New England: a significant slice of Australian art, history and fine food.

Standing in the vault of the New England Regional Art Gallery I watch on as yet another Australian masterpiece is revealed. Our guide slides it out from the files of paintings that line the vault, and I feel a bit like a Charlie as he’s first led into the Chocolate Factory, or maybe Ali Baba as he’s first bedazzled by hidden treasure.

Armidale is home the largest and most valuable collection of Australian art outside the Sydney Art Gallery and the National Gallery in Canberra, one of the best preserved historical homesteads, as well as some of the finest dining experiences to found in regional NSW.

Saumarez Homestead, Armidale

We start our High Country experience with a visit to Samauraz Homestead, ancestral home to the White family, which was handed over to the National Trust for management in 1984.

The Whites were a frugal family, wasting nothing and throwing nothing away – even after it had long stopped working. The furniture dates back to early settlement of the area in the mid-1800s, mostly purchased from the David Jones catalogue and still in mint condition.

Drawing room Saumeraz Homestead Armidale

There is a stain above the mantle piece where, roughly 100 years ago, honey leaked out of a hive that some industrious bees had installed in the chimney over summer, the first time the fire was lit in winter and stained the wallpaper. FJ White declared he “could live with the stain” and so it remains. Under the stairs there are still tennis rackets stacked against the wall in their frames and the best crockery is still stacked in the pantry.

Saumeraz Homestead ornaments, Armidale

There are nick-knacks decorating the shelves (presumably collected on the Grand Tour), tables, chairs and chests hand-carved by White girls Elsie and Mary, the last residents of this mansion and countless paintings, etchings and lithographs of horses and hounds throughout the house.

Despite the below-freezing temperatures experienced here in High Country during winter, Mary White, the last remaining heir to live here, always slept outside her bedroom on the balcony.

As I sit here in my HEATED hotel room wishing I’d brought Ugg boots with me I find this hard to comprehend. This was the medical advice of the time apparently, to ward off respiratory disease. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? They breed them tough in the country.

Saumarez Homestead, Armidale

The history and influence of the White family in this area is quite extraordinary. Frank’s brother Frederick, who owned vast tracts of land from the Hunter to the Tablelands, each with it’s own mansion and about 30,000 sheep, was responsible for the construction of the first halls of residence at the University of New England, at one time his family home.

Many of the public buildings were built with donations from the White family and with the gifting of their family home to the National Trust they have in the final years of their dynasty provided a fascinating tourist attraction for the area.

NERAM gallery Face to Face exhibition, Armidale

After this little history lesson, we head for the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM), the finest and most valuable collection of artworks in regional Australia.

The collection is a Who’s Who of Australian art, with pieces from artists including Tom Roberts, Margaret Olley, Margaret Preston, Jeffery Smart, Brett Whitely and John Olson, each corner I turn in the gallery I find another treasure.

And that’s just what’s out on display. We’re taken downstairs to the store room to be shown the rest and given the story of this collection along the way. The collection is here through the generosity of two collectors: Chandler and Hinton.

NERAM behind the scenes

Howard Hinton made his fortune in shipping and after retiring in the 1920s proceeded to spend it all on artworks, which gave away to friends. His principle benefactor was the Armidale Teachers College, the dean being a close friend, which is why this collection has ended up here.

Chandler was the son of wealthy graziers who didn’t quite fit into rural life, “not a black sheep” I’m told, just a “different sheep”. He moved to Sydney to bestow his wealth generosity on the Sydney art scene where he fitted in quite nicely.

Both collectors clearly had an eye for talent and a great sense for the significant trends and developments in the art scene.

NERAM behind the scenes tour, Armidale

The spirit of Chandler and Hinton remains in the community here in Armidale, and the gallery continues to successfully raise funds to add to the collection. Our behind the scenes tour is run by local volunteer, Robyn.

Robyn takes us on a journey through the Sydney Art Scene, and indeed, a history of Sydney, from the mid-1800s through to the 1980s, telling us Chandler and Hinton’s stories, the artists that benefited from their generosity along the way.

Behind the Scenes tours are available to anyone visiting the area, with a few days notice preferred.

Harvest restaurant at NERAM

Our exploration of the art gallery doesn’t end here though as we return for dinner that evening at the Gallery restaurant; NERAM Harvest.

Harvest is the creation of chef Rowan Tihema, originally a Kiwi but raised in Darwin and Townsville. Rowan started his professional life as a mathematician on the payroll of thought leader Edward de Bono but his passion for food took him on a different career path. Having worked in several hatted restaurants in Melbourne, Rowan spent a year above the Arctic Circle in Norway, and the menu he has created for Harvest seems largely influenced by this.

The restaurant has a stylish yet comfortably cluttered feel to it and the service is personal, with Rowan himself serving each course and his partner mixing our drinks.

Our meal is a tasting menu that starts with home-cured gravalax, served with lavash bread, mustard and horseradish tartare, followed by spinach soup with a floating poached egg (a common Norwegian dish). We’re then given a little taster of seared ocean mackerel, followed by a kangaroo fillet served with roasted kumera and a red wine and berry jus before the main course is presented.

Salmon HArvest Restaurant

A whole ocean trout, slow baked in a crust of salt meringue, is cracked open at the table, filleted and served on a bed of silverbeet.

Somehow we manage to find time for a cheese platter before waddling back to our hotel.

The writer was a guest of the Armidale Tourism.

Where to Stay

Quality Hotel Powerhouse. Marsh St, Armidale. Very centrally located so if you care to wander out for dinner, most of the restaurants in town are within walking distance. Why would you though, when the food and atmosphere here is so good? Grab yourself a seat by the fireplace and nibble on some tapas.

Fireplace Powerhouse Quality Inn Hotel, Armidale

Dinner at the Quality Hotel Powerhouse is a selection of tapas at their very cosy bar. We had the foresight to reserve a seat by the open fireplace and it’s divine sitting in here nibbling on chorizo, Moroccan koftas, olives and patatas bravas while sipping on a very fine South Australian Shiraz.

Tapas at Powerhouse Quality Inn Hotel

Everything on this menu is good by the way, which makes it difficult to limit your self to a reasonable amount – and be warned – these tapas portions are country-size. Good food, extensive selection of wine and great service – I could stay here forever.

Poppies Cottage Bed & Breakfast Farmstay. A cosy little cottage on the outskirts of town, populated by dogs, cats, geese, chickens and a miniature horse.

Poppies Cottage Armidale, cat and horse

To the rear of the property there is an extinct volcano which makes for a nice walk in the morning (you’ll be accompanied by a few dogs).

Poppies Cottage Armidale

About Author

Deborah

Mother, travel blogger, social media diva, scuba girl and passionate eco-warrior, on a mission to remove plastic from my life. I also blog here about diving: www.diveplanitblog.com

5 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this article! Margaret Olley is my favourite! Have you been to see her Art Centre at the Tweed Regional Art Gallery?

    • Deborah Reply

      Thank-you! She’s one of my favourites too – such bold use of colour. I haven’t been to her Art Centre – I’ll have to add that to my bucket list.

  2. Mark Reply

    Sounds like you had a good time Deborah & thanks for the coverage. On the subject of food & wine – Armidale is the major town in a relatively new wine region – New England Australia. Unfortunately Powerhouse is not much of a supporter of local wines (you’ll see their on-line Wine List doesn’t include any local wines), so you had to sup on a SA Shiraz in a northern NSW wine region! I hope you had the chance to try some of the excellent local wines during your stay – have a look at http://www.newenglandwines.org.au/index.php for more wine info if you get a chance.

    • Deborah Reply

      Hi Mark – we sure did try some local wines during our stay. We had a bottle of Shiraz from Merilba Estate with dinner at Harvest, which impressed us so much we had lunch at Merilba the next day. Unfortunately they had sold out of Shiraz so we settled for Cab Sav with lunch.

      I should add – that lunch was fantastic – Kassy cooks up a great little selection – rustic country style food with an international twist. My favourite was the slow roasted pork Bo Saam – delicious!

      And I’d love to sample more New England wines – feel free to send me some 😉

  3. Another great read thanks to you Deborah! I am always amazed at how you are able to write and make your readers feel that they are just talking to a friend. My favorite part is “New England: a significant slice of Australian art, history and fine food”. Keep writing please!

Leave a Reply