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​Sunday’s garden: Growing Heide

Heide's rose walk in spring with iris blooming among Sunday Reed's beloved roses. Photo - Heide Museum of Modern Art

A new book tells the story of one of Australia’s most culturally significant gardens – that at Heide, the home, for fifty years, of John and Sunday Reed.


Sunday Reed is usually described as an art patron. She and her husband John championed a new generation of Australian artists, including Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Charles Blackman, and most famously, Sidney Nolan. Nolan met the Reeds in 1938 and became Sunday’s lover. He lived at Heide through his formative years as an artist and later, from 1946 to 1947, painted his celebrated Ned Kelly series on the Heide dining room table.


Sunday was not an artist herself, but she was a passionate gardener, and used her garden as canvas, journal and mirror. In turn her friends saw her as an extension of the garden she created. A new book by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, ‘Sunday’s garden: Growing Heide’ explores the role of the garden at Heide. This edited extract describes the role of the roses at Heide and in Sunday’s life. 


Sunday’s dear friend, painter Jean Langley once observed that ‘Sunday was an artist, an artist who did not paint, a poet who did not write poems, but someone whose every touch was a touch of magic.’ Roses were essential to Sunday’s palette, and their giving – as cut flowers and plants for friends’ gardens – was a gesture of deep fondness.


Sunday loved heritage and wild roses like this delicate Rosa maschata. Photo - Robin Powell

Sunday grew an idiosyncratic but intelligent selection of wild and species, old and hybrid roses, and after nearly eighty years of rose cultivation at Heide, around 150 of her original 250 or so bushes planted still remain. She was resourceful about obtaining cuttings and plants, looking overseas for those available in Australia and having them imported. The Reeds also sought out nurseries specialising in old roses, and sourced plants from Alister Clarke, the well-known hybrid grower who bred some of Australia’s best-loved roses. Sunday grew his winter-flowering ‘Lorraine Lee’ and ‘Black Boy’ in the Heide II kitchen garden.


Photo - Robin Powell

Heide’s most famous rose was made so by Sidney Nolan, who immortalised ‘Mutabilis’ in a 1945 painting created at the height of his love affair with Sunday. This China rose has a remarkable and abundant flowering habit, with twisted petals like fine tissue and flowers that change in colour as they open, from creamy yellow to pink and darkening to a soft crimson.


The blooms of Rosa mutabilis change colour as they age, from a creamy yellow to soft crimson. Photo - Robin Powell 

While the wild or species roses were grown at Heide for their purity and history, the blooms Sunday loved most were the heritage varieties, those with the delicate colouration she favoured and with exquisite perfumes. She especially like the gently scented ‘Madame Pierre Oger’ – ‘upright and vigorous’ – together with ‘La Reine Victoria’ and ‘Reine des Violettes’, which has quilled and quartered petals, each with a button eye.


The bush of Rosa mutablis near the river at Heide was made famous in a painting by Sidney Nolan which features Sunday wrapped in its blooms. Photo - Robin Powell

Of particular sentimental value was a rose she grew in the walled perennial border at Heide I, which Sunday referred to as ‘my mother’s rose’, in memory of Ethel Baillieu, who died in 1932. Purportedly a cutting from a bush beside her mother’s grave, the rose has been identified as ‘Duchesse de Brabant,’ a light pink repeat-flowering tea rose with a double-cupped bloom.’

The nostalgic and personal significance of roses to Sunday is further evidenced by an anecdote involving Mary Perceval, now Lady Nolan, who loved the Heide garden as a young woman. When Mary moved to The Ruthland in 1975, a seventeenth-century farmhouse on six acres in southern Wales, Sunday investigated exporting Heide roses as the foundation for its garden. When this proved impossible, she instead ordered old roses from Miss Murrell’s nursery at Shrewsbury. Murrell was a friend of Vita Sackville-West and supplied Sissinghurst, a pedigree that would have resonated with Sunday. Mary later reported, ‘the roses have become so much more important than anything else’.


Sunday and John Reed in 1943. Photo - Albert Tucker


This is an edited extract from ‘Sunday’s Garden: Growing Heide’ by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, published by the Miegunyah Press, rrp $45.


The authors are curators at Heide Museum of Modern Art, where the garden is still an integral part of the whole experience of visiting Heide, as it was when the Reeds lived there. John and Sunday Reed bought the old dairy farm in Heidleberg (Heide is short for Heidelberg) is 1934. The Reeds lived in the old farmhouse until the 1960s when they commissioned architect David McGlashan to build them something modern. It was to be a ‘gallery to be lived in’ and in 1980 fulfilled its second purpose when it was acquired by the Victorian government and turned into a Museum of Modern Art. The Reeds moved back into the farmhouse, but both died within a year. In 2001 the old farmhouse, called Heide 1 was restored and opened to the public. So now a visit to Heide is a fascinating day out, incorporating the collection and changing exhibitions in the new building; the museum in the old building; the sculptures in the park-like grounds; lunch in the café (where chef Shannon Bennet devises menus that makes the most of the fresh pickings from Sunday’s kitchen garden); and plenty of time in the wonderful gardens.



Go to for details on exhibitions and opening times.

About this article

Author: Lesley Harding & Kendrah Morgan