When a man walked into this couple’s tiny art gallery with a bundle under his arm, their jaws dropped.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 26-27, 2016
STORY: KATE LEGGE
Inside a tiny stone church on the tip of Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, the proud owners of a new print gallery have a secret they are busting to share. Gulls shout the sea’s proximity as Soula Mantalvanos leads me upstairs to a mezzanine space they’ve recently added for drawing classes since this is a place of making, telling as well as showing. Her husband, Theo, goes off to fetch a cache of long-forgotten treasures that fell into their lap seven months ago, preoccupying every waking hour since. Not only because they’ve sweated devilishly hard to bring these art works back to life – but what if fire, theft or an act of God struck? The hand that cast them over a hundred years ago is long dead.
Theo returns with a cardboard package. His green eyes flash as he feels inside for objects he has handled so often, so carefully, so closely they are almost his intimate friends. He slides out the first of 12 etching plates made by Arthur Streeton, one of Australia’s greatest landscape painters. For some reason the artist never printed sets from these copper and zinc plates for exhibition or sale, and they languished in boxes stowed in cellars and rooms of houses, places often prone to damp. “It wasn’t just the weather,” says Streeton’s granddaughter, Venetia Patchett. “One of them was used as a putty tile and another had a square of copper cut out to fix a bit of household plumbing by my dad,” she recalls with cheerful affection of her father, Oliver, Streeton’s only child. “Dad was so disrespectful. He burnt heaps and heaps of watercolours because the paper had aged with foxing marks that nowadays can be restored. Nobody took much notice of the plates.”