East Melbourne through and through

East Melbourne through and through
Rhonda Dredge

East Melbourne is one of the city’s most artistic suburbs and it’s not surprising that even those who have moved out return at some point in their careers.

Well-known painter and cofounder of Roar Studios, Mark Schaller, says he hasn’t been back for 40 years.

He’s driven through but never revisited the streets of his youth.

At one stage he lived in George St in a row of terraces classified by the National Trust with his mum, grandmother and sister.

He was standing outside his former home reminiscing when a neighbour approached him. 

It turned out that she lived in the end house in the row which used to belong to her mother. 

She too had returned to East Melbourne, and it didn’t take long before Mark realised he knew her sister.

The connections in this complex suburb run deep, right back to the early days of the colony. Eugene von Guerard, for example, was the first director of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne.

The house he built is still standing in Gipps St and is used to house visiting artists. Mark has visited a friend staying there.

In the early days of his occupation, he lived in Simpson St and his grandma made cakes for the George Street Café, then called The Purple Chook.


“She was the worst cook I know but everyone loved them,” Mark said. “She made meringues and cheesecake. She couldn’t introduce anything. It was standard Aussie fare.” 


Mark now lives on Philip Island but has fond memories of the rough and tumble lanes and streets. There were drag races down Simpson St, “derros” in the lanes but these were coupled with the finer things, such as easel painting in the front garden of Ola Cohn’s place, still preserved in Gipps St.

The two extremes went together, a cockatoo that told you to “f* off” at Carlton House and a house full of sculpture by Melbourne’s first female sculptor working in stone.

The suburb felt empty to Mark as a kid. “In the ‘60s everyone moved out to live in a quarter acre block in the suburbs with a Hills Hoist and a deep freeze. A lot of the houses were empty,” he said.

“I only have happy memories here. I felt like there was no-one else around and people were nice and encouraging.” 

Mark’s mum is now in her ‘80s and is living with her son. She doesn’t keep up with the gossip because that’s the past. But Mark carries on the tradition. 

His paintings are full of anecdotes and pleasing botanical narratives that speak of his East Melbourne upbringing.

Every year he goes to Hydra, and he’s become interested in the George Johnston and Charmian Clift story. 

In typical East Melbourne fashion, he’s tracked down George Johnston’s house on Hydra and wants to see it become a residence for visiting Australian artists.

“It’s still the same. They don’t change the furniture in Greece when they sell a house,” he said. One of his paintings depicts Johnston’s typewriter, a green Olivetti. 

A show of Mark’s landscapes opens at @ Gallery, Sorrento, on December 23. •


Caption: Mark Schaller reconnecting with neighbour Denise Niri in George St.

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