Hans Heysen's home, Hahndorf, South Australia: Our first celebrity artist

It's easy to forget how famous German-born Sir Hans Heysen OBE - Australia's first celebrity artist - was in his prime. Tucked away with his aristocratic wife, Sallie, and their eight children, they lived at the Cedars, now a heritage-listed Arts and Craft home in the Adelaide Hills - a comfortable walk from then-rural Hahndorf.

Today, Hahndorf is recognised as the nation's oldest surviving Germanic town, attracting a million tourists a year. Of those, only 10,000 per annum call in to see Heysen House. "That's  30 per day," says curator Allan Campbell. Yet the Cedars was once an epicentre of emerging Australian culture.

"This is the children's music room," Campbell explains when we reach the main house midway though the guided tour. "Heysen's daughters played that piano," Campbell explains, pointing beyond the theatrical-style curtains to the instrument on the shallow stage. 

Some of the 20th century's greatest entertainers also performed here.

"Dame Nellie Melba was an early patron of Heysen's work," Campbell says. "She was one of the first to acknowledge Nora's artistic potential."

Nora Heysen - our first female war artist and the first woman to win Sydney's prestigious Archibald Prize - remains one of Australia's greatest artists, although she felt she'd lived in her father's immense shadow.

"Dame Nellie gave Nora her first palette when she was a teenager and its still here in her studio," Campbell says.

Melba often sang on this stage, usually staying in South Australia's Government House (commandeering the Governor's Rolls-Royce for the day).

"Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh also performed a Shakespeare scene," Campbell continues.

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Who else? "Well, Anna Pavlova, obviously." The legendary Russian ballerina danced on this tiny stage in the 1920s. After her performance, Pavlova asked Heysen to sell her the still life of fruit and flowers that still hangs at the back of the music room, writing out a blank cheque. He refused, saying he had painted it for Sallie.

Much has happened to the Cedars and much more is about to happen.

In 2017, Heysen's heirs - who struggled to keep the property maintained and his legacy alive - formed a charitable foundation to keep the house in decent repair (you should see what possums have done to the wallpaper).

Now there are plans to build a $15 million gallery (containing works by father and daughter as well as contemporary exhibitions). 

The gardens, planted by Heysen - with vegetables to feed the family and flowers to provide both himself and Nora with subjects for their still life paintings - are being restored. The gum tree trail of Heysen's favourite painting spots are being made more tourist-friendly. 

And his ancient Ford - which Heysen, who never learned to drive, took for repeated trips along the perilous dirt track road to the Flinders Range - is still in working order, ready to undertake its next artistic odyssey.

Next year (2019) Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria will host the country's first major exhibition of their combined works - many borrowed from Heysen House.

"Nora was always reluctant to have her work celebrated here," Campbell says. "She felt it was her father's creation. But I told her before she died (in 2003) that increasingly visitors were coming to see her work."

Finally Nora agreed, which allowed the family to open the separate studio in the former stables where she painted once she'd outgrown working alongside her father.

Hans's studio remains (arguably) the greatest non-Indigenous working art space we have in Australia. Built in 1912, it's the oldest artist's studio open to the public in the country and is left just as it was when he died in 1968 - 50 years ago.

The smaller of his two giant easels contains a signature painting of a gum tree he was working on when it was felled. (Heysen "was the original greenie", says Campbell. "He'd pay farmers the same price to keep gum trees standing as they could get for timber.")

The Persian carpet remains unsplattered: after a meagre childhood, Heysen knew not to waste paint. 

His bottles of turpentine, rolled and unused canvases imported from England and his display of recent works in a custom-made cabinet to be shown to special visitors?

"He could walk into the studio, pick up his brush and start painting again today," says Campbell.

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TOUR

The Cedars is open from Tuesday to Sunday and on public holiday Mondays. Visitors can tour the studios of Hans and Nora Heysen at any time in open hours without a guide. The house may only be visited as part of a guided tour. Self guided tours cost $10 and a full tour $15, children under 14 free.

See hansheysen.com.au

Steve Meacham was a guest of South Australian Tourism Commission.

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