When Nicholas Dattner closed his furniture business ten years ago, he admitted he had been “some kind of evangelist” for the quality of Australian hardwoods.
The fine tables he was known for were emblems of not just the majesty of trees but also to an aspiration for the good life, where elegance lasts and where people gather together for conversation and camaraderie.
Five years later, Dattner’s name popped up in Castlemaine, the pretty, arty town 90 minutes north of Melbourne. He had bought the old Northern hotel – at the northern end of the main street – and renovated it, as a small accommodation hotel with a restaurant.
Another five years on, while the restaurant has gone, the New Northern has re-re-invented itself, this time as a gallery – complete with a polished hardwood floor that would be the envy of any classy city exhibition space.
Nicholas’s mother painted, so he’s named the space after her, calling it the Bethell Gallery. What he wants to do is showcase photography, and his opening show is his own work, “Trees”.
“At age five,” he says, “I fell in love with gum trees after collecting off-cuts from a nearby house.
“I was enchanted by the oily perfumed smell and golden sticky sap. Aged ten, I fell in love with the magic of cameras.
“As a furniture designer and photographer, I came to see a wonderful connection between developing wood by sanding and polishing and developing film with chemistry and light.
“Both result in an extraordinary transition – a before and after that continues to take my breath away.”
The photographs, mostly taken in north-east Victoria, are arresting, because there’s such loving attention by Dattner to these sentinels of nature. The craft is in the way he draws over the original image; he has a theory about the inkjet printer being a new-fangled drawing machine.
The hotel itself was, for a while, up for sale again, before Dattner rolled up his sleeves and threw himself into transforming one very large room into this gallery space.
The New Northern became the Newnorthern Art Hotel, with Dattner himself presiding behind the coffee machine in the breakfast room. A garrulous, busy-minded man with ideas about everything, he’s keen to make his new gallery into a kind of meeting place for artistic discussion.
If that eventuates, one thing’s for sure; the tables around which people gather for these discussions will be very fine indeed.
“Trees” is on show until October 14: Newnorthern Art Hotel, 359 Barker Street, Castlemaine, Victoria