Hahndorf was founded in 1839 by a group of German Lutherans who were attempting to escape religious persecution. Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement is a little piece of Silesia, Prussia and Germany in the Adelaide Hills.
One of the families who arrived in South Australia was the Heysen family. Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen was born in Hamburg in 1877 and with the rest of his family joined his father in 1884. Economic conditions in the 1880s were not good and Heysen’s thoughts of becoming established before his family arrived did not eventuate, necessitating many moves. During school holidays, young Hans visited friends in Hahndorf. So began his love affair with drawing and painting the rural landscape.
Hans’ first job enabled him to buy brushes and paint. He went to art school in his spare time and in 1897 Scottish-born pastoralist and philanthropist, Robert Barr Smith, paid for a year’s tuition at the School of Design. Within two years Hans sold his first painting, The Wet Road, to his teacher. Soon his work became highly regarded.
In 1899 a group of business people paid for Hans to study in Europe, on the proviso that everything he produced would become their property. That meant that upon his return to Australia in 1903 he had absolutely no money, thanks to the arrangement with his ‘benefactors’, and at 26 he had to start all over again. Starting in a Currie Street, Adelaide, studio he painted fulltime, putting his techniques to good use.
He married in 1904 and moved his family to Hahndorf in 1908. There he was able to pursue his great passion, painting the Australian bush. After a number of successful exhibitions, opened by the likes of Alfred Deakin and Dame Nellie Melba, Hans was able to stop teaching and devote all of his time to painting. The Heysens were able to purchase The Cedars in Hahndorf in 1912 and added a beautiful stone studio, half hidden by pines and gums. Built in 1872, it was originally named Blackwood. It was to be Hans Heysen’s home for 56 years and was where his eight children were raised.
Norah Heysen, the fourth of Hans and Selma’s children, was to follow in her father’s footsteps and completed her formal training at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide. After returning from Europe she made a studio out of a shed in The Cedars garden and continued to paint. Her still lifes and prolific self-portraits have been widely acclaimed and she was the first woman to win the coveted Archibald Prize for portraiture.
The historic property is owned and maintained by the third generation of the family and remains wonderfully intact. It is open to the public and an extensive collection of work is on view. It allows visitors to step back in time and even enjoy the trees Sir Hans Heysen fought so hard to save. In many ways he was a man before his time.
The Cedars is managed by Heysen aficionado Allan Campbell. The studio curator is not related to the family, but some say he knows more about their famous predecessor than they do.