October 2023

Essays

The house at Glenorie

By Quentin Sprague
Ball-Eastaway House

Ball-Eastaway House. © Paul Lovelace / Alamy Stock Photo

How Glenn Murcutt’s architectural vision created a space – and inspiration – for artists Lynne Eastaway and Sydney Ball

The Glenn Murcutt–designed Ball-Eastaway House at Glenorie is about as far from ostentatious as you can get. It feathers gently into the environment. It’s not that the house is disguised in any way, or that it seeks to mimic its surrounds either through material (predominately corrugated tin) or form (a deceptively simple curve, open at both ends). It’s just that it somehow manages to seem as if it’s been there for as long as the surrounding bush has: the yellow and red bloodwoods with their flaking, hide-like bark, the reaching body forms of the angophoras, the tangle of low banksias and the soft blanket of leaf litter.

This bush – a dry sclerophyll forest – is most likely to strike a first-time visitor with an overwhelming impression of greyness, which the tin house initially reinforces. Not grey as in a colour leached of light, but something warm and enveloping: the grey of oiled steel, perhaps, or of felted wool. Look closer, however, and an entire spectrum is revealed. Grey becomes olive becomes green; blue, pink and purple are there too. If the light is right, the leaf litter flashes silver in the undergrowth, and, if the season so desires it, flowering shrubs – narrow-leaved geebung, broom-heath, prickly shaggy pea, sunshine wattle – enliven the vision field with tiny bursts of colour.

The painter Sydney Ball knew this spectrum well. Along with his one-time partner Lynne Eastaway, a fellow painter, he commissioned the house from Murcutt in 1977, and lived there from its completion in 1983 until his death in 2017. Working near-daily in one of two studios on the 10-hectare site (repurposed horticultural sheds, both studios are curved like the house and abut the same huge shelf of sandstone upon which it gently rests), Ball never appeared driven to capture the dizzyingly nuanced colour variations outside his window. Instead, he worked in counterpoint. As with Murcutt’s design, his paintings, which were for the most part uncompromisingly abstract, were not concerned with mimicry. They were not of the bush, but found the means to somehow sit alongside it, profoundly different yet deeply complementary.

Sydney Ball, Chromix Lumina 15, 2017–18, automotive enamel on aluminium, 276 x 210 cm. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf

His final series, Infinex, which he worked on in the seven years leading up to his death at 83, consisted of shard-like geometric supports – either canvas or aluminium – painted in bright, monochromatic hues and hung in modular arrangement. Sunflower-yellow, bright green, purple, fuchsia, orange, turquoise.

How do we look at abstraction, the uninitiated viewer might rightly wonder when presented with one of these works. The answer is simple: the same way one looks at the bush. By being in its presence, its character is revealed. It happens at first incrementally, on the periphery of one’s vision. And then – face on – it floods you all at once.


Ball and Eastaway enjoyed a quietly unconventional partnership for which the house, in its own way, became a binding symbol. They separated in 1984, just over a year after construction was completed, but it was never absolute: they remained tethered to each other for the rest of Ball’s life. Even now, with Eastaway living there again, Ball is present. She works in the second of the two studios – always hers in name, but quickly overtaken as a storage space for Ball’s work during his lifetime – but his studio remains as he left it: works in progress are arranged on one wall, maquettes on another. Other walls still bristle with his handwritten notes, postcards, reference images and photographs.

For the decades of their ostensible separation, Eastaway would come and go between Sydney and the Glenorie block, which lies about an hour north-west of the city, across the Harbour Bridge and up through a sprawl of suburbs that eventually gives way to rich agricultural land scattered with greenhouses and fields.

“Syd used to treat me like I was still part of him,” she tells me. We have enjoyed a simple lunch on one of the house’s two verandahs and afterwards pick our way slowly over the sandstone shelf to Eastaway’s studio. The domed interior is lit by glass doors at one end, and by regular bands of translucent roofing. A large window to the left of the rear wall takes in a concentrated view of the surrounding bush.

“He never seemed to understand that I’d left,” she continues. “He’d say, ‘Well it’s just like you’re down there and I’m up here: we’re still partners.’”

Eastaway is also an abstract painter. Yet although her work engages with similar ground as Ball’s – she also works with hard-edged fields of colour – it is far quieter, a touch more searching in character. The two met in the early 1970s when, after a brief stint in advertising, she had enrolled at the National Art School in Sydney, where Ball was then teaching.

By Eastaway’s own admission she was at the time achingly shy. Ball struck her as worldly, and at one level he was. Already in his 40s, he had established himself in the 1960s as a local proponent of American abstraction. Born in Adelaide, he’d twice lived in New York, first studying at The Art Students League in the early 1960s, and then returning to the city seven years later with his first wife, painter Margaret Worth. He’d rubbed shoulders with 20th-century American art royalty: his painting teacher at the League had been Theodoros Stamos, a one-time member of the so-called Irascible 18, a group that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Through Stamos, Ball had met that group’s reigning theorist, Clement Greenberg, and had been deep enough among them that when Rothko died by suicide in his Manhattan studio in 1970, Ball helped make an inventory of works he’d left behind.

Lynne Eastaway, Gold, 2021, acrylic gouache on linen, 86.7 × 92 cm. Images courtesy Gallery 9

When Eastaway began at art school, the longest shadow cast on fellow painting students had been the French impressionism of Cézanne. But when Ball – rangy, bald headed, charismatic – appeared on the scene, the emphasis shifted across the Atlantic. Although American abstraction had by then largely run its course, in Australia the movement still seemed vital. And Ball, who’d not only met some of the key players but seen many first-wave American museum surveys of their work, was a natural raconteur, not at all averse to fleshing out the associated art theory with well-told stories that sketched in human texture. By the end of Eastaway’s studies, the two were a couple, and working alongside each other in a shared city studio.

The experience gave Eastaway an education of a different order to the one she’d received at art school. Ball was then working on his large-scale “stain” paintings, works in which he poured thin washes of colour directly onto a stretched canvas laid on the studio floor. The paintings were huge – sometimes nearly four metres across – and Eastaway would often help at the critical moment, assisting Ball to lift the canvas strategically so the colours ran together and pooled upon the surface. Although the results directly recall their American precedents, they nonetheless flicker with their own intensity, due in large part to Ball’s celebrated talent for colour: high-key primaries are offset by swathes of magisterial purple, deep green and plum. Perhaps unavoidably, Eastaway’s own work, which under Ball’s influence had already become similarly abstract, grew in scale. But as much as she valued her proximity to such an accomplished partner, she found it stifling too: like so many, Ball was an anxious artist, prone to fits of doubt. He required constant reassurance.

“Lynn-ee,” he would say. “Come and look at this.”

He was also well along his career trajectory, whereas Eastaway had barely begun. His practice always came first, and anything he thought might help it – whether a pink that Eastaway had mixed for her own work, or a composition drawn directly from one of the handmade Christmas cards she gave him each year – was fair game. He took as he saw fit.

Such appropriations – while at one level flattering to Eastaway – could be infuriating. In one particularly galling incident, she threw away a group of drawings she’d deemed too derivative, only for Ball, unbeknownst to her, to salvage and rework them as his own. She would always recall the shock of attending an exhibition of his in Melbourne not long afterwards, and recognising her own work, still visible beneath the surface of his.

Whether or not they knew it at the time, the idea of building the house at Glenorie came at a hinge point for them both. Ball had by then been teaching for almost a decade, and, although he enjoyed interacting with students, he was growing increasingly frustrated by the institutional demands of the university. He was exhibiting regularly and wanted to paint full-time. Eastaway had begun teaching too – both at the National Art School and the University of Western Sydney – but found the role far more fulfilling than Ball did: it had given her the means to push beyond her shyness. She recalls saying next to nothing around Ball and his artist friends, many of whom were not afraid of showing off their knowledge. She was by contrast deeply unsure of herself, hypervigilant that she might get something wrong. The art school studios had given her a forum in which her knowledge mattered, and she slowly established an independent voice. She would go on to teach until her retirement in 2018.

In 1976, Ball had been evicted at short notice from his Sydney studio, which had in turn prompted him to search for somewhere not only permanent but far enough from the vagaries of the city that he couldn’t ever be moved on. He and Eastaway piled into his white Kombi van and drove to Glenorie for the first time. The block had once been partially cleared, but its shallow soil made for poor agriculture and it was now covered in well-established regrowth. A dirt access track led a couple of hundred metres in, stopping at the southern edge of the rock shelf upon which the house would eventually stand. Beyond that, the land dropped towards a far-off creek bed, invisible behind its veil of bush. Excited by the prospects, they soon purchased it and almost immediately started camping there. Eastaway still recalls how they slowly became attuned to the environment, sitting and looking, noticing small things. They found shallow limestone overhangs above the creek, and observed that on certain nights the bush was lit by silvery light. Eastaway discovered bioluminescent fungi, glowing a faint green in the night, and would later note with pleasure that the gentle mauve of their spores fanned out against the daytime grey of the leaf litter.

Ball was deeply interested in architecture. In the 1950s, he had undertaken preliminary studies in the discipline and had begun his working life as an architectural draughtsman, an experience that still echoed in the carefully plotted sketches he often produced for his paintings. He wanted to build something significant and, aware of Glenn Murcutt’s work, sought an introduction through a mutual friend, architect and landscape architect Bill Ashton. It was a well-judged choice. Murcutt, then in his mid 40s, had only completed a handful of projects, but he was already recognised for a distinctive vision that synthesised European and American modernist architecture, such as that of Alvar Aalto and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with a granular feel for distinctly Australian conditions: the bush, the light, the flooding rain, the threat of intense fire. Murcutt’s second realised house design, a glass- and steel-enveloped pavilion in the northern Sydney suburb of Terrey Hills, had been completed in 1974 and later received the state’s Wilkinson Award. It had sparked a growing flurry of interest in Murcutt’s work. Soon-to-be iconic houses in Kempsey and Mount Irvine followed, each of them finely tuned to their surroundings. As with his eventual design for Ball and Eastaway, these houses sat with quiet confidence. They sought to elaborate the landscapes they inhabited in the way a river stone elaborates the flow of water: not as an imposition but as something that makes visible a previously invisible force. The forms of each responded accordingly to the views they took in: they turned away here, opened there; the sweep of them lifting and falling with softly unassuming drama. But the bush at Glenorie pushed in at all sides. Everything was close, a mess of exquisite detail, of light and shadow. Like all sites, it demanded its own solution.


Not long after I visited Eastaway at Glenorie, I organised an interview with Murcutt. Now in his late 80s, he is still working, which he does – largely alone – from the unassuming duplex in a North Shore Sydney suburb that he shares with his second wife, fellow architect Wendy Lewin.

Murcutt now enjoys a significant international reputation. In 2002, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most significant in the field, and to date remains the only Australian to do so. His other awards are numerous, and still coming: a number of days after he and I met, he was flying to Japan to mark his receipt of the Praemium Imperiale (an annual prize awarded across five creative disciplines, Murcutt was joining recent laureates as significant as the American land artist James Turrell, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the photographer Sebastião Salgado and the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei). Although he has long had the opportunity to do so, Murcutt has never scaled his practice up in the manner that so many successful architects do, instead choosing to eschew the likely financial returns in favour of a high degree of selectivity over which projects he does and doesn’t undertake. I already knew the reasons why from an earlier phone conversation: he firmly believes that the thing at the centre of a practice – the act of making – is the most important aspect of any creative endeavour. The larger one scales a practice – architectural, or otherwise – the further one risks getting from this simple fact. In 1980, when he first met with Ball and Eastaway over lunch in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, this concern for the integrity of his work was already prominent in his mind.

“The thing is this,” he begins, seated across from me in a Hans Wegner Flag Halyard chair at the centre of his open-plan living space, which has undergone a simple yet deeply effective Murcutt-Lewin redesign. “You’ve got to sort out the people who are genuine – who absolutely want to do it – from those who want a status symbol.”

This may make Murcutt sound formidable, but, although he speaks of his work with a certain concentrated intensity, his character is open and curious. And his commitment to holding the centre of his practice close has clearly paid off: he remains acutely alive to its mysteries, and even after some seven decades is often still surprised by the way a landscape can activate his designs. “I make my buildings work hard,” he’d told me on the phone. “So if it is raining you hear the rain trickling into the tanks – that beautiful, life-affirming sound of water. So if you open vents, you can bring the perfume of the landscape inside.” He had always been interested in the passage of sunlight – how it reached into a building at different times of day, how it ebbed and flowed with the seasons, and could be bounced off interior walls to diffuse softly through space – and, after a client alerted him to an unexpected spill of moonlight in the house he’d designed for her, he had become increasingly alert to its lunar equivalent. A building, he explained, is best conceived as an instrument, something that the surrounding landscape plays.

Murcutt recalls readily accepting the commission from Ball and Eastaway. “Working with artists is a great pleasure for me,” he says, as his ancient black chihuahua shakily jumps onto the chair next to him, curls up and falls instantly asleep. “It’s such a wonderful thing because there’s such overlap in what we do: we’re talking about light and whether their own work is going to be displayed, or whether the work of other artists is going to be displayed.” The only firm design note came from Ball: he wanted an unusually long interior wall upon which he could hang a vast, multi-panel painting he’d made in New York.

“It was a very nice problem to have,” Murcutt recalls, before gently correcting himself. “I don’t really think it was a problem; it was an issue. I call them issues.”

Another was the view. “Almost all clients, when they have a beautiful view, they want the whole lot, all the time. And it’s a huge error. A great view has to be limited – you’ve got to find different parts of it, and then frame each of those as a painting.”

Ball’s long central wall eventually provided a means to do exactly this. The resulting design is a masterclass in both the power of withholding and the power of revelation. The entrance is reached by a long walkway of planks that run at an oblique angle to the house’s longest side, their edges not trimmed flush but left as a perfectly staggered zigzag. The house sits at the edge of the sandstone shelf, which falls away in a series of gentle intervals. On approach, one readily senses the drop-off to the view beyond, but open the door and it’s the long painting wall – a kind of backbone that runs down the interior – that a visitor is confronted with: it conceals the landscape, replacing it with the surface of Ball’s painting and immediately underscoring the fact that one has stepped inside. Houses, a first-time visitor might think, as if coming to the idea entirely independently, are places of refuge and shelter. From there, any view to the bush outside comes in concentrated glimpses until finally, on each of the house’s two verandahs, it is seen, heard and felt in something close to entirety. “You see your landscape more clearly by not having it all the time,” Murcutt tells me.

Eastaway still remembers Murcutt’s first visit to the block. He walked off alone into the bush, spending time sitting and thinking just as she and Ball once had. She would come to understand the north-west facing verandah, which is recessed flush behind the painting wall, as a carefully framed expression of the central view Murcutt had taken in on that first day. It’s where Eastaway and I had lunch during my visit, the sun-warmed wall radiant behind us and the bush right before us – close enough, it seemed, to reach out and touch. This is the fullest view to be had from the house, but to access it, one must pass through an unassuming door that, when closed behind, seals the verandah off from the domestic interior completely. The feeling is instantly hermetic. In the early 1980s, Eastaway had taken up meditation, and Murcutt originally conceived the space with this in mind. But Eastaway has since come to associate it with something else: the experience of sitting under one of the larger of the rock overhangs that lie down the gully from the house, by the creek. The connection resonates. Like a shallow cave, the verandah is all muted comfort and bright aperture.

The sandstone shelf provided an obvious site for the house: a readymade platform elevated above the sloping bush and naturally devoid of trees and shrubs. To run the house level with that meant that, at its far edge, it hung nearly as much as a metre and a half above the falling ground below. Part of this was about ventilation – it allowed air to flow beneath the house and cool it in summer – but there was more to it. Murcutt knew that even the relatively minor elevation would make the dappled light of the bush more apparent: sunlight filtered through the eucalypts, bringing out the varied colour of their leaves and lending the tree cover an intense sense of transparency, which his early travels in Europe convinced him was specifically Australian in character. With similar sensitivity, he designed a system of steel-pipe columns – 14 in total – that sunk directly into the sandstone. Eventually, as holes for these footings were carefully drilled, he directed the builders to set aside the resulting stone dust to mix back into the cement that would in turn hold each column in place.

Ball-Eastaway House. © Paul Lovelace / Alamy Stock Photo

As Murcutt tells it, it’s easy to sense the roots of his architecture in his childhood, particularly in the influence of his self-reliant polymath father, Arthur. Murcutt – the first of five siblings – was born in London in 1936, during a journey that his parents had taken to see the Berlin Olympics. The couple was living in Papua New Guinea, where Arthur had relocated from Australia in 1919, finding work as a carpenter in Port Moresby before establishing a small alluvial goldmine in the remote upper Watut Valley, where Murcutt’s mother, Daphne, had joined him in 1934. The family returned there from Europe and stayed until the World War II Japanese advance eventually forced their return to Australia. Murcutt was just shy of his sixth birthday, but the experience of living in a simple corrugated-iron, steel and fibro house raised off the ground on stilts, and surrounded by the dramatic highland landscape, had already proven deeply formative.

After serving in the air force, Arthur opened a joinery business in Manly. During his time in PNG, he had purchased a staggering 96 blocks of uncleared bushland in the then-new Middle Harbour suburbs of Clontarf and Seaforth, and he initially chose to settle in Clontarf. The surrounding bush was still largely pristine, and the roads only half sealed. The first house they lived in was commissioned, but the second, which was completed in 1950, was designed and built by Arthur himself. It was three storeys, and, along with the family, eventually housed seven pianos. The block was adjacent to a foreshore reserve, and looked directly over a low cliff and a strip of beach that would vanish at high tide. Murcutt recalls family dinners on the rock outcrop that marked the edge of their garden, the sun sinking low. “That was the reality,” he tells me. “We were brought up at a time in this country that was, in landscape terms, what I regard as paradise.”

Vivid memories underscore the shaping influence of his father’s committed environmentalism, a good part of it dedicated to the quixotic task of holding back encroaching suburbia. Murcutt and his siblings were enlisted to collect and propagate the seeds of the area’s endemic tree species that were being felled to make way for new houses: majestic angophora costatas, black wattles, melaleucas. They learnt to quicken germination by baking the seeds in the oven, and then nurture them in nutrient-rich soil taken from their neighbours’ septic tank outlets, before planting the resulting seedlings on covert missions over the area’s newly cleared slopes. Some of them, Murcutt tells me proudly, are still growing there today. If Arthur heard trees being chopped in the surrounding bush, he was known to take to the family verandah with a loudspeaker to warn the perpetrators off in no uncertain terms – schoolfriends of Murcutt’s, who might have been gathering wood for a bonfire and been subjected to one of the amplified tirades, would tell him, “You ought to be careful, there’s a madman living out your way!” Once, when he and his younger brother, Douglas, returned from a day’s fishing with a bumper catch of leatherjackets – far more than either they or the family could consume – Arthur calmly directed them to freeze the excess. As punishment for overfishing, he made sure that no matter what the family were eating, the two boys were only served fish until, almost a month later, the supply was finally exhausted. “Do not take more than you need to eat,” he told them at the end of the ordeal. “My father came very close to fanatical,” Murcutt says.

Arthur also encouraged his children to engage with art, music, architecture and books. He read and re-read cherished first editions of Freud, Thoreau and Jung, among others, and emphatically passed on what he learnt to his children. By age 12, Murcutt was working in the joinery, and at 17 applied the descriptive geometry and drawing he’d been learning at school to the task of producing technical plans for a third family home – also Arthur-designed – in Seaforth. Thanks to his father’s subscription to international architectural journals, Murcutt by then had a nascent working knowledge of some of the modernist greats: not just Aalto and van der Rohe, but Frank Lloyd Wright, Gordon Drake, and Charles and Ray Eames. He and Douglas both laboured on the project, digging trenches for footings, mixing and pouring concrete, and helping produce glazed timber walls at the joinery. Soon afterwards, the two built a small racing-class skiff together, a project that partly explains why Murcutt sometimes likens his buildings to boats: simple machines that can perform a series of actions in response to surrounding conditions. Vents open and close to capitalise on the movement of air, metal louvres can be shut to offer protection against bushfire, sliding screens provide modular shade. With these basic actions in mind, it’s easy to picture the young Murcutt brothers in their hand-built skiff adjusting its windward course. His houses don’t move, but he does everything he can to ensure that the outside world flows in and around them like the currents of a river, or the ocean.

By the time he designed the Ball-Eastaway House, Murcutt had long sublimated the lessons of childhood. They were felt most fully in his overarching concern for the integrity of each site, particularly in his sensitivity to native flora and fauna. In the 1980s, the term “touch the earth lightly” began to be commonly appended to his buildings – a phrase first applied to them by the Western Australian architect, Brian Klopper, who was in turn paraphrasing an Indigenous concept of living respectfully on Country – but Murcutt carefully nuances any oversimplification that may result.

“I didn’t start out with that in mind,” he says. “But I have always been conscious, through my background and my father’s background, of the economics of all things.”

He means this in broader terms than a concern for money. “It’s about the use of material: the limitation of how much you use. You’re conscious of the longevity of materials, and how they can be replaced. And you put a building together so that its components can be retrieved as many parts and reused, or used in new places.”

For this reason, nails or glue were kept to a bare minimum in the construction of the Ball-Eastaway House. Murcutt’s preference is for screws and bolts, fasteners that can be removed with little or no damage to the materials they connect. “You think about a building’s afterlife while you’re conceiving its present,” he says. The tin and hardwood, the glass and aluminium, the downpipes and benches: if needed, all these can be replaced in the simplest of fashion. But, bit by bit, they could also be disassembled as a discrete collection of functional parts. Not a demolition, but a deconstruction towards a future configuration. All that would be left would be the 14 small contact points where the footings sunk into their sandstone base. After a season of rain and leaf-fall, these too would likely disappear from view.


On the evidence of Ball’s paintings, moving to Glenorie and into his and Eastaway’s Murcutt-designed house was not without its challenges. Ball initially struggled to reconcile his commitment to American abstraction with the Australian bush, and to address this he slowly began to introduce shadowy figures, renderings of tribal sculpture and elements of landscape into his paintings. The shift was not without precedent – several noted American and Australian abstract painters underwent a similar turn towards figuration in the late 1970s and early 1980s – but Ball’s new paintings were not always met with enthusiasm. When he travelled in Korea, Tibet and China in the mid ’80s, themes of symbolism and shamanic religion began to manifest in his work as well, as did ideas loosely drawn from his personal reading of Buddhism. When his representative gallery in Sydney closed, he wouldn’t secure another for more than a decade.

Eastaway was similarly searching. By the time the house was being built, her interest in meditation had steered her towards a group called Self-transformations, which focused on demanding sessions of transcendental meditation. She still recalls the experience as “intense”. It hinged upon punishing hours of introspection that pushed her sense of self almost impossibly wide. She would return from weekend-long retreats near-euphoric but still scattered. “It was almost like I was high,” she says. She recalls Ball being fascinated by the changes the meditation wrought in her, but although he almost attended alongside her, he eventually demurred. “You do it for both of us,” he said. When she met another man through the meditation group, existing tensions in her relationship with Ball became unavoidable and Eastaway was soon living in Sydney again.

The pattern that would define much of the remainder of Ball’s life then began: him in the Glenorie house and studio, Eastaway coming and going. They remained close, settling into a deep sense of camaraderie. Their conversations were traced by private jokes, and Ball often attended Christmas celebrations with Eastaway’s extended family. They constantly found their eyes independently drawn to the same phenomena in the Glenorie bush. “Did you see this, or that?” one of them would excitedly ask the other, perhaps in reference to an early-blooming wildflower or the almost impossibly pink trunk of a particular angophora. Invariably the answer would be, “Yes.”

Back in Sydney, Eastaway’s own career continued to take shape. She taught; she began to exhibit regularly. And although Ball often still called upon her to look at new work in the studio, his influence on her receded. Over the coming decades she would develop paintings that were complementary to his, yet entirely her own: quiet, cerebral-seeming abstractions in which blocks of colour met each other on otherwise clear grounds. When I visited, part of a series from 2016 lay on one of her studio tables: unstretched canvases crisply painted in muted colours. They were folded snugly into flat, purpose-built boxes. Eastaway pulled one out and demonstrated how she intended it to be unfolded and re-folded like a complex, oversized table napkin.

Lynne Eastaway, Pink, 2021,  acrylic gouache on linen, 86.5 × 92 cm. Image courtesy Gallery 9

When Ball suffered a stroke in 2017, Eastaway was in Sydney. The 1990s had been difficult for him, but, after securing a new gallery in the early 2000s, he had experienced a late-career reawakening to his work. There had been a large survey exhibition, an honorary doctorate, an elegant three-part publication on his practice. By then he had long turned back to abstraction – alongside the modular Infinex paintings, he’d undertaken a striking, richly coloured series later grouped under the title Structures, in which geometric shapes were treated like the insignia of tiny bush republics. He had, in a sense, come full circle. When he couldn’t be reached by phone at the Glenorie house, Eastaway called a neighbour to check on him and he was rushed to Hornsby hospital. She sat with him in his final days. He was conscious, but confused. “What have I done, Lynn-ee, to get so sick like this?” she recalls him asking. “Syd, it’s just life,” she replied. “It’s just life happening.” After he died, she drove back to Sydney at night, accompanied by the sounds of some of Ball’s favourite chamber music playing by chance on ABC Classic FM – in the moment it seemed like it was every piece he ever loved, one after the other. At the funeral, she couldn’t help smiling. “He kind of left me this joy,” she recalls now. “His appreciation of life and his love of nature: that’s what sticks with me.”

It took Eastaway as long as two years to settle back into the house. The decision to return had been a hard one, and she initially doubted her judgement. The task of cleaning out her studio and setting her mind to new paintings initially seemed insurmountable, so when she did begin it was by the simplest of means: making unassuming watercolours at her dining-room table. The view of the bush before her was densely modulated by Murcutt’s aluminium louvres, sectioned windows and screens. Murcutt would later tell me what he needed to begin a design such as the one he’d done for the house that Eastaway was sitting in as she worked. “Reverie,” he would say. “A state between sleeping and waking.” He had already told me about the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Thinking Hand, in which Pallasmaa, a close friend of Murcutt’s, argues for the innate intelligence not of the mind that guides the creative act, but of the act itself. As Eastaway embarked upon her new watercolours, she would surely have recognised the idea: it’s one that echoes particularly strongly throughout the history of 20th-century art and is perhaps most famously expressed in abstract artist Paul Klee’s belief that “the eye travels along the paths cut out for it in the work”. It’s a belief in the agency of the thing itself; whether that thing is a drawing, a painting, a building, a piece of music or prose, it contains a form that its author discovers rather than designs.

Whatever the process, it might feel like grasping at straws, but then something takes hold. Murcutt begins with sketches – little more than doodles – and slowly works them towards something tangible. “All of a sudden it breaks,” he tells me. “And you just know that you’ve landed on something. There’s a lovely feeling of resolution: you’ve found a solution. Not the solution, but a solution.”

As Eastaway worked, she realised – much like Ball had before her – that she couldn’t simply paint the bush. But it was equally clear that something in her work had to shift.

“I began by looking for another colour palette,” she says. “I’d come up to the block, and things were so different, and I just thought I’ve got to find another palette.”

Her mind turned to an American First Nations mask she’d recently seen in a museum in Paris, coloured beautifully with dusty pink, red, purple, grey and white. She started there, adjusting the colours ever so slightly as she slowly made her way through a block of watercolour paper. All the while, the light outside the window shifted incrementally, and the colours she saw there – initially too subtle to fully apprehend – started to ring clear.

Lynne Eastaway, Dusk, 2021, acrylic and gouache on linen, 36 × 25.5 cm.  Image courtesy Gallery 9

Her new palette expanded: she added greens, yellows, blues and ochre reds. Whereas Ball had settled on colours that contrasted bluntly with the surrounding environment, she found herself meeting it on its own terms. She eventually understood that she had brought the bush into her practice after all. “I realised it was colour and light that I was responding to. I couldn’t deal with all the little fiddly bits of the view – that was too much. But the colour and the light – that was just spectacular.”

In her studio, three recent paintings hang on the wall. They are small. Each is a muted yellow, green or red, with tiny geometric forms painted at their centres: black squares, abutted triangles, standing rectangles. They aren’t pictures of anything but themselves, yet they are nonetheless redolent of the world just outside the adjacent window; in the manner that salt-burnished sea-glass takes on something of the ocean, they have distilled the bush into abstract form. They exude warmth. I want to take them from the wall and hold them.

“The more you’re out here, the more you see,” Eastaway says.

She smiles at the memory of herself sitting at the table with the first of her watercolours, the Murcutt-framed view ever-changing before her. “Oh, thank God, I thought. The decision to return was right.”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Parkville II

(A dream diary from Bed 15)

Supporters of the “Yes” campaign in Melbourne, Sunday, September 17, 2023, wearing "yes" T-shirts and raising their fists

The Voice beyond symbolism

As October 14 approaches, opposition to the Voice has been dominated by false claims and discredited ideas

Scene from ‘Starstruck’

ABC TV’s ‘Starstruck’

The charming rom-com’s third season delivers more emotional pay-offs as the characters develop in their 30s

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Ant music

Underestimating the economic value of arts labour reminds of the Aesop fable ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’


More in The Monthly Essays

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality