Sir Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen

Sir Hans Heysen

Wilhelm Ernst Hans Franz Heysen, born on 8 October 1877 in Hamburg, Germany, came to South Australia with his family in 1884 when he was seven years old. His father, a merchant of modest means, had come out ahead of the family to get a place, work and establish himself. Unfortunately economic conditions during the 1880s were not very good and Mr Heysen did not find any long-term jobs. Consequently the family moved several times, young Hans attended a number of different schools between 1885 and 1892. During the school holidays he often visited friends in Hahndorf, which he liked very much. He had shown an early interest in art, especially drawing and painting, and was pleased with the rural landscape of Hahndorf.

His father found him a job at five shillings a week and Hans started work at Norwood. With some of his saved money he was now able to buy brushes and paint. At the age of sixteen, young Hans went to Art School in his spare time, when not working for his father delivering farm produce. In 1897 Robert Barr Smith paid for a year tuition for him at the School of Design. Within two years Hans sold his first painting, The wet road, to his art teacher. He entered some of his work in Adelaide exhibitions and soon his work became highly regarded.

As early as 1899 a local paper wrote, Hans Heysen may fairly be described as the coming landscape artist of South Australia. He has not yet 'arrived' perhaps in the fullest artistic sense of the word, but has proved indisputably his talent in oils and also as a 'drawer of water'. Young Heysen goes straight to the heart of nature for his subject, and gets there. His examples of Australian scenery displayed at the annual exhibition of the Society of Arts have attracted considerable attention, and general admiration has been expressed at the excellence of his work'.

'A great tribute to young Heysen as an artist is to be found in the fact that he is already represented in the Art Gallery in South Australia's public collection of works. He is by no means a copyist, but paints chiefly from nature, thinking rightly that he can do more faithful work by following this course. He has obtained first prize, presented by Sir James Linton, for landscape in watercolour, and a silver star for drawing in charcoal at an exhibition held in London in March 1899'.

In 1899 a number of business people in Adelaide paid for him to study in Europe on the condition that everything he produced would become their property. Hans left in early 1900 and stayed most of his time in Paris at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. One summer he studied in Amsterdam and his last year, in Italy and Capri, was used to learn some of the different techniques in Italy.

When he returned in 1903, he did not have any money as a result of his arrangement with his 'benefactors'. Hans was now twenty-six and had to start all over again. He found a studio in Currie Street, Adelaide and took up painting full time. After all, he knew all the techniques and his subject matter was wherever he looked. To add to his income he held art classes. In 1904 he married Selma Bartels and won his first major Australian Art prize.

During 1908 Hans, his wife Selma and children moved to Hahndorf, and Heysen was able to pursue his great passion, the painting of the Australian bush. He soon had some very successful exhibitions. One in Melbourne was opened by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in 1908. From the income of these exhibitions the Heysen Family was able to rent a cottage in Billygoat Lane in Hahndorf.

After a number of even more successful exhibitions, the Heysens were able to buy The Cedars in Hahndorf in 1912. This house had been constructed in 1872 by Alfred Wheelwright and called Blackwood. The Heysens changed its name and Hans built his studio, of limestone carted from the nearby Verdun quarries, in the garden. It was here at the Cedars that they raised their eight children and Hans produced most of his famous work. It was also here where Heysen finished and altered many of his watercolours and oil paintings started on different locations, often years before.

Another successful exhibition was held in 1915 which was opened by Dame Nellie Melba. The sales at these exhibitions were so successful that Heysen was able to stop teaching and devote all his time and energy on his own painting.

Map of Hahndorf

Although a naturalised Australian (British Subject) and well known, Heysen did suffer some persecution during the years 1914-1918. However he and his family weathered these and eventually life returned to normal.

During 1926 Heysen had visited the Flinders Ranges and was highly impressed with its scenery, in particular its great variety of beautiful gum trees. Many years later he wrote a letter to Hans Mincham in which he said; 'The Flinders region has held a 'spell' over me ever since I first went to Quorn and Hawker looking for new material for brush and pencil. Since then my interest in this unique landscape has grown with each successive trip. The great Red Gums in the creek beds fill me with wonder; their feeling of strength of limb, of vigour and life, suggest the very spirit of endurance'. His well-known watercolour, Guardian of Brachina Gorge, was finished in 1937 at the Cedars from several drawings made in the early 1930s.

He soon turned out a large number of very detailed sketches and paintings of these trees, and the Australian bush. Apart from these he also painted still lives, portraits, pastoral scenes and seascapes, using oil, watercolour, pencil, chalk, acrylic and charcoal.

Heysen had more than thirty major exhibitions and won the prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape painting nine times between 1904 and 1932. Heysen was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1945 and knighted in 1959.

Hans Heysen, one of South Australia's most significant and popular artist, and his wife Selma, lived at The Cedars for the rest of their lives. Hans died in 1968. His daughter Nora was the only one of his children to follow in his footsteps. She became an established artist in her own right and a trailblazer for women artists in Australia.

One of the world's most scenic, and longest walking trail, stretching from Cape Jervis to Parachilna Gorge, a distance of some 1500 kilometres, has been named The Heysen Trail. The Heysen Range in the Flinders Ranges has also been named after him as were the twin tunnels on the Freeway on the way to Hahndorf. A railway carriage of the Ghan was also named after him.


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