15. 08. 2019
At Home with Alison Mitchell and Robert Hannaford
By Alex Cleland
The desaturated landscape of gentle hills near Riverton in South Australia’s lower mid north is home to renowned artists Robert Hannaford and Alison Mitchell. From an abandoned farmhouse and outbuildings they have created a nurturing and inspiring space to live and work.
I visited the couple on an Autumn day following a long hot and dry summer. From living room windows we overlooked the valley to the north and west, a landscape of parched paddocks and a pale cloudless sky.
This countryside is changeable, and the artists recall a different scene. Spring 2017, the exhibition Robert Hannaford was on at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the gallery team came up to host a garden party. The dam was full, the garden in bloom and surrounding hills were a patchwork of bright green young wheat, golden canola and purple salvation jane. Quite a contrast to the muted colours of today.
For artists committed to painting from life, home and their connection to it is formative. This is the district of Hannaford’s boyhood. His family were pioneers and the Hannaford name featured on local landmarks long before it was connected with the famous artist. For Mitchell it has been more of a surprise. She grew up on the edge of the jungle in Malaysia and followed her forester father to places of greenery, rainfall and trees. Now the bare and often brown hillocky country around Riverton is welcome and familiar.
Converted stone cowsheds just downhill from the house are at the heart of the couple’s working life. Large northern windows provide natural light to offices and a library of collected art books. Two studios on the south side of the building use huge ceiling windows and sliding wooden panels to take advantage of the soft even southern light favourable to painting. Working in separate studios, Hannaford and Mitchell respect each other’s space. They come together throughout the day, often meeting for coffee in the Library, and welcome each other’s feedback on their work.
In the central storage space bones, skulls, whole skeletons, rocks, and leaves gather on Hannaford’s shelves and tell of a lifelong fascination with the natural world. Painting is his key to understanding. Mitchell’s cupboards are piled with vintage kitchenalia – enamel colanders, ceramic jugs and mixing bowls, worn utensils, all the minutiae of everyday life. Her still lifes also feature produce from their garden where choices on what to grow are influenced as much by what they like to paint as eat.
As representational realists, Hannaford and Mitchell appreciate the value of painting what is before them in a considered and studied way. Their work is most alike when they are travelling, standing side by side in the landscape. At home they work companionably, with deep admiration and respect for each other’s talents.
As successful professional artists they make a living doing what they love and love where they live, but it is no accident.
“We have carved out exactly what we want to do, all our lives”, says Hannaford.
This piece of writing was commissioned by Country Arts SA as part of the inaugural Arts Writing Hot House – a program supporting emerging regional South Australian writers. You can read more about the Hot House here.