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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).