Montsalvat Part 1: Less an Artist’s Colony than an Ideal Burgundian Village, an Australian Portmeirion

Montsalvat at Eltham, a suburb of Melbourne, was created from 1935 to the 1960s by the painter Justus Jörgensen as a ‘colony of painters and art workers’ (Fig. 1).[1] By the 1960s it was difficult to sustain economically and following Jörgensen’s death in 1975 it was managed by his son Sigmund, who turned it into a successful wedding reception venue and an active arts centre with gallery spaces and events,[2] while trying to retaining the original vision of his father and his father’s colleagues.[3] In 2019 plans were announced for an art gallery for Nillumbik shire (flagged in the 2017 Montsalvat strategic plan[4]) on the lower slopes of Montsalvat, above the Eltham Cemetery.[5] The then executive director, Dr Jacqueline Ogeil, is no longer there and there seems to be no mention of this project on the Montsalvat website, so perhaps this has been knocked on the head by Covid.

Fig. 1. Monstsalvat, the Great Hall. This is the ‘hero view’ used in most publicity.

This would be no bad thing. To build a new gallery would simply push Montsalvat itself into the background, and bury the vision of the Jörgensens. Unfortunately arts managers and artists have ony one idea: to build a new art gallery. But Montsalvat has no shortage of gallery spaces, but, as it has no doubt been argued, these are a motley collection of repurposed spaces, not the glossy new building that arts managers and artists crave.

In this respect Montsalvat suffers in comparison to its neighbour down the road, Heide, which is successful both as a series of contemporary art spaces that are also a series of historic buildings, and as a place of homage to its creators. At the heart of this comparison lies the fact that the Heide crowd were the winners of a critical war. Jörgensen was a pupil of James Meldrum, a painter whose style, a tonal painterly realism that looks more to Velázquez and Rembrandt than to Matisse and Picasso, became the whipping boy for Melbourne modernism. Although he still has plenty of admirers and even followers today among painters who like painting (as opposed to artists), the Meldrumites have been relegated to the dustbin of history, and along with them the Jörgensens and their associates.

It is assumed that the Heide crowd were the better artists, and there is some truth in this, but the problem is that the Montsalvat group were at best reluctant Modernists and, perhaps even more importantly, following Meldrum, who was born in Scotland and who is categorised as a Scottish painter on the NGV website, they looked back to European ‘Old Masters’ rather than being nationalists looking to a progressive future. European art pundits, when looking beyond their own world, invariably look for something that is distinctively non-European, and are blind to any continuities with their own. I was reminded of this when rewatching Around the World in 80 Gardens TV series, in which Monty Don does this for gardens around the world, and ends up in New World countries with a dreary selection of gardens, or no gardens at all, because he averts his gaze from those gardens that look to Europe. This has much to do with the fact that such pundits are nationalistic about their own art, and expect other nations to be equally so, denying a transnational European cultural diaspora. Hence when Kenneth Clark ‘discovered’ Australian Art in the 1950s he focused on Sidney Nolan because of the obvious (indeed crass) Australianness of the Ned Kelly series. This process was completed by the subsequent valorisation of Indigeneous Australian art (to which Helen Lemprière, part of the Montsalvat circle, became responsive) but any Australian artist of European origins who goes down that path becomes guilty of cultural appropriation. This was not a problem for Nolan but there is only so much mileage in an art about bushrangers.

Hence although many of the Montsalvat group are not negligible, including Lemprière, the most successful of them as an artist, but who rejected Montsalvat (or was made to reject it by her husband), and Matcham Skipper,[6] their critical standing is low. Sigmund Jörgensen’s history complains that there are still no paintings by Jörgensen in the National Gallery of Victoria. (There still isn’t, as far as their website is concerned.)

But while Montsalvat was an artist’s colony, it was also a Portmeirion (Fig. 2). That is, it was one man’s dream of building a village that romantically alluded to old Europe.  For his generation Europe represented a dream of civilisation, a flame that required extraordinary efforts to keep alive in the cultural wilderness that was Australia. The difference is that Clough Williams-Ellis, the creator of Portmeirion, had plenty of money and provided his village with its economic basis as a hotel and visitor destination from the beginning, even if that was not fully realised until the post-WWII era. Jorgensen was not so good a painter as Williams-Ellis was an architect, and his economic base was teaching art. By fostering the cult of the artist as counter-cultural alternative to stuffy social orthodoxy, he succeeded in harnessing a not inconsiderable free labour force of those attracted to a life that promised more than conventional Melbourne life did. This included the wealthy, such as Helen Lemprière who contributed funds.

Fig. 2. Wales, Portmeirion. Architect Clough Williams-Ellis, most buildings from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Melbourne in the 1930s seems to have been exceptionally stuffy and wowserish place. As a result, Montsalvat had a reputation for the sexual license expected of an artist’s colony, which, Sigmund Jörgensen tells us, was not the case; rather, Jorgensen senior was merely opposed to the conventions of formal marriage rather than being a promoter of promiscuity. And at the end of his life Jörgensen, a lapsed Catholic, built a chapel. Today, when nobody cares whether or not a couple is formally married in a church, the thought that comes to mind is that Montsalvat was perhaps the site of the patriarchal pedophilia also found in artist’s colonies (Eric Gill comes to mind), but it was not that either. Yet in the end what emerges from Sigmund Jörgensen’s book is something that today is almost as bad: that Montsalvat was run by a self-important dogmatist who treated the women in his ménage à trois badly in a controlling way. Montsalvat as a site of ‘free love’ would go down rather better.[7] 

It is perhaps for this reason that in its current form Montsalvat fails to foster a cult of the artistic personalities of its founders. There are no boards explaining who these people were and what they achieved artistically, and no signage on any of the buildings to explain what makes them interesting, how they came into being, and who used them or once lived in them. And there is no useful and affordable and up-to-date guidebook. The best source of information about the buildings is buried as an appendix in Sigmund Jörgensen’s book, which ought to available separately to guide visitors.[8] Indeed, without it the visitor will miss much, if not most, of the art created by the Montsalvat community.

Montsalvat today remains as Sigmund Jörgensen left it, a wedding venue with a café and associated gallery spaces. The various sheds on the upper part of the site now apparently function as artist’s studios, though they seem to be devoid of life. Management seems primarily interested in the galleries, and the visitor who wants to experience Montsalvat the place is treated in a way that can only be considered hostile. It is open daily to casual visitors, but little is done for them. There is a reception area, with an entrance fee of $14, which implies that visitors are welcome and will be provided with a worthwhile visitor experience. Not so. Although mangement clearly wants you to visit the galleries any buy works of art (although I have a problem with paying to visit a commercial art gallery) they actively discourage casual visits to the core buildings. The mindset seem to be that these are for paying weddings only, not for (paying) day trippers.

There is a map given with the ticket but it is quite useless. There is no signage of any kind, apart from warning signs. It doesn’t send a good message when the only sign you do find is one that tells you to keep your children from drowning in the pond. There is no directional signage, and nothing to tell you that a door that is firmly shut is, in fact, open. You soon learn to try every door. None of the sculptures dotted around, and none of the paintings in the Great Hall, are labelled. There are no signs identifying any buildings other than the artist’s studios, and it is unclear whether these belong to the artists in residence or are historical names.

One can contrast this with Portmeirion, which functions as a venue that actively welcomes day-trippers during the day, before transforming itself to a private fantasy resort with a high end restaurant after 5 pm..

There are ferocious signs about photography not being permitted, which is absurd in the Age of Instagram. Management makes money from wedding photos but this is not impacted on by casual snapshots. Perhaps they are trying to protect the copyright of works of artists, but if this is necessary it should be confined to the exhibition galleries, not Montsalvat the place.

Although it is billed as a romantic village, as a site for wedding photography Montsalvat is dreadful. The sample wedding photo met with in the publicity material shows a bride and groom beside the swimming pool (Fig. 3). But what you do not see clearly in the photo is the fact that the pool is surrounded by a glass wall to stop drunken wedding guests falling in. The bridal couple are sandwiched between this and the buildings, with the photographer peering over the glass wall on the other side. There are in fact very few pretty spots—most of the grounds consists of a nondescript grassy slope—and the lower area, which could be a nice garden, is poorly maintained, besides being targeted as the site for the proposed new regional gallery.

Fig. 3. Monstsalvat publicity photo promoting it as a wedding venue.

Yet the potential for Montsalvat to be a beautiful wedding venue is inherent in Jörgensen’s original concept, which seems to have been lost sight of. While Montsalvat began as an artist’s colony, an artist’s colony does not really need much in the way of buildings. But Jörgensen had the Portmeirion bug (although he probably did not know of the Welsh project), and his real passion became the building of a Portmeirion type ideal village inspired by Europe. The Europe he was inspired by was not the Genoese Riviera of Williams-Ellis, but the villages of Burgundy.

He went there on his one overseas trip in the 1920s, where he and his friends drove from Paris to Madrid to see Velázquez, being bowled over by Burgos cathedral on the way. A little later he rented a medieval barn near the village of L’Isle-sur-Serein which he set about restoring.[9] It is easy to forget just how difficult it was back then to travel from Australia to Europe. It was a once in a lifetime event for most of the few who could manage it. I still have diaries from my paternal aunt and maternal grandfather’s trips to England and Scotland around 1950. They reveal both their provincial attitudes and their hunger for the culture of a country that was their birthright but which they had never seen. They never really looked beyond England and Scotland, and seem to have been unimpressed by what little they saw of continental Europe. It is difficult for us today to understand the mindset of a people who were effectively cultural exiles, forever dreaming of a world that had shaped their imagination but which they could not access. Nevil Shute books of the 1950s describe this world well. In one, the daughter of a farmer who had been in the Australian army in WW1 and had married an Englishwoman and had returned with her to Australia, where he struggled through the depression and WWII and who has an unexpected late flowering of prosperity thanks to the Korean war wool boom, wants only to escape to England. Meanwhile, for the main characters, the English niece of the couple who, like Shute himself, wanted only to escape the poverty and grey misery of the post-WWII Britain of rationing, and a Czech refugee doctor working below his pay grade in a labour camp, Australia is a land of opportunity, a place to start afresh with hope.

In Jörgensen’s Australia of the 1930s the promise of the good life was not there, as there was a depression on. There was plenty of space, but this was taken for granted and considered to be culturally barren. For an artist there was hardly any good old or contemporary art to see. Everything that mattered culturally was to be found in Europe. And like all temporary Australian expats, Jörgensen wanted to bring the magic of Europe—a place where you could become a stonemason and (re) build a medieval barn—back home with him.

This is what Jörgensen’s was trying to do at Montsalvat. With only the memories of that one trip, he was trying to create in Eltham the dream of Europe that had shaped his youth. Interestingly, there seems to have been little ethno-nationalism in this dream, as he did not hanker after his ancestor’s Norway the way my grandparents hankered after their ancestral England, and as Australians of Irish extraction hankered after Ireland. This, I think, was largely a matter of culture: his culture, like my grandparents’, came from England, so there was probably little cultural pressure to experience Norway for himself. His France was more like the boomer’s Italy: an exotic world that went beyond the Anglocentric cultural experience; it was the next step in our cultural progress.

So Montsalvat is the dream creation of a Burgundy vision. An old issue of Country Life has a photo of a Burgundy village on the cover which gives an insight to what Jorgensen found there (Fig. 3). By the standards of European tourist towns it is pretty ordinary. There are some window boxes but it is not as prettied up such places are. There are messy downpipes and door frames of no interest and uncertain date. There is rough pebble masonry and pantiles. These all point to what Jörgensen would have seen in the 1920s, before the age of tourism. It would have been rough edged, a bit dirty. Romantic because so unlike Australia, but a rough romanticism, not a pretty one. In fact the appeal of the Burgundy vision to Jörgensen seems to have been the roughness of its masonry and the fact that it was masonry. Stone buildings are rare in Melbourne, and for many still have an overpowering romantic attraction. A few years ago Eurocentric Australians were buying up village houses, preferable stone, in France and Italy if they had the means and opportunity.

Fig. 4. Cover of an issue of Country Life, showing a Burgundy village.

Parts of Montsalvat display just this kind of picturesque roughness (Fig. 5). This scene came together in an ad hoc way, as did the villages of Burgundy. The house at the right, the first building, Lil’s House, was made in 1934-35. Sue’s Tower in the middle came in 1936-38. At the left is the Students’ Quarters, built in 1936.  This makes for a picturesque composition that is indeed like a French village. This all looks better in photos than in the flesh: no effort has been expended on presentation. Any old European village today would be far better presented, even one not pitching itself at the tourism or wedding venue markets but simply at house-proud locals.

This view includes not only the rough vernacular masonry and cobbles of a Burgundy village, but specific picturesque motifs. The first building has a nice ironwork balcony that looks very French (Fig. 6). Sue’s Tower has an arched passageway beneath through which the pathway descends unevenly. At the left the ground rises a little to an external staircase, such as one finds in medieval buildings. This kind of up-down-through movement is reguarly found in old European towns, especially in Germany, such as Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber. The roof is a specifically French type that is probably a bit grander as a form than one might expect to find in an authentic Burgundy village, but you never know. The building at the left looks more ‘modern’ – that is, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century, with a nice slate roof.

Fig. 6. Balcony of Sue’s house.

Within the archway on the left, as the ground descends, is a is a ‘rustic’ figured fountain (Fig. 7). This kind of detail is found in innumerable old European town, especially German ones, although it was so overgrown and neglected at the time of my visit you have to part the vegetation to see it. This really ought to be a feature, but it has about as much effect as a gully trap. You notice the basin and then have to peer up under the vegetation to see the statue. Whatever you do you can’t see it properly. This statue is the kind of sexualised piece characteristic of the period that does not go down well in the #metoo era. It depicts a woman raising her skirt as if to bathe, but there is an unfortunate association given with fountain source imagery, so that it seems that the source of the water is a woman urinating. That aside, this was clearly intended to be a picturesque and romantic touch, but today it’s effect is completely lost. Once again, there has been no effort put into presentation. It would not take much to bring this to life.

Fig. 7. Fountain under the arch.

The potential for picturesqueness is drawn out by a carefully hand drawn sign in Gothic script on deteriorating paper under perspex that tells you about what you can see through the window of the first house (not visible on my visit).  This is the only signage to be found, and itself needs signage to explain its context as one has to be of a certain age to get the references (Fig. 8). It was evidently made in 1965 or shortly afterwards and left to moulder ever since.

Fig. 8. Signge, c. 1965, under the arch.

It reads:

‘Another View of the Interior. Both the interiors and exteriors of this little house have been featured on Channels 2, 7 and 0, also in a Cinesound newsreel. Used by Eric Pearce at Channel 9 for reading of Xmas message 1964. Here also many weeks were spent making the prize-winning films, Italian G. Mangiemele’s ‘Clay’,[10] and Australian Tim Burstall’s ‘The Prize’[11] also Patrick Barton’s televised production of ‘A Time to Speak’.[12] Vivien Leigh during her recent tour of Australia on a visit here called this room the most intrigueing [sic] and beautiful she had seen on her travels.[13]

Keep walking around outside of house. Through each window you will see a different angle of the beautifully proportioned room and its all-hand-crafted antique furnishings.

Lord de L’Isle stood on this very spot and said ‘It[14] makes me want to hurry home to my place in England, “Penshurst”’, where he now is.’[15]

The naïve provinciality of this sign has a certain period charm. That someone has followed around behind important visitors gather up the crumbs of politeness falling from their table is rather sad. Who has even heard of the governor-general, Lord de l’Isle, chosen by Menzies and the last truly colonial Governor-General (1961-65)? And how hungry for praise must one be to swallow his comparison to his grand English country house as anything but the polite nothings that such people are paid to utter? Or that of Vivien Leigh, not on her famous vist with Laurence Olivier in 1948 (which features prominently in the narrative of Heysen’s house in Hahndorf) but evidently a later trip on her own in  1961-62?

More interesting are the films, which are prompted by the fact that Montsalvat as a place was indeed unique in Melbourne, which was and is a relentless sea of suburbia punctuated by practical commercial buildings and (once) more aspirational public buildings. I had never heard of Mangiemele (apple-eater!) but his work may be familiar to film buffs. The plot is clearly site-driven (‘it follows a killer on the run who finds refuge in a colony of artists’). Tim Burstall, but contrast, is better known, having had a significant career in movies, and ‘The Prize’ was the starting point of his career, winning a bronze medal at the Venice film festival, and evidence of the way an ‘artists’ colony’ could truly nurture creativity. Burstall was bulding a mud brick house opposite, everyone at Montsalvat chipped in, Matcham Skipper was the star and their children and locals recruited as actors. There is potential for site-based narratives here that are not compomised by the personality of Jörgensen.

The visible vegetation is devoid of interest. A few signifiers of romantic picturesqueness, like some vases of flowers, trees in tubs and artisanal seats, would make a world of difference. The wall on the left cries out for a terracotta tablet in the Montsalvat style. It is as if no-one is aware of what Jorgensen was doing. To be sure, such prettification may well be antithetical to to Jorgensen vision, which valorised the amateurish roughness of masonry, but this is what a wedding photographer is looking for.

And this is the way forward for Montsalvat: the recognition that its true artistic nature is as a picturesque European fantasy village like Portmeirion. If you recognise this, then you have a master plan for continuing Jorgensen’s work: a guide for new constructions that are not yet another boring modernist art gallery.


[1] DNB. These observations were based on  visit in early 2020, prior to Covid.

[2] https://www.montsalvat.com.au

[3] See his history of Montsalvat: Sigmund Jörgensen, Montsalvat. The intimate story of Australia’s most exciting artists’ colony, Sydney, 2014. Available from the Montsalvat bookshop.

[4] https://www.montsalvat.com.au/strategic-plan

[5] https://www.theage.com.au/culture/art-and-design/rediscovering-montsalvat-the-bid-to-revive-a-national-treasure-20190926-p52v8w.html

[6] There are useful biographies of all the protagonists in Jörgensen, Monsalvat, pp. 93–142. On Lempriere, pp. 115-17.

[7] I will return in a later essay to the problem of the vision of Montsalvat.

[8] Jörgensen, Montsalvat, p. 275-197.

[9] Jörgensen, Montsalvat, pp. 28-29. Apparently Colin Colahan introduced Jörgensen as an important architect from Australia. The owner though he said Austria, and gave him a free hand. Sigmund Jörgensen writes that he failed to identify the building it in 2012. 

[10] “Mangiamele was an Italian/Australian photographer who made a unique contribution to Australian art cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. …Clay (1965). 84 Minutes, Australia. Director: Giorgio Mangiamele. Cast: Jean Lebedew, George Dixon, Sheila Florence, A later production by Mangiamele, Clay was the first Australian film to be nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or. Moody and complex, it follows a killer on the run who finds refuge in a colony of artists. Films courtesy National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. http://www.cmag.com.au/events/reel-classics-ninety-nine-percent-1963-and-clay-1965

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Burstall

[12] A Time to Speak, TV Movie, 1965.    Director Patrick Barton. Writer Noel Robinson. Stars Raymond Westwell, Wyn Roberts, Keith Eden. ‘A drama set in a religious community in Australia during 1900. A doctor stands up to the corrupt elder.’ 1h 15m. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4116790/

[13] A ‘recent tour’. This was presumably not the famous tour with Laurence Olivier in 1948 but one in  1961-62. ‘In 1958, Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh’s medical condition and assured Olivier that he would care for her. … Merivale proved to be a stabilising influence for Leigh … Merivale joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America that lasted from July 1961 until May 1962, and Leigh enjoyed positive reviews without sharing the spotlight with Olivier.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivien_Leigh, accessed 26 January 2022.

[14] Unclear.

[15] Governor-General of Australia 1961-1965. Significantly, his portrait was painted by Clifton Pugh, not Jörgensen.  ‘Seeking a replacement for Governor-General Lord Dunrossil while visiting England in March 1961, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, unable to ‘think of an Australian who would be satisfactory,’ selected De L’Isle. Appointed GCMG in May, he reached Canberra with his family on 2 August and took office next day. Some six feet (183 cm) tall, affable, and active, His Excellency enjoyed the vice-regal trappings and travelled widely. He bought two cattle properties near Armidale, New South Wales. Lady De L’Isle died in Canberra on 16 November 1962. Her husband gifted a chime of bells cast in England to the Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, in her memory. When De L’Isle welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to Australia on her second royal tour in February 1963, his daughter Catherine carried out the duties of hostess at Yarralumla. No political controversies occurred during his term. … The last Englishman to be appointed Australian governor-general and the last (so far) to wear the uniform of office, De L’Isle relinquished his duties on 6 May 1965 and resumed his London business career. … Viscount De L’Isle died on 5 April 1991 at Penshurst Place, London, and was buried in the family vault.  His wife and the son and four daughters of his first marriage survived him. His portrait by Clifton Pugh is in the Parliament House art collection.’ See https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-lisle-viscount-william-philip-bill-17369: Chris Cunneen, ‘De L’Isle, Viscount William Philip (Bill) (1909–1991)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-lisle-viscount-william-philip-bill-17369/text29118, published online 2014, accessed online 26 January 2022. This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Comment, Country Houses, Design, Fabriques, Garden History, Restoration and Conservation, Town and Village, Uncategorized, Villas. Bookmark the permalink.

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