When her passionate and long affair with Sidney Nolan ended in Jan 1948 and he travelled to Queensland, she was desolate. When the Reeds returned to Heide in July 1949, Sunday began making the Heart Garden as a living memorial to the long and profound love she had shared with Nolan. She eventually abandoned it, letting their adopted son Sweeney pave over it in the early 1970s.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Another chapter in the salon/artist gathering place saga. I wonder to what extent this group was host-selected versus artist-selected. I'm sure the presumably cost-free living was an attraction, but the Reeds still had to have that spark that made sure that the right people gravitated towards them.

Hels said...


spot on, sir! I have done a lot of work on the salonieres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: The salonieres selected their guests, decided on the topics, mediated discussion, supported the work of the habitues, promoted new ideas, influenced the artists and arranged patronage etc etc. I am thinking of Mme Arman de Caillavet, Genevieve Bizet Straus, Gertrude Stein in France etc etc but there is good reason to include John and Sunday Reed in that mould.

The Reeds did the inviting, but there was one big difference. In Paris, the habitues turned up on one fixed night every week and then went home. At the Reeds, the habitues moved in and became part of the household. Naturally, then, the Heide Circle would become very well known for the complex personal and professional relationships within the group. I would have been exhausted!

Bronwyn Watson said...

Joy Hester, while sitting on the floor surrounded by people at Heide, would produce many drawings. They were highly personal and evocative of the intense psychological and emotional extremes of human relationships - love, despair, ecstasy and pain. She was particularly influenced by the German expressionists.

One of Joy Hester's eight known works in oil, Pauline McCarthy and her newborn son Loy 1947, is on permanent display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Hester's time staying with McCarthy was an "eye of the storm" period for Hester, so this work is particularly distinctive because it is a tranquil subject.

Bronwyn Watson
The Weekend Australian,
28-29th Jan 2017

Hels said...


that is such a tragic story. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease at 27, Joy Hester (1920–1960) left her husband and son (who was adopted by Sunday and John Reed), moved to Sydney to marry the artist Gray Smith, had two more children and died of cancer aged 40.

In Sydney next month I will see at least three of her drawings, made largely with ink and Chinese brushwork.

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