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Hill End painters – Donald Friend, Russell Drysdale, John Olsen & Margaret Olley and their legacy

Picture of Donald Friend

Russell Drysdale, Picture of Donald Friend, 1948. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Hill End, a gold-rush town, 85km north of Bathurst in central New South Wales (NSW) is a sacred site in both NSW and also Australian art history.  It has been the inspiration and home to three generations of Australian artists and this has cemented its history within Australian modernism.

Since Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale first laid eyes on the old gold-mining towns of Hill End, Sofala and the surrounding areas in 1947, many of Australia's most famous post-war artists from New South Wales have lived, visited and worked there.  These artists include: John Olsen, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart and Brett Whitely – who have created a continuity of artistic practice across a range of media which is unique in Australian art history.

Hill End confronted the artists as a rich historic landscape left both ruinous and also intact after the gold rush of the 1870s, beautiful and scarred, silent, yet peopled by characters of perseverance.

Hill End and Sofala – 'The mailman's time machine'

Clarke St., Hill End, looking south-west from near the present Royal Hotel, as it appeared in the spring of 1872

Henry Beaufoy Merlin, Clarke St Hill End, 1872, NEG18629. Holtermann Collection courtesy of Keast Burke.

In 1872, Hill End was the largest inland settlement in NSW with a township of over 10,000 people boasting 28 hotels, an opium den and an oyster bar.  The mining ventures were distinguished by the unearthing of the largest specimen of gold and this made Hill End world famous.  A large multicultural population of Irish, German, English, Welsh, Cornish, Greek, Chinese, American and South Sea Island adventurers transformed the landscape and the provisional nature of the settlement.  Yet, within a few years, all this would end.  By the 1940s, there was one pub left in Hill End – the Royal Hotel.

In August 1947, Donald Friend was inspired by an article describing the townships of Hill End and Sofala as remote, half-forgotten areas with a beauty rarely seen equalled anywhere (Sydney Morning Herald 6/8/47).  Looking for a quiet place to paint, Friend persuaded Russell Drysdale to use his new Riley Tourer motor vehicle to drive them both to Sofala.  On arrival, Friend described Sofala as a 'lovely crazy old village – perfect'.

Friend and Drysdale – Contrasting works and apocryphal romantic tales

Friend's and Drysdale's first works of Sofala's main street, begun immediately upon their arrival, were startlingly different.  Drysdale's work was completed in an unusual outburst of frenetic painting and reflected on the themes of loss and abandonment.  Friend's more careful work, in gouache, was lively in contrast.  At the end of the first day, Friend and Drysdale drove a further 35km of dirt road to Hill End.

The village of Hill End conveyed the clear passage of time: of boom, bust and abandonment along with signs of renewal. The total environment reflected time passing. The casual desolation amidst the relics of past mining activities was in stark contrast to the ... great gold rush of the 1870's.
(Gavin Wilson, Hill End essay)

Donald Friend

In September 1947, Friend in partnership with Donald Murray purchased a wattle and daub cottage with 4 rooms on an acre of land, suitable for a garden and only a short walk from the Royal Hotel and the General Store.

Friend's most significant work of this time was The Apocalypse of St John the Divine. Upon exhibition in 1949, the mining landscape of Hill End was depicted as the destruction of Babylon in contrast to the rise of the Jerusalem.

Donald Friend's 'The Apocalypse of St John the Divine' is a prophetic vision of the end of the world and the coming of the glorious NEW millennium – it is the finest work of its kind in my opinion to have been done in this country. (Harry Tatlock Miller, Sun, 3 March 1949)

Russell Drysdale

The cricketers

Russell Drysdale, The Cricketers, 1948. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Sofala and Hill End provided Russell Drysdale with inspiration for his most important paintings of the late 1940s.  Based upon his sketches and photographs of historic landscapes were stark imaginings of people struggling to gain supremacy within the environment.  In paintings such as Sofala , The Cricketers , Picture of Donald Friend and Woman in a Landscape, Drysdale produced memorable images of rural and outback Australia that combined the ordinary with the heroic.  As Robert Hughes later observed:

Drysdale and Nolan, working independently in Sydney and Melbourne between 1940 and 1947, made it possible for Australian painters to react freshly to their environment by showing them new relationships with it. They pulled Australian landscape from the limbo of fleece and gumtree in which it had lain stiffening for thirty years.

The Cricketers is perhaps Drysdale's most famous painting, and one of the most frequently reproduced images in twentieth-century Australian art.  The subject of three figures set amid the stark walls of buildings in a deserted town, bathed in unnatural light, is a haunting and extremely original interpretation of a familiar sporting theme.  The Cricketers (1948) was a commissioned work from an English publisher seeking to complement his collection of British Sports and Pastimes.  Drysdale's information painting of two boys playing cricket against a building wall in Hill End was initially found to be shocking but was later revered.

By the end of the 1940s Drysdale was acknowledged as one of the most significant artists working in Australia.   Sofala was awarded the 1947 Wynne Prize for landscape painting, and in 1949 Woman in a Landscape received the Melrose Memorial Prize.

The Hill End art legacy

Artists from Sydney were curious to see for themselves the landscape that absorbed and inspired Friend's and Drysdale's creative energies.  Among the friends to visit were artists Margaret Olley, David Strachan, Fred Jessup and Jeffrey Smart as well as Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger, who also later purchased a cottage in the village.  In turn, all these artists came to be inspired by the remnant structures, landscape and historical tales embedded in them and went on to create significant works.

By 1957, the Hill End groups was breaking up.  The artist Jean Bellette and her husband Paul Haefliger left for Majorca in the late 1950s although they maintained their Hill End cottage for visits.  Russell Drysdale left for London in 1958 to prepare work for a major exhibition.  Donald Friend sailed for Sri Lanka, staying there until 1961 and his friend Donald Murray continued to live in the cottage until his death in 1988.

The Open Door

Rosemary Valadon, The Open Door (detail) 2004. Image courtesy of Bathurst Regional Council.

Paul Haefliger and Jean Bellette

Jean Bellette bequeathed the Hill End cottage that she shared with her husband Paul Haefliger on condition that the cottage remain an artist's retreat.  The Haefligers' cottage is largely unaltered with works of art, books and furnishings that echo the presence of the artists who have lived and worked there since the early 1950s.

Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley (1923-) and Donald Friend were life long friends and were among the earliest artists to paint in the Hill End area.  Their forty-year friendship was epitomised by artistic excursions despite the fact that they explored different genres – 'Friend fascinated with the figure and satire in contrast to Olley who has pursued a lifelong commitment to still life'.

Jeffrey Smart

Walleroo

Jeffrey Smart, Walleroo, 1951.

Jeffrey Smart (1921–), is an expatriate Australian painter, who is known for his modernist depictions of urban landscapes as well as his almost iconic and unique imagery.  Smart's paintings are notorious for encompassing lonely urban vistas that seem both disturbing and threatening.  'Isolated individuals seem lost in industrial wastelands, full of high rise construction, concrete streetscapes and an eerie feeling of harmony and equilibrium – where silence and stillness create a deathly ambience'.

John Olsen

John Olsen moved into the Haefligers' Cottage for several months in the early 1960s.  He had just returned from Spain (where Bellette and Haefliger had moved), and wanted to stay out of Sydney for a while.  His work inspired others, like John Firth-Smith, to explore the region.

Brett Whiteley

Sofala

Brett Whitely, Sofala, 1956. Courtesy of Brett Whitely Studio. Held

Brett Whiteley started drawing very early in life and in 1960 he won a travelling scholarship from the Italian government, and moved to London.  One of the works he submitted to win the scholarship was Sofala.  Brett Whiteley also investigated the elements of environment destruction and erosion – depicting the rounded red and ochre landforms and the village streetscape with the Royal Hotel in a central position.

Brett Whiteley would often travel to Sofala and Hill End together with artist/friend Michael Johnson.  They would camp in sheds and spend hours exploring the 'fantastic forms' along Golden Gully.  Whiteley continued visiting from time to time over the years.

A historical site – a landscape for the imagination

In 1967 the village was declared a historic site based on the significance of the artists who had worked there as well as the history that was being commemorated.

Drysdale, Friend and Murray had articulated a vision which commemorated the men and women of the bush, the shearers, rural workers, and other characters of Hill End that persevered in a relentless landscape.  The Hill End painters also had encouraged the recognition of the intact beauty of Hill End and Sofala – one of the few surviving gold rush towns with much of its landscapes and original buildings intact.

The artists of Hill End brought this historic heritage to national attention 'sealing its image within Australian modernism' (Amanda Lawson).

Hill End Artists-in-Residence Program

In 1995 the Art Gallery of NSW established the Hill End Artists-in-Residence Program at the Haefligers' cottage in conjunction with the Artists of Hill End exhibition.  Bathurst Regional Gallery also negotiated a lease for the Donald Friend cottage, known as Murray's Cottage, that enables artists to live and work in the historic landscape.  It is now seen as almost as a rite of passage in NSW for artists to live and work in Hill End.

Since 1995 over 30 artists working in various media have participated in the program: Richard Goodwin, Wendy Sharpe, Peter Wright, Toni Spence, Stephanie Sheppard, Colin Lanceley, and Luke Sciberras.  For Zoe MacDonnell, a brief stay in such a powerful place transformed her practice as a young textile designer.

Hill End remains a landscape for the imagination, speculative and open ended.  The scarred earth and scattered houses, the silent ruins, the leaden skies and the resilient locals remain a part of the compelling ingredients that continue to make Hill End such an intriguing location for the creative spirit.

Useful links

Hill End painters

Last updated: 2nd May 2008

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