Art and inspiration at Montsalvat
In bush acreage at Eltham, just 20km from the Melbourne CBD, is the cultural treasure-house of Montsalvat. Here, art in many forms is created, exhibited, taught and performed, from painting, portraiture, glass and ceramics to textiles, jewellery craft, instrument making and performances of music and drama.
In the early 1930s, following the stimulation and influence of European travel, architect and painter Justus Jorgensen conceived the idea of a colony built by artists for artists. Soon he collected an equally enthusiastic band of supporters to realise what was, at the time, a radical idea; their bohemian lifestyle is all part of Montsalvat’s legend.
Mud brick cottages became the first “residences”, soon followed in 1938 by the imposing Great Hall. It was a time when Melbourne’s early buildings were being demolished, producing a cornucopia of heritage salvage. Many architrave mouldings, stone balconies, gargoyles and limestone-framed windows were recovered and gradually incorporated into the Montsalvat estate.
The main entrance is through The Barn, a cavernous, high-ceilinged space leading to a charming indoor-outdoor licensed cafe and the small Skipper Gallery, which exhibits the work of Montsalvat’s resident artists.
Montsalvat is not a “guided tour” museum. Visitors wander at leisure, around the garden and through unique buildings, where an atmosphere of gothic fantasy and mystery hangs over rooms full of eclectic memorabilia randomly collected over the years.
A peacock may wander into the Great Hall, where an outsized grand piano remains where it was built as it is too big to move out. A cast-iron circular staircase leads to an upper gallery, while the delicate tracery of carved gothic windows enhances the Great Hall’s setting for concerts of choral and chamber music and poetry and literary readings. From the medieval banquet hall, with its refectory tables, carved chairs and heavy oak dressers, a mysterious stone passage leads into the garden and nearby chapel, where a carved altar greets visitors and little pews line up beside an original, antique pedal organ.
About 20 artists live at Montsalvat; some have vegetable gardens, a reminder of the deprivations of World War II, when Montsalvat became a self-supporting farm. Others have their studios in mud brick cottages or tiny workshops set into limestone or granite walls. Beneath trailing vines, names on moss-covered, half-hidden doors tell us who worked there long ago. Today’s glassmakers and textile designers work alongside ceramic artists, painters, sculptors and metal workers. Teaching the art they love is a big part of the ethos of Montsalvat. As goldsmith Simon Icarus Baigent says, “There is the joy of making small, magical, beautiful things.”
Musician Chris Wynne teaches his students the art of guitar making, using Australian woods to create “instruments that sing.” Former watchmaker David Brown is committed to the luthier’s life of creating violins and shakuhachi flutes, while Sebastian Jorgensen, son of Montsalvat’s founder, devotes his talent to “much neglected” Aboriginal music.
After years working overseas, textile designer Jo Ludbrook has “come home”. Working with Japanese silks, she says she finds, as many artists have done, “renewed inspiration” in the surroundings of Montsalvat.
Guitar maker Chris Wynne, left; Montsalvat, above
Jewellery maker Jeanette Dyke at Monsalvat