AS A PAINTER,
Philip Drummond is no stranger to the thrill of a blank canvas. So, it’s hardly surprising that he was inspired when others might have been daunted at the prospect of transforming a bare and compacted work site into a spectacular garden. “There was not a stick on it, but I think the advantage was to have a completely bare block,” Philip recalls. “It gave me the opportunity to do something from the very beginning and I had a plan in my head of what I wanted.” The vision began in 2009 when the painter and his partner, contemporary artist Dani Marti, bought the 1000-square-metre block in Cessnock, on the doorstep of Hunter Valley wine country. The pair were taken with its two large, triple-brick heritage buildings that Philip says were begging to be turned into studios, and within a year they had converted the derelict former general store and butcher into their home and workspace. The two buildings stand at either end of the block and look within, creating a large, central space that was a convenient work site during construction and has since flourished into an exotic, private garden with several “rooms” to explore. Surrounded by high walls covered with neatly trimmed bougainvillea and filled with cacti, palms and succulents, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Palm Springs or the Mediterranean — both major influences on Philip’s design. “It’s also the Spanish tradition of having an interior patio,” he notes. “It’s great because you use it like a living space, you don’t use it like a garden. In previous gardens, I’ve had, which were more traditional in their layout, the garden was something you had to go and visit, whereas in this one you can’t avoid it, you have to go and live it.” Philip’s interest in cacti was first sparked at his previous home where, he says, it was the only thing that would grow in their sun-drenched hilltop position. He brought many plants with him from that home, allowing him to create an almost instant garden in the new and just as sunny space. “The only trouble is if you’re working in it, you can’t get out of this garden without some kind of laceration!” Philip laughs. “It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a big boiler suit, you end up finding a spike somewhere.” The garden has grown substantially in the past nine years, but Philip is impatient to see it in another 10. “It will be spectacular then,” he says. “There are some fast-growing >
plants, but a lot of them are really slow and the vision I have is of towering cacti. I want the path that winds through the garden to be walled by cacti as you walk through it, so it’s more of an adventure.” While the garden offers a rich visual feast and a therapeutic respite from his work, it doesn’t feature in Philip’s paintings. Instead, the artist is currently focusing on Australian natives, weaving them into his signature dramatic and earthy still-life compositions that reference 17th century Spanish classics. “I’ve spent the past 30 years travelling around the outback, so there’s a real connection with Australia,” he explains. “I enjoy putting those flowers in the context of a Spanish-style painting. I’ve got a really good supplier of native flowers on the Central Coast, so I try to make a visit there every few weeks and spend lots of money! She gets a lot of West Australian flowering eucalypts, in particular, which are really difficult to get over this side.” A self-taught artist, Philip has been exhibiting professionally for 25 years, but his drive to continue evolving and fine-tuning his skills hasn’t waned since he first started painting as a wide-eyed 21-year-old, eagerly documenting his travels through India. “I like the fact that there’s still a lot to learn,” he muses. “You can’t sit back on your last great show or your last great painting, you’ve just got to keep producing the work.” That motivation to produce and evolve keeps Philip busy in the studio and on the road — which is partly why he opted for a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant garden. It’s when he has more time on his hands that he finds himself tinkering. He swaps plants in and out, such as the frangipanis and Banksia robur he’s recently installed, and tweaks the design, like removing one last token patch of lawn around the pool in favour of flagstone and plants. “It is like an artwork,” he admits. “A garden is something that evolves and you’re sculpting it the whole time.” The other, most important reason for this unique oasis? Pure beauty. The garden might not appear on Philip’s canvases, but it plays an integral role in his creative process all the same. “It helps me to live and create in my own little universe,” he says. “It’s what I look at when I’m looking out of my studio. On a subliminal level, it affects everything.” Philip Drummond’s next solo exhibitions will be held at Maunsell Wickes Gallery in Sydney from March 1st-15th (maunsellwickes.com), and Gallows Gallery in Perth from June 14th (gallowsgallery.com).