Rich pickings

There's real treasure to be found in the galleries of the goldfields, writes Sam Vincent.

It's a pilgrimage of sorts, this journey through Victoria's goldfields. In 1857, my great-great-grandfather, a French-Swiss scallywag and fortune seeker after whom I am named, arrived in Bendigo and dived into the goldfields' social scene, intimately acquainting himself with its pubs, casinos and - according to family legend - its Chinese opium dens. He didn't find any gold but he sure found a good time.

Arriving in Bendigo 154 years later, I'm heartened to find the city's cultural life intact, albeit in a more sophisticated form. It's Thursday night and, in the basement of the grand old Shamrock Hotel, champagne flutes clink to celebrate the opening of the new Gold Dust music bar, while around the corner on High Street, a talented young chef, Travis Rodwell, is busy preparing hearty French provincial fare to a full house in his bistro, Bouchon.

Walking back to my hotel after his particularly memorable baked hazelnut clafoutis, I notice the lights of the Bendigo Gallery are still on at 11 o'clock; staff must be working overtime to prepare for another blockbuster exhibition.

The goldfields region has long been a juicy carcass for culture vultures drawn by its unpretentious gourmet food scene, imposing architecture and high-end accommodation built at a time when mining wealth funded a level of decadence previously unseen in the Australian colonies.

But arguably the goldfields' greatest cultural attraction is its art galleries, which rank among regional Australia's finest. Born of gold wealth and Victorian-era civic pride, the public galleries of Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine contain all the heavyweights of 19th-century Australian painting, plus many works by contemporary stars in various media acquired by a series of canny directors in the 1970s and '80s.

To this add a string of exclusive touring exhibitions, the establishment of several contemporary art spaces and an influx of artistic migrants from Melbourne and it's little wonder the goldfields' fine-arts scene is thriving.

My hedonistic ancestor had moved on from Bendigo by the time the city's public gallery opened in 1887 but it is here I start my journey, watched over by a scowling Queen Victoria in nearby Rosalind Park.

The gallery's senior curator, Tansy Curtin, is late and a little frantic when she greets me, understandable given the gallery's upcoming program. It announced itself as one of the country's most forward-thinking regional galleries in 2009 with The Golden Age of Couture, a fashion exhibition on loan from London's Victoria and Albert Museum that drew 75,000 visitors and contributed $9.2 million to Bendigo's economy. In August, the design theme continues with The White Wedding Dress: Two Hundred Years of Wedding Fashions, another V&A loan featuring garments by designers Charles Frederick Worth, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and Christian Lacroix.

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Then the big one arrives next March, Grace Kelly: Style Icon, a collaboration between the V&A and Monaco's Grimaldi Forum that will show more than 100 of the dresses, hats and accessories worn by Kelly during her acting career and 26-year reign as Princess of Monaco. Both are Australian exclusives.

As we tour the gallery's strong modern art collection, including The Young Family by Patricia Piccinini, a disturbingly real sculpture of an unreal creature being suckled by its litter (something between a breast-feeding human mother and an overworked bitch), Curtin explains the gallery's impressive pulling power. "We are a regional gallery in that we are in regional Australia but our collection and reputation is closer to a state gallery," she says. "Our director takes risks bringing out big overseas exhibitions and thankfully those risks are paying off." There is also the small matter of regional rivalry. "Ballarat [gallery] has been doing some good things recently," Curtin says, "so we need to keep striving to outdo them. It's under control though; we know we're better!"

A cold wind whips up and by the time I arrive in Ballarat, the Eureka flag is flapping madly atop every public building. The only armed rebellion in the history of this supposedly rebellious nation happened here and the city is proud of it. The original flag used by the stockading miners in 1854 is usually kept in a darkened room at the Art Gallery of Ballarat but it's in Adelaide for restoration when I visit. I hardly notice its absence.

Dating from 1887, the gallery's collection is regional Australia's oldest and largest, containing several iconic 19th- and 20th-century Australian paintings including Russell Drysdale's ethereal A Football Game, Eugene von Guerard's Old Ballarat as It Was in the Summer of 1853-4 and Wood Splitters by Tom Roberts, a Heidelberg School masterpiece of scrubby gums, tough bushies and misty winter light. Stolen from the gallery in 1978, it was tracked down in Sydney the following year and returned only after a ransom was paid.

This legacy of early Australian painting made the Art Gallery of Ballarat an obvious choice to temporarily house much of the Art Gallery of NSW's 20th-century Australian collection when that gallery undergoes renovations from October. And after its own $7 million expansion in 2001 and last year's $1.85 million exterior restoration, the Art Gallery of Ballarat is in its best shape ever.

But Ballarat's arts scene does not just belong in the past. Under the auspices of a creative-minded city council, the contemporary scene is thriving. The University of Ballarat's burgeoning fine arts school, for example, has appropriated the city's most stately building, the former council chambers. When I walk past I'm confronted by an installation depicting giant Lego men abseiling down the building's tower.

Space 22 is the pick of a handful of contemporary galleries and art spaces cropping up around town. Artist-run, its dual aims are to promote the works of new artists and build networks among the region's artistic community. When I visit, Scottish-born painter Lars Stenberg's luminous miniatures of Ballarat's back lanes are on display. They are prosaic, often figure-less scenes - "the things you see when you walk the dog," Stenberg says - but for him, that's where Ballarat's soul is found. "I'm not interested in painting heritage architecture," he says. "I'm interested in painting rusting Holdens and kids kicking the footy."

If Ballarat and Bendigo are defined largely by their parochial rivalry, Castlemaine is proudly its own town. I'm struck by its understated air of sophistication and dedication to a contemporary, community-backed arts scene, which, like the town itself, is thriving.

The Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, an austere neo-classical affair, is a case in point. Unlike Ballarat and Bendigo's public galleries, which have received generous state and local government patronage, Castlemaine's has relied almost exclusively on private support. The result is a collection heavy with famous names (Streeton, Roberts, McCubbin, Leason) and works intimately connected to the community, including a remarkable 1855 tapestry chronicling the migration of the Duckett family to the district (think Bayeux with bonnets).

Up the road at Lot 19, the town's premier contemporary art space, community involvement in the arts has taken a tangible form: a series of zany, volunteer-built buildings using recycled materials. This collection of stages and galleries hosts plays, shows and artists at work.

In the Public Inn, a recently opened gastropub, I lunch with Martin Paten, the director of the Castlemaine State Festival, a biennial arts celebration that is among Australia's biggest.

"The thing about Castlemaine," Paten says as we tuck in to smoked-eel risotto, "is that it's essentially a working-class town. But because artists have long come here in search of inspiration from our raw, edgy spaces, the community has become supportive of the arts and as a consequence is comfortable with independent thought."

Such support extended to 800 artists who took part in this year's festival. It's certainly a long way from the days when my great-great grandfather roamed the goldfields, a time, Paten says, when popular cultural activities in Castlemaine included rat-catching competitions and bareback-horse races down the main street.

I'm reminded again of my ancestor when I'm buzzing from a super-sweet raspberry frangipane tart. Not quite the strength of opium but a nice high all the same.

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Goldfields Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Drive from Melbourne to Bendigo (2hr), Ballarat (90min) and Castlemaine (90min). Alternatively, all three centres are served by regular V/Line rail services; phone 13 61 96, see vline.com.au.

Staying there

In Bendigo, Fountain View Suites is the city's newest boutique accommodation, with modern rooms in an 1863 building costing from $160; 10-12 View Street; phone (03) 5441 7003; see fountainview.com.au.

Built in 1853, Craig's Royal Hotel in Ballarat is the kind of place you would spend your first night after striking it lucky on the goldfields, with sumptuous suites decorated with Chinese antiques, thick floral carpets and a spiral staircase. Fully renovated in 1999, Craig's heritage charm is now complemented by all the modern amenities. Doubles cost from $200 including breakfast; 10 Lydiard Street South; phone (03) 5331 1377; see craigsroyal.com.au.

Viewing there

The White Wedding Dress exhibition runs from August 1 to November 6 at Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street; open daily 10am-5pm; phone (03) 5434 6088; see bendigoartgallery.com.au.

The next major Art Gallery of Ballarat exhibition, Australian Landscapes, opens today and runs until June 13. It's a collection by notable colonial artist Eugene von Guerard. The gallery is open daily 9am-5pm, 40 Lydiard Street North; phone (03) 5320 5858; see artgalleryofballarat.com.au.

Space 22, 22 Main Road, Ballarat, open Thu-Sun noon-5pm; see space22ballarat.wordpress.com.

Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, 14 Lyttleton Street; open Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm; Sat and Sun, 12-5pm; phone (03) 5472 2292; see castlemainegallery.com.

Lot 19, 19 Langslow Street, Castlemaine. Opening hours vary; phone 0427 724 149; lot19art.com.

For more information, see visitgoldfields.com.au.

Eating there

Simple, rustic concoctions are the prevailing theme at Bouchon, Bendigo's favourite new eatery; 61 High Street; phone (03) 5444 5272; see bouchonbendigo.com.au.

Ballarat's Lydiard Wine Bar has a wide range of local tipples and an original dinner menu; 15 Lydiard Street North; see heritageonlydiard.com.au/bar.

Book well ahead at the smart and popular Public Inn; 165 Barker Street, Castlemaine; phone (03) 5472 3568; see publicinn.com.au.

Fine art meets fine food at The Redesdale, a gastropub 30 minutes from Bendigo, whose walls are adorned with paintings by Luigi Saraceno; 2640 Kyneton-Heathcote Road, Redesdale; phone (03) 5425 3111; see theredesdale.com.au.

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