The National Art School in Darlinghurst has begun the careers of many renowned Australian artists – but it wasn’t always a place for students.
We delve into the brutal history of his beautiful old building and some of the stories behind its sandstone walls.
The National Art School
Iconic sandstone architecture, tall palm trees and artworks galore: the National Art School is one Darlinghurst landmark that’s truly hard to miss.
Located in the heart of bustling, creative Darlo – in amongst the galleries this thriving community is known for – the National Art School caters to thousands of budding artists each year.
But this wasn’t always the case: the School actually sits on the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, which is steeped in a brutal and tragic history.
The old Darlinghurst Gaol
Almost two centuries ago, Darlo Gaol was built by convicts and became a pitstop for Sydney’s worst criminals – from bushrangers to murderers. One of its most famous inmates was bush poet Henry Lawson, who did time for drunkenness and skipping alimony payments.
His 1908 poem One-Hundred-and-Three (Lawson’s prison number) is famous for its reference to ‘Starvinghurst Gaol’ and the meagre rations inmates had to survive on.
Many believe the building is haunted by some of the 76 people who were hanged there. Possibly one of them would be Louisa Collins, the first and last woman ever hanged at the gallows of the Darlinghurst Gaol, in 1889.
The mother-of-ten was tried four times for murder and suspected of using arsenic to kill two of her husbands, who both died suddenly. Much of the evidence was circumstantial and Louisa protested her innocence to the end. You can read more about her tragic story and the landmark case in Caroline Overington’s book, Last Woman Hanged.
Over time, the prisoners were moved to Long Bay Correctional Centre and, in 1922, the Gaol was transformed into the prestigious art school it is today.
Take the tour
A sobering way to step back in time and explore Australia’s oldest surviving large gaol complex is with a tour. During the one-hour tour, you’ll take in the historic Cell Block Theatre, the Chapel, the old Governor’s residence, the morgue, the flogging wall and the tunnel which leads to the Darlinghurst Courthouse next door on Oxford Street (still in operation today). You’ll also see the site of the former gallows.
Let’s be honest, you may need a strong cuppa afterwards – and thankfully, the NAS Café is nearby. It serves a range of brekkie staples and lunchtime options. You’ll also find a range of great eateries along Darlinghurst Road and Victoria Street nearby.
The National Art School’s famous alumni
Since the early 1920s, the National Art School has become a leading centre for visual and arts education and has produced some of Australia’s best-loved artists.
Margaret Olley, Tim Storrier, Ken Done, Max Dupain, Reg Mombassa, Wendy Sharpe, James Gleeson, John Olsen, Jeffrey Smart, Cressida Campbell and sculptor Raynor Hoff all trained here and you can find some of their works in the National Art School’s permanent collection.
The School offers an internship program each year – you can apply for it here.
Exhibitions, courses and the art shop
If you’re an art lover, you won’t want to miss the NAS Gallery’s major exhibitions – there are up to four per year as well as annual graduate and postgraduate student exhibitions.
Parents of school age kids should also check out the school holiday programs available at the National Art School; there are also courses for families and children (from age 6 upwards). And budding illustrators may like to join the Life Drawing Club which meets Mondays and Thursdays (no experience required).
Of course, a stroll through the art store will also give any artist a thrill – it stocks a range of paints, drawing accessories, canvas, charcoal, brushes and art tools. It’s also where the likes of Grace Cossington-Smith, Margaret Preston and Hans Heyson have stocked up on supplies, so you’re in talented company shopping here.