GOODBYE SUNNYSIDE by R.H. Croll
Bright blaze the stars, the night is dark As down the roads of heaven they ride, How could they our small planet mark If 'twere not for its Sunny Side?
It is a long, steady rise from Belgrave to Kallista, and twenty years ago the road was rough and stony. The two city artists who were with me had found the walk rather far. As we rose to the crest, topped now by the Kallista School, the watercolourist sighed, drew his hands from his trouser pockets - he always strolled with his arms buried to the wrists - and looked at me reproachfully. 'Someone has stolen the end of this road,' he remarked with conviction. Five minutes later his back straightened, his eye brightened, he was a different man; we were facing that wonderful view which is framed by the soft green hills of Sassafras and Olinda. 'Why didn't I bring my paints?' he asked. But he, as many another of equal skill, was to 'bring his paints' on plenty of other occasions, for the home we were about to visit was famous for its hospitality. Many of the choicest spirits of Melbourne's world of art and letters made the well-named Sunnyside a meeting place, at week-ends, and, like Toby Belch and his merry company, they frequently 'roused the night-owl in a catch.
The house stands on a hillside which slopes to the creek at Begley's Bridge. The rich soil has a number of granite boulders scattered through it, and from one of these, about three feet high, swelling up near the front verandah, each guest, if he stayed overnight, was expected to deliver an oration. They were memorable evenings. No motor cars in those earlier days flashed along the unevenn roadway far below to remind us of city noise and city cares; our hilltop was a world apart, dedicated to us and to us only. In every pause we would be aware of the solemn night all about us, of the scent of musk and mint-bush and eucalypt, of the never-pausing murmur of the little creek, hurrying, always hurrying. But pauses were few in such company. Here it was that C. J. Dennis wrote much of his Sentimental Bloke and it was to his host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Roberts, that he dedicated that highly successful book. Mr. Roberts had been manager of the cable system of the Melbourne Tramway Company. Several of the ancient 'buses, withdrawn and sold by the company as trams superseded them, stood - they still stand - in favoured spots in the garden. They made capital bedrooms, as we found on occasion. In one of these 'Den' camped, and in it he composed much of his verse of that period.
We made a rally, a sort of house-warming, when he was installed. Each contributed a small picture or a text to hang along the line where, in the 'bus's live days, advertisements used to be placed. The result was a truly remarkable collection of cards, mainly figuring beautiful ladies, and of mottoes containing more advice, direct and oblique, than any man could take in a single lifetime. One of the cryptic utterances which I recall was the warning, worthy of a new Delphic oracle, that a 'motor-car is not fit to be out of!' We sang at nights ancient songs lke 'Samuel Hall' and 'O Landlord, have you any fine wine?' but with verses made on the spot to supplant the extremely frank statements of the original makers of those delectable ballads. Dennis was particularly good at improvization. A lady visitor declared that she had milked the cow that morning. The usual scepticism was expressed. 'Den' at once summed up the matter in a set of neat verses. [See "The Martyr of Bovinia".]
That likeable genius, the sculptor Web Gilbert, was a frequent visitor, and so were two of his art associates, John Shirlow, best known then as an etcher, and the late Alick McClintock, the watercolourist. Clad in a white sweater and wrapped closely in a snowy sheet of linen, I was posed one day in the garden as a wood god, alleged to be a creation of Web Gilbert's. The photograph shows him finishing off this marble statue, his implements being a garden hoe as a chisel and a wooden block used in rope quoits, grasped by its pin, as a mallet. It was McClintock who thanked God he had brought his liver with him when, on one occasion, he drove down that stony road in a rattling cart.
Most of the jokes originated in the fertile brain of our host, whose wit never flagged, whose invention was never at a loss. The late George Ellery, town clerk of the City of Melbourne, the editor of a Melbourne daily newspaper, and I were luxuriating in our beds one Sunday morning, having been forbidden to rise early, when Mr. Roberts appeared, attired in an old tail-coat, with towel on arm, as a broken-down waiter. He served me respectfully and passed into the room of the editor. Decorous, murmurings ensued. Then suddenly the pseudo-waiter reappeared in a hurry, accompanied by a burst of threatening language from the newspaper man. With very un-waiter-like joy Mr. Roberts explained that he had offered the editor a sausage wrapped in a sheet of his journal 'Well?' said I. 'Well,' replied our host, 'I told him that I had found something good in his paper at last!' There exists somewhere a remarkable caricature of Mr. Roberts in that waiter costume. It was done by David Low, now one of the foremoost, cartoonists of the English-speaking world. He and Hal Gye, who illustrated The Sentimental Bloke, were often at Sunnyside.
Here, too, M. J. McNally, artist in narrative as in pigment, told some of his finest stories; here, on the friendliest of footings, were men such as the late 'Dave' Wright, known to the frequenters of Fasoli's as 'the man of memory,' and the late Tom Roberts - he did a fine portrait in oils of his namesake. Harold Herbert, who has since recorded so many lovely scenes, has stood on the verandah to admire the Sunnyside view; that great annalist, E. Wilson Dobbs, contributed erudition to the gathering, Hugh Wright, of the Mitchell Library, Sydney, never failed to include Kallista as a place of call when visiting Victoria; but it is not possible to chronicle all. One name, however, must not be omitted. Mrs. Aeneas Gunn, author of those two classics of the inland A Little Black Princess and We of the Never Never, was often an honoured guest, coming up from Monbulk, the village of which, it is hoped, she will write the history some day.
But Sunnyside was centre of a wider circle. Its owner boasted that he was born near Scarsdale, and he was one of the prime movers in that staunch body, the Old Boys of Scarsdale, whose crest is a he-goat and whose motto Non extincti sumus. It was fitting that men born in a goldfield town should so honour their boyhood friend and enemy, the goat. Roberts wrote histories of the early times of his birthplace and its neighbourhood, and conducted a wide correspondence which embraced the late Fred Johns, of Who's Who in Australia, Adelaide, and many a London friend, including Colonel Arthur Lynch, soldier, author and Parliamentarian. Friends, humble or famous, were all welcome to this house in the hills, and when the fame of Mr. Roberts's collections of books on many subjects, notably on the foundation of the Australian Commonwealth, was noised abroad, visitors came even from overseas to Sunnyside to inspect and be charmed.
But to-day Sunnyside is empty. 'Garry' Roberts - to how many was he 'Garry' - is dead, and Mrs. Roberts has left the old place. The shell of the hospitable home stands waiting a new spirit to quicken it to life again. Farewell, Sunnyside!
from I Recall by Robert Henderson Croll,
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002-08|