Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2013

Sensational Snippets: Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge (2012), by Adrian Mitchel

Plein Airs and GracesI am reading Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge by Adrian Mitchell, which is a biography of the 19th century landscape painter George Collingridge.  I have no doubt that if you read this book you will do as I did, and first turn to the middle of the book to linger over the full-colour reproductions of Collingridge’s beautiful landscapes, but when you at last turn to the first chapter, you will come across one of the most lovely descriptions of Australian bushland in literature:

This is Old Man’s Valley on the northern fringe of Sydney at Hornsby, where Collingridge was one of the early settlers:

Tucked in just below the ridge is a deep valley, Old Man Valley, named it has been said, for the kangaroos there.  The earliest documentation shows the original lease was for a farm to be to be known as Old Man’s Valley, the modified name coming into common use some time later.  These days the locals have once more taken to calling it Old Man’s Valley; that seems somehow more proprietorial, suggesting a kind of ancestral presence, a connection to the sense of the past, which is still a felt presence throughout the area.  Little is disturbed down there.  Even the road down into it seems to have been there a long time, the verges overgrown.  The breezes that whip and toss the thinner branches of the eucalypts on the ridge line and the upper slopes do not reach down into the valley.  Mist hangs about until mid-morning.  Dewdrops map out the dainty webs of spiders.  In the late afternoon, the damp starts to rise again, and mists emerge out of thin air.

At some stage the sun, always slow to rise above the crest, shines through the drooping leaves and heavy vapour, and just briefly you might catch the whole underside of the tree canopy scintillating.  Right at the bottom of the valley, where lyrebirds flicker in and out from under the fern trees, is a creek, a tributary of Berowra Creek.  Native fish gather in shady pools below a waterfall.  Small birds – whistlers, yellow robins, blue wrens – skitter busily about the edges of natural clearings.  The magic of Old Man’s Valley is that it shows itself only in glimpses.

Sunsets are hidden by another high ridge at the far end of the valley; in fact, much of this country is an ancient plateau eroded into twisting channels that deepen into gorges.  Long shadows are cast hereabouts.  At night, when the cloud cover drifts away, the temperature plummets, and the bluish moonlight is as cold and sharp as a stiletto.  In amongst the tall timber the clumps of foliage look like ink smudges.

Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge, by Adrian Mitchell, Wakefield Press, 2012, p. 1-2

It makes me want to pack my bags and go exploring…

You can read more of this extract and contrast it with a description of Godington in England where Collingridge was born, at Wakefield’s website.


Fishpond: Plein Airs and Graces: The Life and Times of George Collingridge

Or direct from Wakefield Press.


  1. Lovely description I agree Lisa … this is close to my home during my teen years though I don’t ever recollect being told about Old Man’s Valley … I know the east of the Pacific Highway better than the west though have driven down that general area on occasions. It’s only a few kms south of where The Secret River is set and has some similarity in landscape.


  2. Yes, it’s Secret River country, and there are paintings of it too. Most of them seem to be in private collections but I’m going to hunt around next time I go to the NGV. Do you know if there are any of his at the Canberra gallery?
    It really makes me wish my bushwalking days were not behind me…


  3. I grew up not far from Hornsby, Lisa. I used to cycle through Berowra Waters and Galston Gorge. Recently I went for a drive out to Wiseman’s Ferry, through that same landscape.,. as you say, Secret River country. It’s a rugged beauty and I love it still.


    • Galston Gorge … that’s the name of the place I was trying to remember that we used to drove to, John. Gorgeous … excuse the pun! And of course Berowra Waters. Famous for more reasons than one. Where did you grow up? I spent my teen years in Wahroonga/Warrawee.

      I think they do have some Lisa … the name rings a bell but I can’t bring any specific images to mind.


  4. Books about paintingsand painters can be interesting I just read a novel about a painter and a painting ,all the best stu


    • It’s lovely when you can really visualise a place from the writing, I was thrilled to read this, I really was.


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