As I’ve already mentioned in A Tasmanian Affair Part 1, owning a house on the East Coast of Tasmania occasions regular trips from our home base in Sydney – at least, it did before the pandemic saw us locked out of the apple isle for most of 2020.

Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery

But my cultural interest in Tasmania pre-dates our purchase of Peace and Plenty in 2013. I recall a visit to Hobart for the annual Moët & Chandon Touring Exhibition when I was performing and visual arts critic for The Australian Financial Review (1985-2002). This not only introduced me to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG, established in 1846 and the first such museum in Australia…or was it? Read on!), but also to Dame Joan Sutherland who was guest-of-honour – and staying like the rest of us in the Hotel Grand Chancellor, a must-stay location because of the cinematic views of Constitution Dock from the guest rooms!

And in the mid-1990s when I was Series Editor and Producer/Presenter with SBS TV’s arts show, Imagine, I made a couple of stories on arts and craft in Tasmania.

Museum of Old and New Art

In 2011, I visited the then nearly-finished Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, returning for the opening and writing up the museum for Indesign magazine. The art is largely appalling, but the site and the building are unique. Also refreshing is the way the historical and the contemporary have been married. MONA occupies part of the Moorilla Estate, where Claudio Alcorso established Tasmania’s cool climate wine industry in 1958. The cellar door remains a key part of the MONA experience, as are the original Roy Grounds buildings, including the residence which architects, Fender Katsalidis, have beautifully integrated as the entry to the otherwise underground museum.

Longford house, Sarah Foletta

Other first-hand contacts with Tasmanian cultural life have been architectural. I especially recall Sarah Foletta’s elegant re-imagining of a traditional French ferme in Longford.

Premaydena house, Misho, Vasiljevic

This trip also introduced me to the Launceston-based designer-maker furniture firm, Designs in Timber, whose products are proudly featured at Peace & Plenty, and, later, Misho Vasiljevic’s extraordinary bushfire-resistant house south of Hobart at Premaydena.

Winged House, Photo Anthony Browell

Another architectural highlight was in 2008 when I visited Richard Goodwin’s award-winning house designed for television journalist, Quentin Dempster, the Winged House, near Wynyard. After a very jolly sojourn there (I cooked!), we – Quentin, Richard and photographer, Anthony Browell – journeyed on to Port Sorrell to visit Andrew Andersons’ perfectly customised house for the distinguished art curator and writer, Daniel Thomas, whom I had known for many years. After we had bought Peace & Plenty, Charmaine and I visited Daniel, toured the property, took a dip in Bass Strait, cooked him dinner and stayed overnight. We returned again a couple of years later – this time we cooked lunch!

All of the above is what we can call the contemporary bit. But I have also developed a keen interest in the cultural history of Tasmania.

Untitled (Trukanini), 1831, Thomas Bock

This was probably triggered by a visit to TMAG where there was, fortuitously, a survey of the work of engraver and painter, Thomas Bock, who arrived in Hobart as a convict in 1823. Eventually pardoned, Bock became Tasmania’s first professional artist, specialising in portraits. Apart from Hobart’s well-to-do, these included some extraordinarily naturalistic portraits of Aboriginal people, including the legendary Trukanini. His work with dagurerrotypes also made Bock Australia’s first professional photographer.

Reclining female nude, c. 1840s, Thomas Bock

Ignorant as I was of Bock’s work, the show was a revelation. But the greatest impact was the six modest pencil drawings of Bock’s naked wife in poses which recalled both Rembrandt and the classic Venuses of Titian, Giorgione, Velásquez etc. Even I could see their significance – the first nudes in Australian art and the only nudes until the late 1870s.

Seated female nude, c. 1840s, Thomas Bock

This led to my book, Slow Reveal – The Nude in Australian Art, a history of the nude set within an international context and framed by a discussion about the naked/nude distinction, the life class and the many functions of the nude in art.

But Bock also triggered a thirst to find out more about the cultural life of the colony founded in 1803, initially as part of the colony of New South Wales and going by the name of Van Diemen’s Land – it was re-named Tasmania in 1858 by which time the colony was fully self-governing.

The colony was, until the late 1840s, extremely prosperous. And, as I discovered, this prosperity led to a culturally rich outpost on the way to Antarctica. Apart from helping to feed the struggling colony in Sydney during its perilous early years, Tasmania was a fast-growing community and economy – by 1830 Tasmania accounted for one third of the non-indigenous population, half of all land under cultivation and half of all exports from Australia.

For the cultural significance of Antarctica, some of the outstanding cultural features of Tasmania pre-1850 and more about the first museum in Australia, stand by for Part 3 of my musings on Tasmania.