Bailed up by the art of Benalla
A Victorian country town that’s worth the detour
IN northeast Victoria’s Ned Kelly country, on my way to the goldfields, I am bailed up in Benalla. Not by Ned, though he is here, swaggering out of a tapestry by Sidney Nolan at the Benalla Art Gallery, but by the charm of this country town.
I had arrived early, just as local bakeries were setting out their chairs. Restored by coffee and croissants, I cross a bridge and spy an elegant modern building jutting out towards the lake. It’s the Benalla Art Gallery. Just pop in, I decide, but the collection traps me.
Laurie Ledger, the gallery’s major donor, obeyed his mother, who said, ‘‘Include women artists.’’ Thanks to her, Benalla has memorable works such as Alice Bale’s Interior (1906), an enchanting view across a room into a lightfilled hallway where a figure waits . . . to open a door, perhaps, or eavesdrop on a conversation? It is rather killed by a heavy gilded frame, but that was the fashion of its era.
After several hours, I feel I’ve earned lunch on the gallery terrace overlooking Lake Benalla. Ecstatic squeals come from two small boys at the next table when early Easter eggs arrive with their hot chocolate. I am just as pleased with zucchini fritters topped with poached egg and creme fraiche, smoked salmon and avocado drizzled with fresh lime juice tucked into a rocket salad. But I contain my squeals.
On the wooden promenade beneath the gallery, an elderly couple seem mesmerised by two model yachts out on the water. The little boats come about, but then the wind fills their sails and they are away again. The couple relax back into their deckchairs.
I stop to chat as I walk around the lake. The metre-long yachts, the couple’s own hand-crafted, remote-controlled toys, are in no danger of overturning, their hulls lead-
It seems that on any night you can join a group doing the palais glide, the pride of Erin, a quickstep or even the schottische
weighted and their keels short to avoid the waterweed. There are several skilled Benalla enthusiasts who make model yachts to order.
Near the Weary Dunlop Memorial, I am almost run down by those squealing boys working off their Easter eggs in the labyrinthine paths of the rose garden.
Embedded in roses, the bronze sculpture pays homage to a boy who grew up in the area, became a pharmacist in the town, studied medicine in Melbourne and was a saviour to Australian prisoners-of-war on the ThaiBurma railway. Sculptor Louis Laumen’s work evokes the suffering of those men.
From the gallery’s terrace, I had seen a strange con- struction across the lake and when I cross the bridge I find a magical piece of fantasy. To say the Benalla Ceramic Mural is a three-dimensional tile-decorated structure is an inadequate description of such a wildly playful creation. Imaginative designs in cobalt-blue, turquoise, gold and maroon burst from the mostly terracotta surfaces.
Snakes slither along ledges, birds wing from the parapet, a baby with legs drawn up lies asleep on its tummy. A little cave at waist height makes me want to be a child again, so I can crawl in and sleep on its flower-patterned floor. I sit in the miniature amphitheatre and wonder what miracle inspired this community work.
Old-time dancing is the go in Benalla. It seems that on any night you can join a group doing the palais glide, the pride of Erin, a quickstep or even the schottische. Ladies bring a plate, please, and all are welcome, I read in the local paper. But I can’t stay.
Fishing in Lake Eildon is little more than a cast away and there is, of course, a Ned Kelly museum to see, since Glenrowan is just up the track. But I come to my senses. Bendigo is calling.
The art gallery overlooks pretty Lake Benalla