Hans HEYSEN | Bushfire, Hahndorf

Germany 1877 – Australia 1968
Australia from 1884; Europe, England 1899-1903

Bushfire, Hahndorf c.1912
oil on canvas
101.0 (h) x 132.5 (w) cm
Private Collection


On the first two days in February 1912 widespread bushfires engulfed the Adelaide Hills, stretching north to south from Norton Summit to Meadows and west to east from Cherry Gardens to Mount Barker. The extensive and dramatic daily reports and commentary in The Register described the fires as the worst in 20 years and each day listed the names of those whose homes and properties had perished. The paper reported that: ‘At night Hahndorf was enveloped in dense smoke, and men were chopping down burning trees to minimise the dangers of blazing debris flying into adjacent scrub land.’[1]

Heysen sketched the fires at first hand, but it is not widely known that he produced not one, but two paintings based on this devastating event. He donated the well-known Approaching storm with bushfire haze to the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1944, describing it as a study for a larger canvas ‘which never eventuated’[2]. However, a lesser-known but more dramatic and larger painting is Bushfire, Hahndorf. Showing the raging fire over a hill being driven by a north wind, Heysen’s view looks towards the north-west, from a position where the road to Adelaide now runs, from right to left across the foreground. Although Heysen had not yet moved to The Cedars at the time of the bushfires (he and his wife had rented a small cottage in Hahndorf since 1907), the property, which he bought six months after the fires, can be seen on the right-hand side of the painting.

The dynamism and action of the fire that threatens the small farmhouse in its path is awe-inspiring. In a desperate attempt to save the farmhouse (which no longer exists), men have lit a firebreak, an almost hopeless act as the tops of the nearby gums have caught alight. Contrary to the quiet, idyllic rural life more often depicted by Heysen, this painting is unique in showing utter devastation in a landscape. It appears to be the only instance where Heysen allowed himself complete freedom to depict such a violent scene; his intense fear and excitement are conveyed in the quick brushwork.

Heysen never exhibited this painting. He kept it until 1943, the year before his gift to the Art Gallery of Approaching storm with bushfire haze, and then donated it to the Red Cross for the war effort. Perhaps the memory of the devastating fires was too traumatic for him[3], especially as an artist who deeply loved the gum trees and local landscape of Hahndorf and its surrounding Onkaparinga Valley.

Rebecca Andrews

© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008
Andrews, Hans Heysen, exhibition book, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008, p 62

[1] The Register (Adelaide), 3 February 1912, p 16

[2] Heysen letter to Art Gallery of South Australia director Mr L McCubbin, 28 September 1944, Art Gallery of South Australia Library: ‘… painted in 1912, as a study for a larger canvas—(but which never eventuated). The study is a one sitting impression, of quite a dramatic moment I came across—just above Hahndorf, during the great bush fires in 1912—which left me with a vivid memory.’

[3] Painted shortly before the First World War, it is possible that it also reminded Heysen of the tragedy of war (letter from Stefan Heysen, 10 July 1990)