For the past few days I have been sitting in the “schoolroom”, a late 20th century addition to one of the oldest properties in Dandenong – Laurel Lodge. Added as an external kitchen, it has since been turned into a small classroom, fitted out with desks with lids and slates, chalk and chalkdusters, referencing the fact that the main house was originally a private school for young ladies. Built in 1869 by a Mr Robert Huckson the two-storey building was leased to a Miss Matilda Shaw to run her school there from 1869-1884. Originally for girls only, the school did later include boys - in 1875 there were 13 female and 4 male students.

 There isn’t a lot of information on Matilda, including no photos to speak of which is a little disappointing…it would be deeply satisfying to be able to put a face to a name, to read something that she had written herself rather than the melodramatic recollection from ex-student actor Oscar Ashe whose portrait of her in his autobiography is less than flattering: “The headmistress was a Miss Shaw, a hard-faced martinet who thrashed me day in and day out” “I felt Miss Shaw’s beady back eyes gimleting into me” “Miss Shaw had, I thought, been getting the scaffold ready” “’Go on, or I’ll thrash you,’ cried the inexorable one.”

When her business became too big for Laurel Lodge in 1884, Matilda moved up the road to new premises that she promptly named ‘Merlin’. Not quite ‘Hogwarts’ but it does suggest a fondness for the whimsical, magical and quite possibly romantic – perhaps she was tough and formidable on the outside, but something altogether different underneath?

The school itself had a prestigious reputation however – the Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne 1888 states: ‘from a very small beginning the school grew in public favour rapidly, soon becoming one of the leading boarding schools in the colony.’ The school closed in 1889 the year she married. This makes me wonder whether, despite her independent life up to this point, the conservatism of the times meant that once married, she was no longer allowed to work? Or perhaps she was just tired and after twenty years of teaching and running her own business, decided to become a lady of leisure, put her feet up and retire early?

There is something of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in Matilda’s story. Like Meg, Matilda allegedly worked as a governess, like Jo, she established her own school. Coincidentally, Alcott published parts 1 and 2 of Little Women in 1868 and 1869...the latter, the same year as Laurel Lodge’s establishment. In 2012 and just up the road in the Dandenong Plaza, they’re selling paperback copies of Little Women for $1 published by Transatlantic Press.

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The Governess in residence at Laurel Lodge School House

The Governess is in residence at Laurel Lodge School House (part of the Heritage Hill Museum and Historic Gardens site) by invitation from Greater Dandenong City Council. A picture of the school room is attached. She is uncertain as to what will take place during the two weeks, or even how many students will be attending her classes but she is used to working with the unknown and in fact believes it makes one's adventures all the more exciting. She will be submitting entries documenting her stay on her Facebook page - for those interested, go here: https://www.facebook.com/TheGovernessSchool.

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Adelaide Fringe review

The Adelaide Advertiser review came out today...

"ANNE-LOUISE Rentell has a great way of eliciting audience participation. As the post-World War I governess dressed lumpily in black, we are her students, and any misbehaviour will not be tolerated. We all obediently "yes Miss" and "no Miss", and when called to the stage we jump to it. The underlying sexual tension - the governess puts on bright red lipstick to eat a banana - is deliciously Freudian.

As the show proceeds become aware of the reasons behind her black outlook on learning and life and students, atmospherically backed by lightning and rolls of thunder.

Rentell is excellent as the governess, and the tension between audience and performer admirable. The various ingredients, however, are still looking for a better resolution."

Adelaide Town Hall, until February 27

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Sydney Morning Herald review for The Governess in Lessons Learnt

Sydney Morning Herald review:

"Half disciplinary lesson and half absurdist caper, this one-woman show is a tutorship in unfettered character originality. Forbidding and mildly unhinged in a long tailored outfit, Rentell's governess reigns from a tiny Union Jack-topped desk and blackboard. Between chalk-dust dances, New Testament horse impressions, a spine-tingling banana-eating solo and lessons about terrors beyond her classroom, she is twitchy, seductive, frightening and demented. Rentell's governess is a joy to watch, with the potential to be developed even further."

For full review, go to:

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Dreaming Bed

Butchers paper. Books. Many books. On Chinese art and symbols, Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, history of China, history of Australia. Texta. Blutac. Pins. String. Brainstorming. The art of painting landscape and dreams. Time and space. Slow and quick. Big and small. 

A room with a view of a rock wall ("audacious wall") and trees. Trees. Many trees. And birds, millipedes, skinks, moths and butterflies. And down the hill a river. A glassy mirror. 

Contemplation of the changing light. Much staring into the bush. The hold of landscape on the imagination. Nature the bridge for a meeting across cultures, a recognition, a heart's knowing. Nature a mirror in which the familiar is reflected anew...

Two artists. Two paintings. Beds in the landscape. Young girls in white dresses disappearing through trees. The start of an idea. A bed in the bush.  How do we get the bed in the bush? Rain is forecast. A change of plan. A bed in a dark room, an intimate space - a dreaming space. A film and a Chinese lullaby. A book lies open on the bed. A pipe rests nearby - a discovered pipe, a Chinese miner's pipe dug from the soft earth by the river - a young girl's bounty immersed in story. Then a glimpse through the break in the curtains to red Chinese lanterns and a white dress disappearing through the trees - a young girl running away with her dream.

The beginnings of a story evoked, suggested. A work in progress. 

(As a result of almost two weeks residence through the Laughing Waters Artist in Residence Program at Birrarung, myself and Anna have the beginnings of Digging a Hole to China, an exciting new performance/installation project in the Australian landscape. As part of the residency we also had the opportunity to present a work in progress installation to delegates of Parks Victoria's Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress on Wed 14 April.)  

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Digging a Hole to China - Laughing Waters Artist in Residence

Have arrived at Birrarung with a shovel ready to start digging.

In the early hours of last Wednesday morning, Anna and I strapped the sections of the brass double bed onto the roof rack of the Subaru Forester. Two hours into the trip, bubble wrap littered the Hume and the bed had shifted to one side of the roof… needless to say, neither of us can tie knots! We pulled into a truck stop, the plan being that soon we would have a willing assistant. Sure enough – truckie Jason’s knots kept the bed on for the remaining 8 hours of the journey.

I like the drive to Melbourne, plenty of time to contemplate the changing landscape as it wallpapered our 110km/hr dash down the highway. Now to two weeks of being surrounded by it, living within it, and exploring it both metaphorically and in reality...

The space in which we’re living and working is a house designed by Graham Rose for the landscape designer, Gordon Ford back in the 70s - a mud brick, sandy yellow rendered house discreetly positioned in the bush. Every room has a view of trees and our studio, the “waterfall room” a glassed in space with Ford’s rock waterfall design the main feature. The house and land are owned by Parks Victoria and managed by Nillumbik Council as part of their Laughing Waters Artist in Residence program. A great initiative – a space inspired by the landscape in turn enabling the creation of a new work about the inspirational nature of landscape.

To date, walks have been had, birds have been sighted and named (I’m getting an education from Anna) – particularly the dead tree at the top of the hill colonised by Choughs and a pair of Hawks chasing off the Currawongs (or was it the other way around?) – as well as dark swamp wallabies and even a “hennaed” fox which Anna saw on her walk this evening. And we’ve found the perfect site for our work in progress showing on Wed 14...*

It’s a luxury to have the space and time to focus on the development of one's own project – an opportunity I have never had in my life before. It’s also a challenge – are we making the most of the time we have? Is it OK just to sit on your bum and think? How are we going to get that bed and the mattress down the gravely hill and through the bush to the perfect setting for next week’s showing..?

*It must be noted that we have also ventured out on important “research” trips to Yum Cha (Westlake on Little Bourke St) and Melbourne Comedy Festival shows in the city…in particular, Birdmann’s Birdmannia at the Melbourne Town Hall – catch a siting of this rare bird if you can!


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17 December 2009

Update from Society headquarters...

The website is almost ready to go live - big thank you to Bettina Kaiser for all her work to date!

Digging a Hole to China is the recipient of a Laughing Waters Artist in Residence through Nillumbik Council. Myself and Anna Glynn will be venturing south of the border for two weeks over Easter 2010 to develop the project on site...or at least close to the site - Laughing Waters is across the river from Glynn's.