Who would've thought out-of-control fires in the 1960s would mark the beginning of one of the longest- running arts festival in WA?
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Darlington Arts Festival lays claim to being a cornerstone in the careers of many noted artists including David Gregson, Robert Juniper, Brian McKay, George Haynes and Richard Woldendorp.
All took advantage of cheap land in the tiny village tucked away on the Darling Scarp and exhibited in the early manifestations of the festival, as successful then as it is now. Some stayed and some left but rumours of raucous and bohemian living in Darlington in the 1960s remain.
Juniper later became a patron of the event, with his wife Patricia taking on the role of his ambassador this year.
Writer and artist Philippa O'Brien and Gail Gregson (whose husband David died in 2002) are both long-term residents of Darlington. An old-fashioned natter with them brings to life the early days of the festival and their beloved Darlington.
We catch up in a newly refurbished cafe - very trendy for Darlington, say the pair. It's one of the few commercial sites allowed in the town. With two cafes servicing a population of only 3500, O'Brien says the locals are complaining it's becoming like Subiaco. "There is, of course, a liquor store. It's been very central to Darlington," she says.
Gregson says the rumours about Darlington are absolutely true. "Wife-swapping, lots of alcohol, wild parties, you name it," she says. While it seems social rules were bent at the time, rules were also being stretched in the visual arts as the many artists resident in Darlington questioned past practices and spearheaded new ways of creating.
But back to those fires.
Pioneering modernist artist and World War II veteran Guy Grey- Smith, who contracted tuberculosis and had only one lung, would become exhausted when burning off garden waste on his Darlington property. The fire would predictably spread to the bush, and, with monotonous regularity, the flames would leap to the Junipers' block.
After several years, and many out-of-control fires later, Grey- Smith felt he owed much to the local residents who regularly came to his aid so he organised a group exhibition in Darlington Hall to raise money for a formal fire brigade. The one-off show in 1963 was to become a mainstay for the next 50 years, cementing Darlington as an arts destination.
Gregson says back then a siren would sound the alarm at the Darlington post office, often in the middle of the night, and locals would assemble there ready for action.
"We all had a little sack of water on our backs, wet hessian bags and just branches from a tree to beat the fire out. That was it. There was no fire brigade."
Senior artist Brian McKay, 87, who lived in Darlington in the early 1960s, says he would head out in his ute over rocks, stumps and grass trees to reach the site of the fires. "When the siren went off people like myself, Bob (Juniper) and Guy would charge into the bush with stirrup pumps and wet bags trying to put them out," McKay says.
"It was wonderful in Darlington during that time. Everything was so exciting. There were lots of parties and debates. We had university professors, scientists, sculptors, painters, theatre people and musicians living there. It was just a wonderful little group of people.
"Guy was the cheerleader for the visual arts, if you like. He influenced Bob and me tremendously. He was a true eccentric and a bohemian."
The site of extensive vineyards in the late 19th century, the lesser hall at Darlington was originally a cellar. A popular place for picnickers, boarding houses soon opened and holiday homes for city dwellers popped up.
It didn't take long for artists to discover cheap land was to be had in the 1950s. Early artists living in the area included Amy Heap and even D.H. Lawrence boarded in a Darlington guesthouse while in Australia.
O'Brien and Gregson say it was the women of Darlington who were instrumental in pushing the idea of an ongoing festival, rather than the artists. O'Brien says Robin Juniper, first wife of Robert, was very much the prime mover.
"She roped people in to help. She was a journalist with _The West Australian _. The Junipers were a very starry young couple - extremely photogenic, beautiful looking and very fashionable, and so people gravitated to them."
While the early women involved have stepped aside in the running of a festival Gregson says has become bigger than Ben Hur, a younger generation of women have taken over, in turn bringing their demographic to help run it. "Thousands upon thousands come to the two-day event," Gregson says.
There's an entertainment stage, food, kids' choirs, dancing groups and, of course, the exhibition, this year by special invitation to artists who have exhibited across its 50-year history.
Included among the long list of artists exhibiting this year is work by Guy Grey-Smith, along with Hans Arkeveld, David Gregson, Robert Juniper, Hal Missingham, Philippa O'Brien and Richard Woldendorp in a retrospective of the exhibition's history.The Darlington Arts Festival is on November 2 and 3. Details: darlingtonartsfestival.org