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Living the dream at Bundanon

Keith Saunders, courtesy Bundanon Trust
Arthur Boyd’s studio, Bundanon

A visit to Bundanon on the south coast of New South Wales offers some encouragement that Arthur Boyd’s vision for a creative nation is about to be fully realised.

On the approach road to Bundanon a red -bellied black snake slithered across the road in front of the car. It may have meant something – or nothing. The relatively undisturbed bush setting of Bundanon and its companion property, Riversdale, is home to a lot of wildlife. This was one of the features that originally attracted Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, in the 1970s, to the Shoalhaven area, near Nowra. Today, Boyd’s landscape-based imagery and Bundanon are inseparable in the public imagination. You don’t have to look very hard around the property to understand why.

All of its prominent natural features, the enigmatic river, the old -growth forests, secret valleys and rock escarpments that feature in his work are there to be observed and experienced. So too are the material evidence and reminders of human occupancy and usage.

The mid-19th century sandstone homestead which became the Boyds’ home still looks out across old paddocks towards the river bend made famous through many paintings. To look across the river to the opposite bank with its serried tree trunks and reflected rocks is to engage with Boyd’s vision of this panorama as an unfolding musical score.

The latter-day curation of this building has translated it into a multifaceted site. The retention of original art works and furnishings enables visitors to get an authentic sense of what it must have been like to live there.

Added to this – discrete interventions coordinated by collections and exhibitions manager Jennifer Thompson, such as a spectacular showcase of Murrumbeena ceramic ware. One room acts as a gallery , which currently features Inheritance, an exhibition that celebrates Arthur Boyd’s seminal influences, showcasing the work of Arthur’s grandparents Arthur Merric (senior) and Emma Minnie Boyd, and his parents William Merric Boyd (Merric) and Doris Boyd. Weekend tours (and scheduled open days) of the homestead and Arthur’s studio give visitors intimate and informed access to the Bundanon story.

The studio, complete with the artist’s hat and paint -spattered shoes, has all the hallmarks of a creative journey dedicated to the studio’s lashings-of paint tradition. Nearby is the creative engine room and a realisation of the Boyd s’ vision, an Artists-In-Residence complex, which, complete with industrious wombats and curious kangaroos, offers pools of tranquillity for artists in all disciplines to bathe in – or , in the spirit of Boyd’s imagery, indulge in some narcissistic reflection.

The Arthur Boyd Gallery
KTA
The Arthur Boyd Gallery

Acting on the principle that “the only way to keep something is to give it away”, the Boyds negotiated with the (then Keating) government to gift the two linked properties (1993), along with a large collection of the artist’s work, to the nation. Significantly , the government agreed to Boyd’s proposal to develop the property not only in terms of its natural heritage but also as a base for research and work by artists and for the education of young people.

The Bundanon Trust was established to carry out this mission. Enter Riversdale. Driving into this property provides a totally different experience to the narrow, winding road through thick bushland that leads to Bundanon. The counterpoint to the original homestead and out -buildings is the Boyd Education Centre, designed by Pritzker Prize–winner Glenn Murcutt in association with Wendy Lewin and Reg Lark. With a forecourt offering a commanding view of the river and residential accommodation facilities, this complex comprises an inspiring setting for all manner of younger Australians and others to experience how the arts can enrich their lives.

Big plans are afoot. A recent $22 million federal government grant, in addition to over $8 million from the NSW government , will translate into a design project for the Riversdale site, designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects. A feature of this development (scheduled to open by the end of 2021) will be a contemporary art gallery and storage component, submerged into the landscape. It will house the Bundanon Trust ‘s extensive art collection including 1300 works by Arthur Boyd. Bundanon Trust CEO Deborah Ely says, “This funding will see Arthur Boyd’s vision for Bundanon finally realised […] The Trust will at last be able to showcase its unique collection on the site where much of it was created.” And the big bonus is that Riversdale, for the first time, will be opened to the public throughout the week.

New South Welsh folk may like to think that Bundanon is theirs, but this extraordinary site has “destination icon” written all over it and all Australians should commit to making the pilgrimage.

Back to the snake. It reappeared again, following a clamber up a bush track to a hilltop overlooking the Bundanon homestead and artist studios. There it was – the Shoalhaven – winding just like that snake on the road, or that serpentine river in some of Arthur’s paintings.

In moments like these, standing on a flat rock where the artist spread canvases to work en plein air, or encountering fallen trees on the hillside, their limbs smashed into the ground resembling one of Boyd’s demented Nebuchadnezzars, clawing at the ground, or seeing fish leap into the air down on the river as if auditioning for Boyd’s iconic painting The magic fish – in those moments this thing called “Boyd’s vision” , and its pact with a special Australian landscape, is tangible.

Bundanon Trust

John Neylon

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John Neylon is an award-winning art critic and the author of several books on South Australian artists including Hans Heysen: Into The Light (2004), Aldo Iacobelli: I love painting (2006), and Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye (2007).

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