Ladybird's Flight: Rediscovering Hans Heysen

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Rediscovering Hans Heysen

The smell of pine and beeswax floats upon the air as he steps into the front entry of his grandparent’s home. The clinking of tea cups on saucers and voices from a robust discussion spills from the lounge room doorway. Upon entering the room his senses are further awakened by the smell of beautiful coffee and the sight of a table overflowing with home cakes and biscuits. The room is filled with visitors that have come especially to see grandfather and partake in grandmother’s afternoon tea. This image was created in my mind by Chris Heysen’s fond recollections about his grandfather Hans Heysen, his extended family and the family home, ‘The Cedars’ near Hahndorf, South Australia.

Appropriately it was a lovely autumn afternoon when more than 50 people gathered in a conference room at the National Library of Australia to partake in a discussion about the famous German born South Australian artist Hans Heysen and his daughter Nora Heysen.
Lou Klepac, Art Historian and Publisher, spoke passionately about the importance for the Australian public to recognise this long neglected artist. Heysen’s art has long been neglected due to modernism and the sale of his lesser art works at auctions as galleries and art collectors alike retain Heysen’s finest drawings and watercolour paintings. Some of those finest art works includes;
  • "Mystic Morn” 1904 Art Gallery of South Australia, winner of the 1904 Wynne Prize for Australian landscape, judged by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
  • “Red Gold” 1913 Art Gallery of South Australia
  • “The three gums” 1915-1920 Ballarat Fine Art Gallery
  • “Droving into the light” 1914-1921 Art Gallery of South Australia

Heysen is most famously known for his landscapes with the themes of trees, sheep, cows and the Flinders’ Ranges.  Klepac described Heysen as a “great draftsman” that had the ability to “add element after element into the landscape” creating a picture of nature. Klepac said that Heysen’s work showed “light, volume, space and air”.

The audience enjoyed a short film by Scott Hicks, husband of Kerry Heysen-Hicks that showcased the Heysen home through the eyes of Barry Humphries and David Dridan (student of Hans Heysen). Barry Humphries called Hans Heysen Australia’s “greatest landscape painter.” The long-time home (1912-1968) and studio of Heysen, ‘The  Cedars’ in the Onkaparinga Valley, is a place of pilgrimage for many who want to see his studio as it was when he painted, filled with his tools of the trade and “brushes that are 50 years old,” according to Dridan. The rooms in the house also contain the original furniture of the family home and display artworks by the family. The preservation and maintenance for this historic property are now the responsibility of the Hans Heysen Heritage Foundation.

Grandson, Chris Heysen, spoke further about the plan for the Hans Heysen Heritage Foundation to continue to preserve the heritage of this important part of Australian art history. That the Foundation seeks further donations to acquire land surrounding the homestead, to preserve “the largest stand of white gums in the Adelaide Hills” and to build an Art Centre to house a gallery to display the 200 plus Heysen art works and to include an interpretive facility.

The collection event was made possible through Nora Heysen’s Bequest, 2003, to the National Library of Australia (NLA). As part of this bequest the NLA is to promote the legacy of Nora’s father, Hans Heysen but one cannot do this without speaking about Nora Heysen, a talented artist in her own right. Nora was the first female artist to win the Archibald Prize in 1938.

Nora Heysen grew up at ‘The Cedars’ but moved away to live at her own home ‘The Chalet’ in Hunter’s Hill, New South Wales. Nat Williams, NLA Treasures Curator, outlined the types of objects held in the collection for both Hans and Nora Heysen. The collection includes;
  • Books
  • Manuscripts
  • 90 boxes of letters, including correspondence between Nora and both her parents
  • Painting and drawings
  • Photographs
  • Ephemera, including Hans Heysen’s paint box and pallet 
  • Newspaper articles some available via Trove 
  • and Sound recordings

Williams regaled us with a story from Nora that she would produce new self-portraits whenever she moved into “a new room, studio or home.” He also shared that in her interview after winning the Archibald Prize in 1938 Nora was asked “What are your 3 favourite dishes?” she responded with “Hungarian Goulash, Chilean Stuffed Green Peppers and Duck with Olive Sauce.” William’s implored the audience to visit the NLA website to listen to interviews recorded by both Nora and Hans Heysen (see the reference list below for a link to some of these).

I have to say that I am pleased that Nora championed her father Hans so vehemently and that she included this as part of her bequest to the NLA otherwise myself and other’s would have not discovered as much about the family as we did at this event. We too would have continued to remember Hans and Nora Heysen but maybe have neglected as other have before us.


Art Gallery New South Wales, Archibald Prize Winner for 1938, viewed 3 April 2017

Art Gallery of South Australia 2008, Hans Heysen Droving into the light, National Gallery of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

Art Gallery of South Australia 2008, Hans Heysen Mystic Morn, National Gallery of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

Art Gallery of South Australia 2008, Hans Heysen Red Gold, National Gallery of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

Art Gallery of South Australia 2008, Hans Heysen The three gums, National Gallery of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

Evans, S. 2016, Monet and MONA rolled into one as $14m Heysen supercharge accelerates, Australian Financial Review, viewed 3 April 2017,

Heysen, H. 1960, Hans Heysen interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording]. National Library of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

Heysen, N. 1965, Nora Heysen interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording], National Library of Australia, viewed 3 April 2017,

National Portrait Gallery 2017, Nora Heysen 'This peaceful spot', National Portrait Gallery, viewed 3 April 2017,

Opie, R 2016, Sir Hans Heysen's Adelaide Hills home The Cedars granted $3.5 million, News ABC, viewed 3 April 2017,

The Cedars, Heysen – The Cedars, The Cedars, viewed 3 April 2017,

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