History

NAS students outside Building 16, 1973. Photo: Fiona Hall

The National Art School, on the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, stands on Gadigal land. NAS acknowledges the Gadigal traditional owners on whose lands, water and skies we meet and share. We pay our respects to all Gadigal elders, past and present, and honour the diversity, history and creativity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the beginning.

In 1822 building began on Darlinghurst Gaol, one of Sydney’s earliest prisons which opened in 1841 and operated until 1914. Of the many thousands of inmates held here in that time, 76 people were hanged between 1841 and 1907.

The National Art School moved into the former gaol buildings in 1922, as part of Sydney Technical College, later East Sydney Technical College. The School gained autonomy as an educational institution in 1996, and became the sole occupant of the Darlinghurst site in 2005.

In 2019 NAS signed a 45-year lease to remain on the site and was designated a State Significant Organisation with ongoing funding; in 2021 the former Darlinghurst Gaol and National Art School received a NSW heritage listing as Sydney’s oldest surviving gaol complex.

In 2022 NAS celebrated 100 years of teaching art on this site, and 200 years since building began on the Gaol. NAS is one of only two independent tertiary art schools operating in Australia.

Smoking ceremony at NAS performed by the Koomurri organisation, 2022. Photo: Peter Morgan

Warning: This page contains mention of elders who have passed on.

Trigger warning: This page contains mentions of rape and murder

The National Art School stands on Gadigal land, which was never ceded. Gadigal were one of a number of clans, collectively known as the Eora Nation, living in what is now called the Sydney Metropolitan area.

In Aboriginal People and Place on the City of Sydney’s website Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History, Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson describe Gadi (gal) country stretching along the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) from South Head to around what is now known as Petersham, while the southern boundary is unclear.

It is thought the hill where NAS now stands was a significant Gadigal site with pathways running through it and possibly used for ceremony, with good views of the harbour to the north and an abundant supply of water from Yurong Creek that ran from Darlinghurst to Waalamool (Woolloomooloo), and Rushcutters Creek to the east.

Darlinghurst Gaol was built on the ridge between Waalamool and Kogerrah (Rushcutters Bay), a place of sandstone and dry sclerophyll forest with many Sydney redgums, as well as banksia and coastal heath plants such as hakea.

North of where NAS now stands, the valleys leading down to Waalamool (Wooloomooloo) and Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove) gave way to Swamp Oak Forest. To the east and on exposed headlands were pockets of coastal heath forest. To the south the dry forest turned to grassland, swamp and wetlands.

The harbour including Warrane (Sydney Cove) was an important part of Gadigal country and culture. The coastal people gathered shellfish including badangi (Sydney rock oysters), gadyan (Sydney cockles) and mussels, shown by the many middens that remain in the Sydney area. They also used nawi (canoes) for fishing, during the day and at night, building fires onboard to cook their catch.

The 2022 public artwork bara by Waanyi artist Judy Watson was inspired by the shell hooks Gadigal women used for fishing, kept in the Australian Museum’s collection in Sydney. Of her sculpture, which sits high on a lawn near the Sydney Opera House facing the Harbour Bridge, Watson said: “My concept for bara re-imagines ancient gathering spaces where people sat by fires on the headlands and feasted. bara provides a quiet space for ceremony, reflection and contemplation in a busy and ever-changing city.”

With the invasion of the country in 1788 by the British First Fleet, the impact on Indigenous people, their country and culture, was catastrophic in the short and long term. Early colonists estimated 1,500 Aboriginal people were living at that time between Broken Bay in Sydney’s north and Botany Bay to the south, but more recent estimates range from 3000 to 5000 people. Within a year, it was reported that around half these local people had died from the smallpox epidemic of 1789.

At the same time as this terrible loss of life, there was also resistance to the invaders, such as the guerrilla war waged from 1788 to 1802 against the Sydney Cove colony by Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man from the Botany Bay area.

As Sydney historian and lecturer Alana Piper notes in her research paper exploring the history of Yirranma Place in Darlinghurst near the National Art School, Aboriginal presence, culture and history did not end in Sydney with the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788, but has continued, disrupted but unbroken, to this day.

By 1822, when building began on the Darlinghurst Gaol walls, the First Peoples who had lived here and cared for their country for countless generations had largely been dispossessed in this area, but more than 200 Aboriginal people lived nearby in Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay), (Derrawunn) Potts Point and Waalamool (Woolloomooloo), which remains an important site for Aboriginal people today.

After the so-called ‘assimilation’ of Aboriginal people into the British colony, many were interned in Darlinghurst Gaol after it opened in 1841. At least five were condemned to death and four were hanged for murder or rape: Mogo Gar in 1850, John McGrath in 1875, Jimmy Governor in 1901 and Thomas Moore in 1903. Others had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment, often with hard labour.

According to Sydney historian and archaeologist Paul Irish, First Nations people lived nearby while the gaol was in operation, including at Barcom Glen just below the gaol until the 1860s, and elsewhere around Kogerrah (Rushcutters Bay) until around 1900. While some were inmates at Darlinghurst, usually interned for minor offences, most Aboriginal prisoners came from elsewhere across NSW.

Sydney was the centre of the colonial justice system, and Darlinghurst Gaol came into operation when colonial expansion across the state was underway. Aboriginal people were arrested for offences such assault, murder and spearing cattle on the colonial frontier, and for a range of other crimes as they were forced to adjust to life under colonial rule.

Irish says poor conditions in the gaol contributed to the ill health of prisoners, and many inmates died. As Darlinghurst Gaol was primarily a manufacturing gaol, some First Nations prisoners received training in stonemasonry in the 1850s and 1860s and in 1876 several skilled weavers at the gaol had their mats displayed at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Irish says it is not known how many Aboriginal prisoners served time in Darlinghurst Gaol, as their heritage was not always recorded in admission registers, particularly in cases of mixed ancestry. Prison photos and records are sometimes the only archival evidence of these inmates, and historians are now beginning to examine these records more closely for a more detailed understanding of the lives of Indigenous prisoners.

Wiradjuri man Jimmy Governor was the most renowned First Peoples inmate in Darlinghurst Gaol. As NAS archivist and historian Deborah Beck notes in her book about the gaol, Hope in Hell, Jimmy’s life was recorded in detail and was the basis for Thomas Keneally’s 1972 book, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, later made into a 1978 film by Fred Schepisi. After committing murder and rape with his brother Joe, Jimmy eluded the police and Aboriginal trackers for 14 weeks. Joe was killed after an extensive manhunt. Jimmy was captured on 19 October, 1900 and taken to Darlinghurst Gaol where he was photographed for the Entrance and Description Book.

He was convicted on 23 November 1900, given the death penalty, and was hanged at the gaol on 18 January 1901, aged 26. His story has seen a resurgence of interest recently, including the 2021 book On Thomas Keneally by Wiradjuri man, journalist and writer Stan Grant, reflecting on Governor’s life and Keneally’s rewriting of it. Grant visited the former gaol site as part of his research:

‘I went in search of a ghost: the ghost of Jimmy Governor. I went to the place where he took his last breath. The old Darlinghurst Gaol is now the site of the National Art School. The gallows are gone. But behind the high sandstone walls, it is not so hard to imagine what it was like, back then. I was taken through the time-worn corridors, past what once were cold prison cells. I turned a corner and stopped suddenly, like something – or someone – had grabbed hold of me. I looked up and my tour guide said, that’s where it happened. Exactly there, she said, where I was standing, is where Jimmy was hanged. Above me was where the trapdoor would have been, and where the hangman would have placed the noose around Jimmy’s neck.

‘… Jimmy was executed less than three weeks after Federation, and here I am searching for him still, looking back into the past to try to make sense of who I am. More than a hundred years later, Jimmy Governor still casts a shadow over this nation. Jimmy Governor haunts me and he haunts Australia.’

Kudjla/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd made two paintings of Jimmy Governor for the 2016 exhibition in the NAS Gallery, Sixth Sense, and generously donated the works to the NAS Collection. Painted on small canvasses using oil, acrylic, pastel, charcoal and glue, they hung in the gallery on either side of Boyd’s site-specific work, an untitled window piece with many pinholes, which transformed the exterior into a dotted vision.

NAS students have also responded to the story of Jimmy Governor. In 2016, printmaking student Kirtika Kain made some large prints outside Building 24. Using text and enlarged photographs, the interactive prints were displayed for a few months, and students were encouraged to place their thumbprint onto one of the panels.

Overall, NAS has had relatively few First Peoples students, however many of those who studied here went on to successful careers as artists. These include the late Thainakuith woman Thancoupie, recognised today as a ground-breaking Australian ceramicist, who drew inspiration from her cultural stories, translating them into contemporary three-dimensional forms. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative founders and artists Euphemia Bostock, Fiona Foley, Fern Martins and Jeffrey Samuels also studied at NAS.

Wiradjuri woman Karla Dickens has spoken about how her time studying at NAS helped save her life, before she went on to build a career as one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Most recently, Dickens took part in the 2022 Sydney Festival with her show Return to Sender at Carriageworks, and was commissioned to create the artwork To see or not to see for the façade of the Art Gallery of NSW. Embracing Shadows, the artist’s 2023 survey exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre, spanned 30 years of practice, and Moby Dickens, the portrait of Dickens by artist Blak Douglas in the wake of the Lismore floods, won the 2022 Archibald Prize.

Badtjala artist and NAS alumna Fiona Foley’s solo exhibition and installation, Who are these strangers and where are they going?, was shown in the NAS Gallery in January 2020 as part of the Sydney Festival, including a Q&A discussion with Bandjalung man and curator Djon Mundine. Foley is a highly respected contemporary artist, academic and writer, with her 2020 book Biting the Clouds uncovering the little-known colonial-era practice of paying Indigenous workers in opium.

Tony Albert (Girramay/Yidinji/KukuYalanji peoples) created a site-specific artwork for the NAS campus as part of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney in March 2020. Inspired by the original 1873 stained-glass window in the NAS Chapel building depicting the prodigal son parable, Brothers (The Prodigal Son) was a life-sized stained-glass work set in sandstone, installed at the art school’s entrance with the Chapel behind it.

In February 2021 NAS graduate Rubyrose Bancroft was featured in the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative group show Loom at Carriageworks. Rubyrose was one of the emerging artists presented by NAS at the 2021 Sydney Contemporary art fair.

In February 2022, NAS welcomed John Waight as the new Head of First People’s Programs. Originally from Darwin, John is descended from the Mangarayi people whose country is just outside Katherine. He joined First Peoples Program Coordinator Georgia Mokak to develop and coordinate programs, policies and curricula at NAS for First Peoples students, prospective students and the broader community.

In 2023 NAS’s public exhibitions program includes Occurrent Affair: proppaNOW, from 24 June to 5 August, showing works from Queensland’s leading Indigenous arts collective, proppaNOW, which began in Brisbane in 2003 to give urban-based Aboriginal artists a voice. Together Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nilsen present a unique perspective of black Australia, at once confronting and thought-provoking, which won the 2022–2024 Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice, a prestigious US prize.

Also in 2023, in partnership with the APY Art Centre Collective, NAS presents Milpatjunanyi from 24 June to 26 August, a celebration of the profound importance in Aṉangu culture of drawing, grounded in continuing connections to story, law and culture. The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands) are in remote Central Australia, and this exhibition features 17 artists from seven APY art centres: Kunmanara (Wawiriya) Burton, Nyumniti Burton, Nyurpaya Kaika Burton, Stanley Douglas, Robert Fielding, Tuppy Goodwin, Yaritji Heffernan, Iluwanti Ken, Kunmanara (Ray) Ken, Paniny Mick, Betty Muffler, Peter Mungkuri, Mary Pan, Jimmy Pompey, Margaret Richards and Tiger Yalktangki, Yaritji Young. The show includes paintings, works on paper, prints, ceramics, photographic and video works.

Sources

Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, ‘Aboriginal People and Place’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History
https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/aboriginal-people-and-place/

Dr Alana Piper, Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney, Yirranma Place research paper, 2022

Dr Paul Irish, ‘Darlinghurst Gaol’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/darlinghurst-gaol/

Deborah Beck, Hope in Hell, third edition 2020
https://nas.edu.au/product/hope-in-hell-a-history-of-the-darlinghurst-gaol-and-the-national-art-school/

‘Jimmy Governor’, New South Wales Capital Convictions Database http://research.forbessociety.org.au/record/2767

Stan Grant, On Thomas Keneally, 2021
https://www.blackincbooks.com.au/books/thomas-keneally

Aboriginal place names from ‘Language’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History, https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/language/

Forbes Street gate, Darlinghurst Gaol, c1890.

The site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol, now the National Art School, is one of Australia’s oldest and best-preserved examples of colonial sandstone architecture. Building began on the gaol in 1822, to replace the ageing and overcrowded Sydney Gaol on George Street near Circular Quay. Convict labour was used to quarry the sandstone and carve it into large blocks for the tall sandstone perimeter walls that can still be seen today, but work stopped in 1824 due to lack of funds. Building recommenced in 1836 and the first prisoners arrived in 1841. The gaol took 50 years to complete, with new buildings added to accommodate the increasing population over the following decades.

The four-acre site chosen for the gaol was on the outskirts of Sydney at that time, on a prominent position on Woolloomooloo Hill overlooking the town. Mortimer William Lewis, colonial architect from 1835-49, and Royal Engineer Captain George Barney both prepared plans for the new gaol.

The final design combined ideas from both men, and was based on a panopticon layout with a central rotunda and seven cell blocks radiating out from it. By 1841 when the first prisoners were transferred to the gaol, only two cell blocks were completed, one for men and one for women, as well as the imposing residence for the governor of the gaol. Two more cell blocks were built following the radial design, but subsequent buildings including the manufacturing wing and the Y-shaped E-Wing, did not follow the original plans.

Almost all major buildings were finished by 1872 including the chapel and prison workshops, and five watchtowers were spaced around the walls, manned by guards.

However conditions in the gaol deteriorated; by 1900 it was overcrowded and deemed to be too close to the surrounding suburbs. In 1908 writer Henry Lawson wrote his poem One-hundred-and-three while serving time in the debtor’s section of the gaol, which eloquently described the horrors of life in confinement. A new facility, Long Bay Gaol, opened in 1912, and Darlinghurst Gaol closed in 1914.

In the 73 years that it operated, Darlinghurst Gaol contained thousands of prisoners, from those like Henry Lawson who was convicted for failing to pay alimony to his wife and child desertion, to convicted murderers including Louisa Collins who was found guilty of poisoning her husband. She was hanged at the gaol in 1889, the only woman to be executed there and the last woman to be hanged in NSW.

Between 1841 and 1907, 76 people were hanged at the gaol, including bushranger Andrew George Scott, known as Captain Moonlite, in 1880, and Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor in 1901. Until 1852 the public could attend hangings, before the gallows were moved inside the walls.

Other notable prisoners included newspaper editor JF Archibald; murderer and accomplished artist Henry Louis Bertrand; bushranger Captain Starlight, also an artist; female bushranger Jessie Hickman; and Kate Leigh, who became Sydney’s famous razor gang madam.

Mortimer Lewis, one of the gaol’s architects, also designed the adjoining Court House, which was finished in 1844 with a tunnel leading directly from the court to the gaol to move prisoners between the two. The courthouse still stands facing Taylor Square, but the tunnel has been blocked off.

After the gaol closed in 1914, the site was used by the Department of Defence as Darlinghurst Detention Barracks where German, Russian and Irish nationals were held from 1914 to 1920. When the military left the site in 1921, the buildings were in a derelict condition. The former gaol was converted into an annex of Sydney Technical College, to become East Sydney Technical College, and it was decided to repair the damaged buildings rather than pull them down. Cell walls and exercise yard walls were taken down to open up the spaces, cell block floors were removed and rebuilt, and windows enlarged.

In 1976 the National Trust listed East Sydney Technical College on the National Trust Register including walls, gates, cellblocks and other buildings. In 2021, the site was added to the NSW Heritage Register, recognising the historic importance of the former gaol and art school to Sydney and NSW. Guided public tours, Inside the Walls, now give an insight into the fascinating past of this place.

Sources

  • Beck, Deborah (2005, republished 2010 and 2021),  Hope in Hell: a history of Darlinghurst Gaol and the National Art School, Allen and Unwin.
  • Beck, Deborah (2022), Captivate: Stories from the National Art School and Darlinghurst Gaol
  • Irish, Paul, ‘Darlinghurst Gaol’, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/darlinghurst-gaol/
National Art School campus, 1960s.

The National Art School is on Gadigal land in Darlinghurst, Sydney, with its inner-city campus on the heritage-listed site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol.

In 2022 NAS celebrated 100 years teaching art at this location, but its history dates back to 1843, when regular art classes were held by John Skinner Prout at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in Pitt Street, Sydney.

Forty years and several re-organisations later, in 1883 the Technical and Working Men’s College became known as the Sydney Technical College, which included the Department of Art. This department was relocated to the former Darlinghurst Gaol in 1922, and was then part of East Sydney Technical College.

The 1920s saw the development of NAS’s distinctive studio model of teaching, offering its first five-year Diploma in Art in1926 under Lecturer-in-Charge Samuel Rowe and the English sculptor G Rayner Hoff.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the size and reputation of the Department of Art expanded. Renowned artists such as Colin Lanceley, Ann Thomson, Elisabeth Cummings, Peter Powditch, Ken Unsworth, Martin Sharp, Garry Shead, Janet Mansfield, Tim Storrier and Vivienne Binns graduated from the Diploma Course. At this time, NAS was part of the NSW Government’s Department of Technical Education.

From 1974, NAS went through a long period of upheaval and uncertainty, with a proposal to move the art school out of the Darlinghurst Gaol campus. The decision was fought and protest marches were held but in 1975 the School of Fine Art was transferred to a new institution that would evolve into today’s UNSW Art and Design in Paddington, formerly the College of Fine Arts (COFA).

A much-diminished School of Art and Design remained at the Darlinghurst Gaol site as part of the Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE), offering short certificate courses. Through the efforts of art staff members, and with the support of the newly formed Friends of the National Art School (FoNAS), the visual art program was slowly rebuilt.

In 1996, after much lobbying, NAS gained independence from TAFE. In 1999 it first offered an accredited Bachelor of Fine Art degree, and a Master of Fine Art in 2001.

At this time NAS still sat within the Department of Education and Training (DET), and in 2006 it was under threat of being incorporated into one of NSW’s existing universities.

After more lobbying and activity by FoNAS and other NAS supporters, in 2009 the School moved out of DET management and became a fully independent tertiary education provider. Since then NAS has expanded its degrees, short courses and public programs, including offering a Doctor of Fine Art from 2019.

In 2019, NAS was designated a State Significant Organisation by the NSW State Government (on par with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks), which secured ongoing funding for the School and recognised its important role as a leading tertiary education institution. NAS was also granted a 45-year lease on the former Darlinghurst Gaol site, providing crucial stability for the future.

In 2020 NAS received a significant grant from the NSW State Government for restoration and upgrading of the campus’s historic buildings and structures, with the works being undertaken in 2021. The site was also listed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 2021.

In 2022 NAS marked 100 years since moving into this site in 1922, and 200 years since convicts first began building the Darlinghurst Gaol walls in 1822.

Original Darlinghurst Gaol gate, Forbes Street entrance, March 1871
Original Darlinghurst Gaol gate, Forbes Street entrance, March 1871
Life drawing and painting class, Sydney Technical College, Ultimo, 1909.
Life drawing and painting class, Sydney Technical College, Ultimo, 1909.
Rayner Hoff’s studio, Building 11. NAS students Treasure Conlon and Eileen McGrath working on the sculptures for the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, 1932.
Rayner Hoff’s studio, Building 11. NAS students Treasure Conlon and Eileen McGrath working on the sculptures for the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, 1932.
East Sydney Technical College, Forbes Street entrance c1940s.
East Sydney Technical College, Forbes Street entrance c1940s.
#Follow us on Instagram
Loading...