I’d been been a reader of Frankie magazine for some time when they contacted me about photographing the Old Schoolmasters House for Spaces 2: Where Creative People Live Work and Play – a book that focuses on resourcefulness and individual style. The editor Leta Keens visited Hill End one hot summers day and the article she wrote is reprinted below
The cover of Spaces, shot by Hilary Walker … the front door of the old schoolmasters house
Hill End is the end of the road – there’s literally nowhere to go once you get to the old gold mining town, an hour-and-a-half’s drive through hills from Bathurst in central western New South Wales. For a while in the 1800s, it had a population of 8000, dozens of pubs, an opium den and an oyster bar. Now, there’s empty land where many of the buildings used to stand, and only around 200 people, many of them artists, live there permanently. Goats wander the streets and paddocks. Some of the miners’ cottages are now artists’ residencies – the town has an ever-changing population as poets and painters, sculptors and potters draw inspiration from their surroundings. It’s the sort of place where people are friendly but give each other space, where neighbours drop in for a chat and the pub is a centre of social life.
Parrot feathers gathered on country walks
A couple of years ago, photographer/designer Ingrid Weir was visiting friends staying at one of those artists’ residencies and fell for the place. There’s something about the landscape in that part of the world, she says. “It’s raw and authentic, not pretty country.” She’d thought that one day, a long time in the future, she might have a place in the country, but found out on the grapevine that the Old Schoolmaster’s House, surrounded by an acre of land, was for sale. The house is up above the town; the school, now with only a handful of pupils, is across the road. The house is high enough off the ground and solid enough to be protected from the summer heat and icy winter weather.
As a designer and photographer, and avid Instagrammer, the Old Schoolmaster’s House appeared to Ingrid as a blank canvas, a place to try things out. She thinks of it as a laboratory for creative ideas, and one that will soon partly pay its way through short-term rentals. When she first saw it, she says, “I didn’t see it as a house, I saw it more as a project, of what it could be – there’s a lot to play around with.”
A bench made from logs, a self portrait in the parrot room
Built in 1893, the four-bedroom home, with pitched roof and porch out the front, is one that could be anywhere in the state. You can imagine the education department having sets of plans for schoolteachers’ houses that could be rolled out wherever they were needed – out in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of Sydney.
It’s been a while since a schoolmaster has lived there – the previous owner was a stonemason and artist. The garden was overgrown, and the house had been “maintained”, says Ingrid, “but you couldn’t really see it because of the school board institutional carpet in the main rooms and brick patterned linoleum out the back in the kitchen area.” It made a huge difference when those were pulled up – original floorboards were revealed in the front of the house, and the lino was replaced with black and white tiles with a built-in perfectly dusty look to them.
The front gravel garden, a collection of school inkwells
In thinking about the interiors, Ingrid partly drew on her many years working as a set and costume designer in film and TV. The difference here is that, for once, it’s completely her point of view. And, unlike the transitory nature of film work, the Old Schoolmaster’s House is here to stay. “The basket of creative energy I’ve put into it is coming to an end, and then I can let it settle,” she says. Her approach is imaginatively fictional, with little stories set up throughout. For instance, hanging above what she calls the “naturalist’s desk” in the sunroom is a small painting of a man in suit and tie, Brylcreemed hair combed back. He represents the schoolmaster. “I don’t need to know anything about who the real schoolmasters were. I don’t like things from the past for the sake of old things.”
In the dining room – chalkboard walls and a stalk of corn grown in the garden
In the dining room, in the middle of the house, walls have been painted with blackboard paint, and hung with old educational charts. Being a lover of typography, Ingrid has chalked in the names of shops that used to be in the town, ‘Chemist Dr Zimmler, Smith’s Cheapjack’. She found references to them at an exhibition in the State Library of New South Wales. In the same room, she’s built shelving for her turntable and vinyl, using recycled timber and old local pink Bathurst bricks, with room to display LP covers. “I love playing records up here, they suit the house,” says Ingrid. “Elvis, Roy Orbison – he works in here, he’s a bit surreal – and old jazz.”
Bedrooms take their inspiration from the local surroundings. “One, on the southern side of the house always felt a little cold, but it’s now so lovely to be in because of the parrot wallpaper,” she says. The wallpaper takes its cue directly from the local birdlife. As in the rest of the house, Ingrid has furnished on the cheap, with a mixture of op shop finds, bits and pieces from film sets, the odd thing from IKEA and old family furniture. “What I’ve tried to do is not have too many knick-knacks, but have simple furniture and go back to basics.”
Another bedroom, with chenille bedspreads, has an abstract kookaburra theme. In a quietly theatrical touch, a room at the front of the house, decorated with lanterns, Chinese wooden lattice doors and a window seat, is based on an opium den. “Every now and then, self-seeded opium poppies come up in the garden,” says Ingrid. “I’m sure they date back to when the Chinese miners were here.” The fragile pod of an opium poppy sits on her naturalist’s desk. She’s never tried one; a neighbour has, and the result was a slight headache.
Soon after starting work on the house, Ingrid began writing a blog about it. “The further creativity of writing and photography has become part of the experience,” she says. “Documenting this remote place has led to fascinating connections with fellow creatives all around the world, which has been an extraordinary and unexpected part of it.”
The amazing echium… the naturalists desk
The garden has been as much of an ongoing project as the house, in some ways revealing more about the area than the house itself. At first glance, it didn’t seem to contain much – two trees in the front garden, an apple, which has tiny green fruit the size of golf balls, and an almond, were probably planted when the house was built. As Ingrid has been developing it, transforming it from what appeared to be a wasteland to a wonderfully productive space, it has been throwing up its secrets. There are those poppies, and garlic, also thought to be from the time of the Gold Rush. She’s unearthed paintings and stonework by the previous owner – paintings which are now in the house, while some of the stonework has been incorporated into a pathway in the front garden, built by Ingrid’s father and brother. She’s found a metal crest, fragments of china, bottles and inkwells, all of which have made their way onto the naturalist’s desk.
While the front garden is largely decorative, the back garden is more of a domestic space, with thriving vegetable garden – the crops have been chosen for their ability to withstand the dry conditions. There’s also a partly constructed fire pit, built by two naturally artistic Hill End men, Robert and Steve, both of old goldmining stock.
It’s out the back, too, that Ingrid has made an outdoor dining room, protected by a wall with an opening in the centre. This frames a view to the church across the hill and, at twilight, mobs of kangaroos contemplating the evening air. It’s here she comes to first thing in the morning for a coffee, and often for lunch or dinner, especially when friends are visiting. “I’ve just discovered the word ‘sobremesa’, which is that thing of sitting round the table for hours, talking after a meal,” she says. “There’s time to do that here in a way that’s not possible in the city. This house has added a dimension to my life.”