Sydney Morning Herald Column

Captivate: Stories from the National Art School and Darlinghurst Gaol

Published November 1, 2022
NAS gates, 1960, with Ann Thomson, Martin Sharp, Leone Ferrier, Viv Binns (on motorcycle) & Rose Vickers

History has been the National Art School’s best defence against the depredations of narrow-minded politicians and bureaucrats who have schemed to amalgamate the school with another institution or to sell off the campus as prime real estate.

The NAS has clung on grimly as its two main rivals have been swallowed up by the universities, owing its continuing existence to a handful of sympathetic politicians on both sides of the fence. The most recent was former State Arts Minister, Don Harwin, who helped secure a new 45-year lease. This positive intervention was a rare event for a government that has spent years systematically vandalising the Powerhouse Museum and is now trashing the State Archives and the Historic Houses Trust.

The first residents of the site. Many of them never left

The NAS may have finally crept onto that shaky plateau where historic value is recognised as an asset that overrules monetary value to the developers. In Sydney, the Queen Victoria Building narrowly avoided demolition and is now one of the city’s great landmarks. The majority of buildings from the Georgian and Victorian eras were not so fortunate, many of them disappearing in the heritage apocalypse known as the Askin era. The NAS has every reason to insist on its unique legacy as a way of securing its future.

The welcoming party

The argument is made in the most persuasive fashion by Captivate: Stories from the National Art School and Darlinghurst Gaol, an exhibition celebrating the school’s 100th anniversary, put together by archivist, Deborah Beck. Spread over the two floors of the NAS Gallery, plus the Drawing Gallery and the Rayner Hoff Project Space, this is a monumental project that could have been ten times larger. There are few works that might be described as masterpieces, but the sheer variety – the blend of memorabilia, historical photos, paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, posters, films and much else – is incredibly seductive.

Henry Louis Bertrand’s watercolour of Darlinghurst Gaol, 1891

It would make a great permanent display in a museum, which is why I can hardly believe the show is only due to run until the end of the month. This is too brief a time to justify the labour expended, and the steadily building audiences generated by word-of-mouth. If the NAS wants to derive maximum benefit from this project it should have scheduled a much longer run. How different this is from the post-COVID practises of major public galleries, which keep extending the duration of shows to save resources.

There’s an ambiguity about the title, Captivate – which hints at the campus’s first incarnation as Darlinghurst Gaol, where inmates were held captive, not by their love of art, but by high stone walls, bars and leg irons.

The first part of this exhibition, displayed on the ground floor of the NAS Gallery, is devoted to stories and artefacts associated with the Gaol, from 1841-1914. We owe the preservation of the site to the First World War, which derailed plans to demolish the prison buildings, instead putting them into service as detention centres.

Frank Medworth (1892-1947), ‘Tram Passengers’ (1940s)

It’s incredibly moving to see a wall of photographic portraits of former inmates, a good number of them included in the 76 executions held between 1841-1907. The list includes Jimmy Governor, the Aboriginal bushranger, whose tragic story formed the basis for Tom Kenneally’s novel, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), and Fred Schepisi’s movie of 1978.

Governor stares out at us from his photo, and from a couple of small photo-based portraits by Daniel Boyd. There’s also Louisa Collins, the one and only woman to be hanged, whose 1889 execution was so botched it ensured no other female would meet such a fate. Another famous figure hanged in Darlinghurst, was Captain Moonlight, the so-called “gay bushranger”, celebrated as a Queer icon in a work by Todd Fuller.

Other inmates fared better, including Henry Bertrand, “the demon dentist of Wynyard Square”, who murdered his mistress’s husband and narrowly escaped the gallows. Instead, Bertrand painted, sculpted and made music, mentoring the outlaw, Frank Pearson, (AKA. Captain Starlight), who would show considerable talent as a painter.

Along with a blood-curdling collection of whips, hangman’s nooses, irons and straight jackets, the show contains paintings by both Bertrand and Captain Starlight, along with an album filled with art and other memorabilia, kept by John Cecil Reid, the governor of the Gaol from 1861-88. Although he was obliged to preside over a bottomless pit of misery, Reid seems to have been a humane character who encouraged the inmates’ artistic efforts. Famous cultural figures who spent time behind bars in Darlinghurst, include the local bard, Henry Lawson, and journalist, J.F. Archibald, whose bequest gave birth to an obscure portrait prize.

Rayner Hoff’s sculpture classes of the 1930s

One of the truly touching aspects of Captivate is to see these early ventures into art which prefigure the future of the site. The circle was completed when students of the NAS began to research the history of the Gaol and its inmates and make works on these subjects.

Ingrid Ackland (1914-2001), ‘Olive with red shoes’ (c. 1938)

The rest of the exhibition, notably a busy, encyclopedic display on the upper floor of the NAS Gallery, tells the story of the art school, in all its highs and lows, in times of war, the counterculture, and finally the pandemic. We see how courses evolved under the visionary leadership of teachers such as Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), and cultish figures such as John Passmore and Godfrey Miller.

The NAS’s policy of always employing practising artists has ensured that its teaching staff became a who’s who of Australian art. Its emphasis on drawing has preserved a certain character, even in times (such as the present) when contemporary art is in thrall to all sorts of political and conceptual obsessions.

It’s a pleasure to track the bewildering variety of creative activities generated by students and sympathetic staff. These range from the annual Artists’ Balls, with their extravagant designs for props and costumes, to a long list of theatrical productions, both homegrown and imported. Many wellknown musicians originally studied to be artists at the NAS, including the entire membership of the band, Mental as Anything. The O’Doherty brothers, Peter and Chris (AKA. Reg Mombassa), are still making music, but are probably better known nowadays as artists.

Martin Sharp, ‘Art Students Ball poster, Moulin Rouge’, (1962)

Among celebrity visitors to the campus, one of the most memorable was the legendary Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada, who created a series of pots in front of a packed audience. A film of the event is being shown in the Rayner Hoff Project Space.

It’s inspiring to see the way students, staff, friends and supporters have fought off successive challenges to the school’s existence, including a disastrous restructuring in 1975, when art classes were moved off site. The entire institution had to be virtually resurrected from the dead. By 1985, a new threat was averted by means of petitions, demonstrations, and public actions, including the collaborative painting of a 40-metre canvas in the park facing the Art Gallery of NSW.

There were huge cheers in 1996, when incoming Premier, Bob Carr, granted the NAS its independence. A rather different feeling prevailed in 2006 when the Carr government began to explore options for merging the school with other institutions. By 2009, the NAS appeared to be secure once more, but by 2016 the merger proposals were back on the table.

Fiona Hall’s photo, ‘Jan, Steven Mori, Louise Samuels’, in a 1974 protest

No institution of comparable importance should have to tolerate such see-sawing attitudes from the government of the day. The health and independence of the NAS is an indicator of the value our politicians assign to the arts, higher education, culture and heritage – and it’s been a lamentable performance. For almost 50 years the school’s very survival has required the most strenuous and sustained efforts from its defenders.

For all his inconsistencies as an Arts Minister, Don Harwin succeeded in staving off the vandals and putting the NAS back on course, for which he will always be remembered with affection in Darlinghurst. As for his successors, well, as the Smiths sang, in reference to a “sweet and tender hooligan”, they’ll never ever do it again. Not until the next time.




Captivate: Stories from the National Art School and Darlinghurst Gaol

National Art School, until 23 September – 30 October, 2022


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October, 2022