I think many of us have an eccentric uncle lurking somewhere in our family. I went to visit mine yesterday, and have to say I came away rather stunned, in a very good way. Let me give you a guided tour.
Here he is: Mark, my father's twin brother.
Despite being as Australian as they come, I think Mark would prefer to be English. He dresses like an English gentleman, every single day. I remember him from when I was very young, skulking in the background of my grandparents' stunning and magical garden - all Mark's work. Mark has never had a paid job in his life, nor a driver's licence - jobs and the driving of cars are terrifying prospects, he told me once.
When I was a child he bought a large, empty block of land, and set about creating an English manor, along with his very own garden. He and his partner, Michael, dreamed, planned, schemed and worked together. Here's the result:
Lacking the funds to fit it out in the true Victorian English style he longed for, they went for a DIY method for creating grandeur. For the main lounge room Mark painted portrait after portrait. He wasn't having any prints - they had to be the real thing. He copied old masters.
When I expressed my amazement that he was so skilled with a paintbrush, he pffted and told me not to be silly. "They're just copies."
They created a true gentleman's library:
However, most of the books are empty covers. But you can't tell they're fake unless you look real closely. In a closet, Mark has a real library, winding shelves upon shelves of reference books that have helped him create this dream. When I was a child, he opened his books about Queen Victoria's doll's house for me, and I think the intricate details I fell in love with then planted the very first seeds for my love of miniatures that eventuated in The Grimstones.
The rest of the house is peppered with decorative shelves of old books:
Mark made these shelves himself, including the ornate gold trimmings.
The house has many guest wings. My favourite is this one:
Mark made the four poster bed himself. He sculpted these mouldings, made a cast, poured them in resin, and painted them:
However, after fitting out about half the rooms of their magnificent home, Michael became ill with AIDS and died. Tragically heartbroken, Mark wondered what was the point? Why create this beautiful place when he had no-one to share it with? For years, the project floundered.
He did maintain his garden, however, which was magnificent. Filled with beautiful pathways, they led us as if through a complex maze:
Last time I visited, which I think was about ten years ago, the garden was a series of these lovely nature walks. Yesterday, I set off with Jesse to walk and enjoy.
Before long, we came upon something that wasn't there last time I visited:
Curious, Jesse and I ventured in. We discovered the stone floor had a hole:
Beneath the grate, there was a statue! And maybe two metres below that, burbling flickering water! I glanced around, thinking the ground had been flat, wondering how this came to be. Was it a glorified well? I realised that beside the path, the hillside cut away, and that by walking down it further, we could see under the floor. We climbed down, and found:
A cave! Hidden from view from the pathway - a little gothic surprise. We went inside:
There stood a statue of Zeus, surrounded by green-tinged stalactites, and a magnificent burbling pond. Wow!
At that point, Jesse and I went back to fetch Mark, to ask him about it. We didn't realise that if we had continued the way we were going, we would have come upon many more surprises. Mark led us a different way towards Zeus, and we found:
A pond guarded by the river gods, Yarra and Barwon. And then the jaw-dropping piece of information: Mark sculpted these enormous, larger-than-life statues himself! Just like the four poster bed mouldings, but on a much grander scale, he used clay to sculpt the gods, then latex and plaster to create a mould, and poured them in concrete. They were made in several pieces, so that each could be carried down individually and set into place. It seems Mark has moved beyond the English Manor and into the realm of ancient Roman gods. it also seems that he's no longer floundering, since Michael's death.
Hidden amongst the greenery was this, invented and sculpted by Mark himself, not based on any ancient god:
And then we came upon a grotto, so hidden by the trees I couldn't get a photo of it. But we went inside to meet the god of Pan, represented by a pair of statues:
Once again, these were entirely sculpted by Mark, along with the stalactites and all the mouldings in the columns. With the head of a goat at his hips, Pan is ornate and magnificent. Mark is waiting for the day when he is stained and mossy, reflecting the true ruin he is supposed to be,
We found serpents guarding the gates of hell (hell must be a spectacularly beautiful place):
And enormous fish:
And fountains set in the junctions of the pathways:
Again, everything was envisioned and sculpted by Mark, realised with the aid of Sebastian, who poured the concrete and lugged the massive pieces into place.
At one place we came across a pallet of pieces that had not yet been constructed:
These, Mark told me, are to be Marion and Hawksbury. "They'll be set into the hillside here, feet to feet. Shadowy. You'll hardly see them. Perhaps you'll do a double take."
And that's when I realised that the surprise Jesse and I had when we discovered Zeus, the magical moment when the impossible seemed to be lurking far below the surface, was all planned by Mark. A sort of theatre, as an innocent garden walk of overgrown trees rustles to reveal murky but magnificent surprises. He's waiting for the plants to grow over his constructions, to hide them so that you see them from one angle but not another, and for time to age everything so that they blend into the garden.
As Jesse said to me, "When Mark's dead, this will be a museum." And I imagine his home will be an incredible guest house. I asked Mark once, years ago, if he would have his house as a B&B. "God no," he replied, "Imagine doing all that work. I couldn't bear it." And yet, this is a man whose work is so prolific, I cannot believe he's created so much in the ten years since I visited.
He told me he only does an hour or so of sculpting a day. Mark rises in the afternoon, and ventures into his garden. He comes in to eat an evening meal and some chocolates, do his hour of sculpting, and then watches television until dawn. As the sun rises, he retires to the most modest of his bedrooms, scarcely more than a closet, to go to bed. Well, that's what I gather based on what he told me years ago. Yesterday I could barely get an answer to my questions, as the rest of my family was there too, and he was much in demand.
I told him of my plans to create a sculpture to go by my pond, until now a vague, shadowy idea which I had no idea how to implement. Mark outlined exactly how I should do it, and invited me to visit to make it. Hopefully I'll get more answers to the thousands of questions I have then.