Love flowers in verdant paradise

Sunday Reed in the mid-'70s.
Sunday Reed in the mid-'70s.

FOR almost half a century from the mid-1930s Sunday and John Reed championed the cause of modernity, firm in their belief that they were helping to shape a new tradition, a progressive Australian culture modelled on international exemplars, but one that was fundamentally home-grown. They positioned Heide, their semi-rural property in Melbourne's north-east, as a meeting point, an informal educational institution and creative crucible for artists and intellectuals who rejected the more conventional avenues of living and learning. The Reeds, along with Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Max Harris, Danila Vassilieff and others embraced radical art and politics, and pursued a freshness of vision that saw many of them become key figures in Australia's cultural history. As Sunday and John's close friend, poet Barrett Reid, once remarked, at Heide there was a ''total concentration of life'' that was eminently conducive to remarkable experimentation and achievement.

The artistic and social history of Heide has been extensively documented. Less has been told, however, about the physical environment in which that history was made, and its deep significance not only to the Reeds' lives but to the lives of those who experienced it and participated in its evolution. When Sunday and John purchased the 15-acre property in 1934 it was a neglected former dairy farm. By the time of their deaths in 1981 it was a verdant parkland, densely forested with exotic and native flora, with a stunningly beautiful cottage-style kitchen garden the jewel in its crown - in all, an extraordinary aesthetic accomplishment, the result of fifty years of vision, dedication and sheer hard work.

Not just a backdrop to an important chapter in the story of Australian modernism, the Heide garden was part of its quotidian reality. Central to the narrative is the elusive, paradoxical and endlessly fascinating Sunday Reed, described by Tucker as ''the key mother goddess figure'', for whom gardening went hand-in-hand with art, poetry, cooking, love and life. Sunday's garden was the anchoring point of her turning world, and a vehicle through which her creativity and identity can be understood.

As a young woman, however, Sunday's driving aspiration was to be a modern artist. After her marriage to John Reed in 1932 she enrolled in art classes at Melbourne's newly opened Bell-Shore School, receiving encouragement and guidance from her lover, pioneer modernist painter Sam Atyeo. Highly self-critical, she relinquished her dream two years later, believing herself insufficiently talented. It was a watershed moment that coincided with her and John's purchase of Heide, which presented itself in a timely fashion as an alternative form of blank canvas, ripe for invention. Sunday channelled her creative energies into the landscape, and her artistry came to the fore through gardening. From a modest beginning she diligently and adeptly constructed a living masterpiece of colour, texture, light and shade all around her. It was a pleasurable and intensely satisfying challenge. Drawing on a range of models and sources-from the Baillieu and Reed family homes to the writings of English-gardening greats, such as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, and inspirational gardens experienced on European travels - Sunday moulded Heide into a personal Eden.

An integral part of her approach was to make the garden a collective endeavour, not only with John but with friends and others she absorbed into her life. This relational ideology is essential to understanding Sunday's personality and her shaping of her environment: ''Sunday could never experience anything unless it was shared … whatever she did she had to be part of someone else - and this was an absolute central feature of her life.'' The accent on collaboration and partnership also resulted in a level of emotional investment in relationships, which led to inevitable disappointments. When the Reeds opened their home to like-minded individuals from Melbourne's cultural milieu, there was a high expectation that acceptance of the invitation signalled a commitment to and participation in the Heide project. As Max Harris observed: ''Heide is not a stream you paddle in: it is the ocean, the life system, the contact at depth. In accepting all your love and sharing so wholly in your life, the creative spirit abandons all, gives all, too … The people who live with you integrate with your world.'' Such commitment could not always be sustained. At times the tensions of this assimilation reached implosion point, resulting in estrangements from individuals such as Nolan, and John's sister Cynthia Reed.

The story of Heide's development is thus closely interwoven with the complex story of Sunday and John's philosophy of integrated living. It is enmeshed with their early courtship, which was founded on a mutual passion for culture and nature in equal measure, their long and active involvement in the art and publishing worlds, intense interactions with avant-garde artists and intellectuals, and their dedication to the cause of preserving the natural environment, beginning on their own doorstep.

Edited extract of Sunday's Garden: Growing Heide by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, published by The Miegunyah Press. This book is published in collaboration with the State Library and shows elements of the library's unique pictures, maps, manuscripts and rare books collections.

This story Love flowers in verdant paradise first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.