The Heart Garden

There is nothing quite like the sexual tension of an illicit love affair: the meaningful looks and the lingering touches full of electrifying double entendre, a secret language that only the two of you understand. Equally intense but a great deal less provocative, however, is when it all goes wrong. And the story of Sunday Reed’s affair with Sidney Nolan is nothing if it is not the story of a great love lost. Their tempestuous relationship lasted nearly ten years and when it was over, Sunday created a secret garden as a monument to their love, the Heart Garden.

John and Sunday Reed and Sydney Nolan at the beach, photo by Albert Tucker.

Although Sunday and her husband John Reed are remembered foremost as patrons of the arts, their passion for culture was equalled by their passion for nature. They were devoted gardeners who, according to Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, authors of Sundays Garden: Growing Heide, wanted to create a garden that would be a refuge, a place to reflect, nourish themselves and restore balance and order to their lives when needed.

When the Reeds purchased their property Heide, a former dairy farm with a small river frontage on the Yarra in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, in 1934, it was a blank slate, ripe for re-invention. Over the ensuing years it bore witness to complicated relationships, landmark artistic achievements and significant cultural change. In time, they planted three kitchen gardens, an orchard, thousands of exotic and later native trees, a wild garden, ornamental herbaceous borders, countless roses and a rockery.

Whilst the garden was a collective endeavour, it bore the imprint of Sunday’s personality, in particular her romantic and poetic nature. This was reflected in some of the symbolic plantings on the property, most notably, the Heart Garden, the memorial to her love for Sidney Nolan.

John, Sunday and Sidney Nolan at Heide, photo by Albert Tucker.

In an interview with Sunday’s biographer Janine Burke, Pamela Warrender, the chairwoman of the ill-fated Museum of Modern Art, recalled Nolan saying, “It was Sunday who had the green fingers. Sunday could spot an artist.”

Nolan was invited to dinner at Heide for the first time in 1938 after a nervous meeting with John Reed at his office at Melbourne’s Collins House. It was a blatant request for the funds to help him realise his dream of travelling to Paris to make world-class art. John declined to give him the money, but he took Nolan’s folio home to be appraised by Sunday and the dinner invitation was extended shortly afterwards. Soon, Nolan was spending all of his free time at Heide, where he found inspiration in the Reed’s library and art collection as well as in Sunday herself.

As his artistic practice developed, Sunday began to take on a central role as his muse and patron, and Nolan’s feelings for her intensified.

Twelve years his senior, Sunday was a thin, elegant woman with a charismatic presence; a strong, worldly character. She was also a passionate individualist, determined to create a life that was wholly her own. Sunday, who hid nothing from John, had also fallen deeply in love with Nolan. When Burke interviewed Nadine Amadio, a friend of the Reed’s, she recalled Sunday telling her “it was a very sensual, sexual relationship…Once she was actually telling me what a wonderful lover Nolan was. How she loved being with him, how it awoke her physically and mentally.” In her book, The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, Burke wrote, “Sexuality was a crucial and fully realised expression of Sunday’s life…[while] John’s ardour appeared not of the same order and intensity,” suggesting this was one of the reasons their marriage became dependent upon friendships as intimate as the marriage itself. In 1941, Nolan moved to Heide, marking the end of his own marriage to Elizabeth Paterson, with whom he’d had a daughter the year prior.

When Nolan was drafted into the army in early 1942 and sent to the Wimmera in western Victoria, he and Sunday would ring each other most nights, but due to wartime regulations, they could only speak for six minutes. Afterwards Nolan would write to her. In The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, Burke wrote, “There seemed to be nothing the two lovers did not share and Nolan wrote to Sunday as if John did not exist.” Sunday, for her part, recorded every phone call she received from Nolan in her diary, along with either the first words or a summary for his letters and telegrams and each leave he had from the army. In nearly every letter, he begged her to come visit him wherever he was posted, and she often did, to John’s distress.

After absconding from the army in mid-1944, Nolan lived a strange secret life between Heide and a loft in Parkville, furnished for him by Sunday. In 1946, he began working on the major paintings for his Ned Kelly series, all but one of which were famously painted on the dining table at Heide with Sunday by his side. Amadio told Burke that Sunday had confided “she felt that they conceived his art when he was inside of her” which Burke aptly described as “an image of consummate creative union.”

Nolan suggested the Kelly series could be seen as autobiographical. In the painting The defence of Aaron Sherritt, two men hold Mrs Sherritt against her will in her bedroom and Burke suggests that the scene may refer to “the bonds that kept Sunday trapped in her martial bed.” Burke noted that during this time, a sense of desperation emerged from the lovers’ correspondence, a recognition of the fragility of their situation because of the way it flouted convention. For a while, it appears to have heightened the affair’s romance and passion, but by November 1946, Nolan seemed to have realised Sunday would never leave John. When he finished the series in July 1947, he departed for Queensland, frustrated and painfully weary of the situation.

While Sunday took Nolan’s absence badly, he found he had a taste for travel, discovering new horizons, meeting new friends and gaining a new perspective on his career. An immensely ambitious man, he seemed to have become aware that Sunday, unwilling as she was to leave John or Heide, had nothing left to offer him. In January 1948, Nolan left Queensland for Sydney, where he stayed with John’s sister, Cynthia, whom he married later the same year. The Reeds embarked on an ill-fated trip to Europe to exhibit the Kelly series, and presumably win Nolan’s favour again, but it was almost a complete disaster. Sunday wrote to her friend Joy Hester form Paris, “…since Nolan left me, when in the buses and the trains and walking down the streets I often think I am dying and the blood drains from my face and pours out of me…” When the Reeds returned to Heide in July 1949, Sunday began making the Heart Garden.

Sunday Reed in the garden at Heide, photo by Albert Tucker.

On the north side of the house at Heide, Sunday dug a heart shape that was about three feet wide and four feet long. Here, according to Harding and Morgan, she planted heart’s ease, forget-me-nots and other emblematic plants.

A living memorial to the long and profound love she shared with Nolan, Sunday only communicated the garden’s meaning to her friend Jean Langley, who told Burke “it was like a private love letter.”

Sunday, who was not an artist herself, was an excellent gardener and so was aware, at least at some level, of nature’s transformative qualities. Mourning her lover, she turned to her garden to help her cope with her grief and the Heart Garden became like a healing wound. She eventually abandoned it, letting their adopted son Sweeney pave over it in the early 1970s. Perhaps it had served its purpose or perhaps she realised that nostalgia had no place in a thriving garden, that all gardens are transitory, growth never ceasing, but flowing forth wild, persistent and unrelenting.

All images used in this story are from the collection of the State Library of Victoria