As a young boy, Garry Shead had the good fortune to find himself under the wing of his uncle Maurice O’Shea (1897-1956), the great Hunter Valley winemaker. Shead’s vivid memory of his visits to the winery at Mount Pleasant in the early 1950s would inspire a series of works culminating in the celebrated Love on Mount Pleasant series of 2010.
As well as being a renowned winemaker, Maurice was a superb cook - a true gastronome, with a gift for matching wines; perhaps a 1953 Mount Pleasant Florence Riesling (named in honour of Garry’s mother, Nora Florence) or the magical 1937 Mountain ‘A’ Dry Red, with scintillating dishes such as mulloway poached in white wine, coq au vin, yabbies Provençale, or his rogue dish, bandicoot in red wine. This was the culmination of Maurice’s efforts - bringing together the best of food and wine to enjoy in the company of family and friends.
The vast winery at Mount Pleasant encompassed a workplace with its old oak stave presses and concrete vats, cellar, studio, and library, living quarters and gallery kitchen. There was no electricity - all the work was powered by hand. The corrugated iron structure rose from a dirt floor, and to keep it cool in summer, the exterior was whitewashed, intensifying the dynamic interplay of light and shade. In this magical realm, Uncle Maurice supported his nephew’s nascent interest in art, giving him books to fire the imagination. Maurice was Garry’s earliest mentor. In effect, he gave his nephew ‘permission’ to pursue an artistic career.
As the eldest son of an Irish-born wine and spirit merchant, the wine business was in Maurice’s blood. In 1913, he was sent to France to finish his schooling at the Lycée Montpellier. Being bright and charming, he excelled. He went on to complete a degree in viticultural science at Montpellier University with qualifications in botany, history, and chemistry. Importantly he travelled the wine regions of France ‘tasting the best and worst so that great wine and poor wine and the pathways to both became intrinsic to him.’1
By 1921, O’Shea was back in Australia well equipped to take the reins of the family business. He went straight up to the land about to be purchased in Pokolbin, and so began his love affair with this beguiling portion of vine country. Dressed in khakis, boots and battered hat, the short, well-built figure of O’Shea went about planting his preferred vine varieties: Semillon, Traminer, Picpoul, Aucerot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. As the esteemed vigneron Max Lake has pointed out, O’Shea possessed the sensibility of an artist.2 It was with these small parcels of vines he would experiment, blending and highlighting their characteristics like a painter glazing a canvas, adjusting depth and mood, giving shape and substance to a vision.
In 1921, Maurice’s life would change forever. On a visit to suburban Roseville, he was captivated during a piano recital by the beautiful 16-year-old, Marcia Singer Fuller playing Chopin. He had found the muse and love of his life. While declaring his love for Marcia and the desire to marry, things would need to wait until she was at least eighteen. And for all its bucolic charm, conditions at the winery were primitive for a cultured young woman. Then there was the vexed question of religion: Maurice was a practising Catholic and Marcia a Methodist. Despite all this, they married in Newcastle on 2 December 1925.
1937 would prove to be momentous at Mount Pleasant. After various attempts to settle as a family with their young daughter Simone in the Newcastle-Hunter region, they decided to separate. Marcia and Simone would leave to live in Sydney. With a heavy heart, Maurice attended, to what would become his greatest vintage, the legendary 1937 Mountain ‘A’ Dry Red.
Aspects of the drama are captured in Mount Pleasantania, 2010. The work evokes ecstatic triumph and tragic loss – the fate destiny held for O’Shea. The figure of the winemaker presides over an act of transubstantiation. The wine gods have delivered him the ultimate vintage. ‘That wine,’ O’Shea was reputed to have said, ‘is my heart and soul in a bottle – it is the best wine I will ever make.’ However, O’Shea’s moment of triumph was to be short-lived. The gods would exact a heavy toll for this confluence of good fortune. His lover/muse is about to be overwhelmed by a rampant satyr and borne away, leaving the winemaker alone to ponder his fate.
The paintings and prints from Garry Shead’s celebrated Love on Mount Pleasant series are among his most significant works, where the artist, through an intensely personal experience, has illuminated a little-known narrative that lies at the heart of Australia’s cultural life.
1. Mattinson, C., Wine Hunter: The Man Who Changed Australian Wine, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2006, p.37
2. Lake, M., Hunter Wine, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1966, p.45
Gavin Wilson is an independent curator, landscape architect and author. His wide ranging projects probe the interconnected themes of landscape and culture in the Australian experience.