Warrandyte is famous as an artistic destination. It began during the latter years of the 19th century when Australian landscape painters sought out areas close to Melbourne in which to paint the Australian bush. Places such as Heidelberg and Box Hill became popular, though as the railway made those areas more accessible and developed, artists were forced to seek out other unspoilt places, like Warrandyte, which offered a variety of landscapes to paint, yet were relatively close to Melbourne.
In 1905, when notable landscape artist Clara Southern married Warrandyte miner, John Flinn, and settled in her cottage ‘Blythe Bank’ on the hill above the river, it signalled the beginnings of a new artistic era for the town. During her early Warrandyte years Clara Southern is considered to have painted her best landscapes, reflecting her love of the bushland, the serene river scenery, the picturesque village, tranquil dawns and dusky twilights. By 1907 she was being lauded as the most prominent female landscape artist in Melbourne. Her influence went beyond just paintings, however. As a miner’s wife she was accepted by the working class Warrandyte community, and by encouraging other painters to visit, paint and perhaps settle in the area she initiated an artistic community. The attraction of cheap land combined with the natural beauty of the area, may also have been a motivation.
Artist friend, Jo Sweatman, bought land and built her house ‘The Kipsy’ next door to Southern. Noted for the charm of her local landscapes she, like Clara, also played an active role in the community and was well known about the town. Frank Crozier who is remembered for his work as an official war artist experienced in warfare and fighting both at Gallipoli and in France, lived close to the Selby guest house on Till’s Drive. Penleigh Boyd, who had gained international recognition for his paintings of wattle in bloom, built his house ‘The Robins’ in Kangaroo Ground Road. Boyd had shared a 1909 exhibition with Frank Crozier and after travelling to Europe and marrying he returned to Australia in 1913. With his painting career flourishing, he and his wife bought land in Kangaroo Ground Road, North Warrandyte. Here Penleigh designed and built a single storey cottage house with a large attic and many picturesque features. He also built a wattle and daub studio though this was eventually destroyed by a later bushfire. He served overseas in WWI before being invalided out in 1917. His loss through a car accident in 1923 was deeply felt both in Australia and overseas.
After his return from the Western Front in WWI in 1919, Adrian Lawlor, a somewhat controversial figure in artistic circles, moved with his wife to ‘Broom Warren’, his cottage on the hill close to Southern’s house. He lost both this cottage and his later ‘International style’, house to bushfires.
Once these recognised artists settled in the area, others soon followed. In the first decades of the twentieth century those who lived and worked in Warrandyte included Nutter Buzacott, Harry Hudson, Ernest Buckmaster, Danila Vassilieff and James Wigley. Many other artists, Walter Withers, John Perceval, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd amongst them would visit and paint.
A later art circle in the late 1930s formed around local art patron Connie Smith and provided artists such as Danila Vassilieff with support and encouragement and led to an artistic movement considered similar to that of John and Sunday Reed at Heide or Justus Jorgensen at Montsalvat. Danila Vassilieff was a Russian self taught artist and pioneer of expressionist painting in Australia. He came to Warrandyte in 1939 to be the foundation art teacher at Koornong, the experimental school established by Clive and Janet Nield. After purchasing land near the creek at Koornong he started work on his own house ‘Stonygrad’ – his place of stone. It was considered revolutionary at the time because it was built from materials found on the site, rocks quarried from the hillside and whole tree trunks from trees cut on the property. However ‘Stonygrad’ became a focus for younger ‘modern’ artists such as Albert Tucker and John Perceval. He painted a controversial four-part screen for Connie Smith which had great influence on Arthur Boyd and John Perceval.
This local art scene did not just consist of painters – architects, educationalists and potters were also included. The Nields were strong supporters and patrons. Viennese architect Fritz Janeba had worked on the design of the Koornong School and initially rented Penleigh Boyd’s studio before designing and building a house for himself and potter wife Kathe who taught at the Koornong School. Both Janebas became part of the local art scene and this appears to have influenced his later work which combined modern elements with local vernacular. Locally Janeba undertook a number of commissions including houses for local artists James Wigley and Nutter Buzzacott, a fire station and a new Infant Welfare Centre. Alexa Goyder was a self taught architect/builder and a major proponent in what became known as ‘Warrandyte style’. Her stone based houses are now recognised for their valuable contribution to Warrandyte’s architectural history. They displayed her innovative approach to building, design and construction and use of local stone and recycled materials. This style inspired many later builders and architects such as Myrtle Houston in the 1940s and Alastair Knox in the 1970s illustrating how her influence extended well beyond the boundaries of the Warrandyte Township.
Warrandyte’s pottery tradition also had its beginnings in the artist community, fostered by art patron Connie Smith. She is credited with initiating the exhibiting of pottery in Warrandyte, holding an exhibition in her studio home before she left Warrandyte in the late 1940s when potter Reg Preston acquired the property. Kathe (Kate) Janeba was a trained ceramic artist and a notable potter producing refined, delicate yet functional earthenware pieces with pure clear colour and satin glazes. Alexa Goyder was also an early proponent of Warrandyte pottery having bought a pottery kiln and proceeding to produce plates, ash trays, figurines, spoons, mustard pots and chess sets.
The artists were an accepted part of the Warrandyte community, participating in community activities, fund raising and other social events. Penleigh Boyd was a foundation member of the Warrandyte Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League (now RSL), producing plans for a soldier’s memorial hall. There was much overlap between the various artists, their social circle, their homes and lives. For some of them the place itself provided direct inspiration, for others it supplied a quiet bush environment, a comfortable living and a community which offers encouragement and support.