Travellers on the New England Highway at Murrurundi, in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales, may catch glimpses of the two-storey house if the leaves have fallen. Built as a Cobb and Co stage post in the 1840’s, the White Swan Inn, it was converted to a private home for landholder John Sevil, his wife and 11 children in the early 1900’s. The house and 4.5 hectare garden remains in the Sevil family. Its current custodian Nellie Dawes is John Sevil’s great-great-grand-daughter.
A decade ago, during a two-year total garden over-haul, heavy machinery was used to remove 80 truckloads of privet and blackberry bushes, revealing remnants of brick-edged garden beds, and the sandstone ruins of a convict cell block. The Agapanthus, Iris, Rosemary, Hydrangea and Hibiscus that were dormant in the garden for decades… were coaxed to grow and flower once again… when the sun warmed the soil.
Early in the history of their custodianship, Michael was influenced by meeting cultural historian Dr James Broadbent, who gave him permission to adopt a relaxed approach to the garden. “James believes that we over-fuss and over-manicure our gardens, while the gardens around many old houses were actual practical, useful spaces, providing food,” Michael says. “The gardens were low key because the owners didn’t have today’s technology nor the desire to over finesse.” Consistent with this philosophy Michael and Nellie have divided the garden into useful spaces, creating privacy around the house with towering hedges, and lines of London Plane Trees. Closer to the gallery is a forest, under planted with masses of “what grows”; Acanthus, Periwinkle, Hellebores, Iris, Hollyhocks, Violets and Japanese windflowers.
“The acanthus started with a clump of two plants by the house,” Nellie says.
“After they’ve flowered the dried flower heads and seeds are mown back into the soil and they self seed and spread the following season.” Gravel crunches underfoot as Michael follows a path meandering past textured tree trunks, his favourite acid green Golden Elm foliage, and the enormous girth of a river red gum anchoring the garden in place.
Michael and Nellie saw potential in the partially remaining convict barracks to establish an art gallery, as an incubator for emerging artists and to complement their galleries in Sydney and Berlin. The garden as an extension of the gallery, is used for exhibition openings, the presentation of sculpture, education days, and their annual December Berlin Beach Club – a knees up – held on three consecutive Fridays leading up to Christmas.