It’s not just wine, food and landscapes. The visual arts scene in the New South Wales Central West region is booming, reports Academy Travel lecturer and tour leader Robert Veel.
Over the Blue Mountains from Sydney lies the Central West region of New South Wales. It’s an area with a rich history – home to the Wiradjuri nation and site of the first European excursions beyond the Sydney basin, it became one of Australia’s richest agricultural regions and was transformed by the Gold Rush of the 1850s-1870s. More recently the wine-growing and fine food of cities like Mudgee and Orange has added a layer of appeal for cultural travellers, looking to sample the fine scenery and gentler pace of life without forgoing the creature comforts of big cities.
Less well appreciated, however, is the booming visual arts scene in the region. The very qualities that attract short-term visitors from large cities also appeal to an ever-increasing circle of artists, among then some of Australia’s leading names. The visual arts scene revolves around an expanding network of regional galleries with a changing roster of temporary exhibitions and substantial permanent collections to enjoy.
The artistic heritage of the region stretches back further than you might think. In the 1870s German immigrant Bernardt Holtermann, who had quite literally struck gold with the unearthing of the legendary ‘Holtermann nugget’, commissioned a series of 3,500 photographic images of the goldfields. Photography was a brand-new technology at the time and the sheer size of the Holtermann Collection, as it became known, is an unparalleled visual record of the times, recognised by a UNESCO listing. The Collection is displayed in a museum in the goldrush town of Gulgong, located in historic buildings which feature in Holtermann’s images. Gulgong was also the stamping ground of one of the most significant figures in Australian literature, Henry Lawson. Along with his equally-inspiring mother Louisa, Henry Lawson’s achievements are celebrated at Gulgong’s charming Henry Lawson Centre.
South of Mudgee, surrounded by dramatic countryside, is the village of Hill End, once home to more than 20,000 fortune hunters from around the globe at the height of the Gold Rush. Two key figures in Australian painting, Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale discovered Hill End on a road trip from Sydney in 1947 and the village, by then practically a ghost town, soon became a mecca for some of the biggest names in Australian art. First to come were Margaret Olley and Jeffrey Smart, and the ‘Hill End School’ of Australian art was born. Brett Whiteley, who spent part of his school years at the Scot’s School in Bathurst, returned repeatedly over three decades and created many arresting images of the landscape.
Thanks to Friend and Russell’s pioneering work, Hill End remains a centre of artistic activity, with dozens of artists either living permanently there or owning studios. Among them is well-known landscape painter Luke Sciberras and Rosemary Valadon, creator of exquisite still life works. In a studio perched high above the nearby town of Sofala (made famous by Russell Drysdale’s 1947 Wynne Prize winning painting) Amanda Penrose-Hart uses the dramatic landscape as inspiration for her work, while sculptor Harrie Fasher has been given access to the former cement works at Portland for her foundry, workshop and studio.
For decades Bathurst Regional Gallery has been the hub of the public gallery scene. The gallery’s extensive holdings include hundreds of works from the Hill End School from Drysdale onwards, and the gallery manages two historic cottages at Hill End which are used for an artist-in-residence program. Under the inspired leadership of gallery director Sarah Gurich, the Bathurst Gallery’s temporary exhibitions have included the knock-out Brett Whiteley exhibition ‘Drawing is everything’ which an Academy Travel group was lucky enough to see on a private visit in December 2021.
While the rest of the world was dealing with Covid-19, the Central West was forging ahead with its public galleries. In November 2021, the Mudgee Arts Precinct opened with an exhibition by Guido Maestri, who grew up in the town. The beautiful gallery space is located at the terminus of the Mudgee Sculpture Walk, whose pieces derive from the annual ‘Sculpture in the Gardens’ exhibition, regional New South Wales’ largest outdoor sculpture exhibition, now in its 12th year.
And in December 2021 the Orange Regional Gallery re-opened after a major refurbishment, and is today one of the largest public galleries in the state outside of Sydney. Like the Bathurst Gallery, the Orange Gallery has always been forward-looking in its curatorial policy, blowing out of the water any notion that regional galleries are provincial, conservative places. Exhibitions include international and nationally-recognised artists, including exceptional Wiradjuri artists such as Karla Dickens, who headlined the Orange Gallery’s reopening shows.
Artistic heritage, practising artists, public galleries and private studios – if you love the arts, there’s much to enjoy west of the Blue Mountains.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.