Nevin Hurst: A Long and Occasionally Turbulent Life
It started with a casual mention … the sight of a couple of postcards at Salamanca markets on Hobart’s waterfront.
Then two books that my daughter picked up at the market.
The story of Errol Flynn … and of Merle Oberon, the actress who starred about the same time that Flynn was enjoying his Hollywood successes.
I pointed out to her that Oberon was from Tasmania and that Flynn was born in Hobart.
She knew that.
Yet little did we know what twist of fate was ahead of us. And the part the two stars of the silver screen played in it.
Later that day, while exploring the other side of Constitution Dock, we followed her intuition to look over the Henry Jones IXL Art Hotel and the adjoining atrium … a public space and shops as well as professional offices that spill out from the hotel.
Right on the waterfront where the boats would, in days long gone, make their way up the Derwent River from the Huon Valley, laden with fruit for what was then the IXL jam factory.
My daughter also announced that we would stay at this place, after the few days we had planned of driving up to the north of the island.
In your dreams, I thought. We cannot afford this.
The focal point of the hotel is the Jam Packed restaurant as well as a design centre, a hub for architects and a masterpiece gallery.
Signs pointed to this gallery, but it was not easy to find. At the back, up some stairs and to the right.
However, it was an art collectors office more so than a gallery.
A young girl Samanthe was at work among walls filled with art and books … even on the ceilings.
This was something different. A couple of areas crammed with art works and then another room, almost an office.
The faint smell of whisky … there were bottles on cabinets, tables, shelves. They looked expensive.
The gallery must have seen some impressive exhibitions through the years.
I returned to glancing at the paintings … old seafaring works, classic landscapes.
Then Samanthe was heard talking to someone. There is someone in the office!
A peep around the corner … an ageing yet distinguished man was lying on a couch, a shock of white hair, a rug up to his chest. He was obviously suffering a bad cold.
Samanthe introduced us to Nevin Hurst.
And that was the start of an incredible hour or so of stories to inspire.
He had published those books we picked up in Salamanca markets about Oberon and Flynn … and has done a great deal more in his life.
Oberon scaled the heights of Hollywood to fame, fortune and a place in the hearts of a generation of film-goers … but her origins were always a clouded mystery.
Between them, they made more than 100 movies.
Yet Nevin Hurst is a heavyweight in his own right, especially for his understanding and patronage of art in Tasmania.
The foreward in his memoirs is signed by one of Australia’s living treasures, Barry Jones.
The former high school teacher, writer, lawyer, quiz champion, social activist and politician described Nevin as “one of the most interesting and enterprising Tasmanians I know, with a connoisseurs eye, a driving enthusiasm, a preparedness to take risks and back his hunches and a promoter of young talent.’’
Nevin claims relationship with the Hearst family of US publishing family fame, and with the great British military commander Field Marshal Montgomery, who lived as a child in Tasmania.
Not only that, Nevin is an extremely accomplished artist as well as a writer.
The key paragraph of the book is: “All my life I’ve had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and treasure. I had a less than ordinary education, but I’ve always had an engine room of enthusiasm and I’m certain this is the key to my success.’’
Yet on this day Nevin lent us his biography, From Rabbit Traps to Rembrandts: A Long and Occasionally Turbulent Life.
We were about to drive to the north of Tasmania and back along the east coast. Almost a week of exploring this island state to the south of the Australian mainland.
“Drop it off when you come back,” he said.
It provided great insight not just into the man but the Tasmanian way of life. The hardships of the early years as well as the freedom of such a natural environment – some of the most spectacular wildlife, forests and oceans on earth.
Nevin’s Masterpiece Gallery specialises in high quality works from artists around the world, including many prominent Australian artists.
The gallery houses the finest array of investment art to be found in Tasmania.
The coverage is broad, although specialising in Australian art from colonial to contemporary. The stock also includes colonial antiques, old master drawings, Chinese antiques, European oils and watercolours etc.
As a young man, Nevin’s interest in the arts was aroused by his grandfather who, as well as being Acting Surveyor General, took a keen interest in fine art, antiques and all things historical.
More than 30 years ago, following a varied career in farming, mining, the newsprint and airline industries, he began a career in the world of fine art and antiques, eventuating in opening the Masterpiece Fine Art Gallery for business in 1975.
Nevin believes that to be a successful dealer one must not be too possessive – put simply, just service the clients and enjoy the passing parade.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Masterpiece Fine Art Gallery held many exhibitions by well-known Australian artists, beginning with Desiderius Orban in 1979, followed by Judy Cassab, Eva Kubbos, Robert Dickerson and Lloyd Rees plus many others, including local artists.
Orban, the great teacher and contemporary of Picasso, Modigliani, Braque – who he painted with during his early years in Eastern Europe – encouraged Nevin to become an artist, claiming that “anyone can paint, albeit that they may never become a master.’’
From this beginning other artists gave further encouragement, resulting in solo exhibitions – initially at Hibiscus Gallery, Hobart, followed by Anima Gallery, Adelaide, Connely French Galleries, Evandale, The Terrace Gallery, Sydney and Masterpiece Fine Art Gallery, Hobart.
In addition, Nevin has had considerable input into many scholarly publications including books on Haughton Forrest, Arthur Streeton, Lloyd Rees, John Glover and many more.
Yet the books with such intrigue are those on Flynn and Oberon.
Yet it was this restless nature that led to him achieving worldwide fame for his romantic swashbuckler roles in Hollywood films.
His career started in 1933 with the role of the mutineer Fletcher Christian in the feature film In The Wake of the Bounty.
From there he starred in such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Sea Hawk, The Master of Ballantrae, Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On,
As for Merle Oberon, it appears she was Anglo-Indian.
She led an impoverished existence in a shabby Bombay flat before taking up acting and getting her big break as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
The year before she died she finally admitted the story of her Tasmanian heritage was not true.
As for staying at the Art Hotel? Back in Hobart to return Nevin’s book, we asked at reception about staying the night. Sure enough, it was a Sunday and there was a deal going … one too good to refuse.
What price intuition.
What wouldn’t you pay to stay at a location like this, overlooking the harbour where the competing yachts in Sydney-Hobart blue-water sailing classic tie up at the end of the race.
And just to top it off, a group of television sports commentators were next in line at the check-in – they were down from the mainland to cover the game between Australia and England.
The Henry Jones Art Hotel