Why I swapped Sydney for the Southern Highlands after 40 years as an art dealer

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When I gave up my gallery, I was a sort of known person. I was also known for having flashy cars – I had a Bentley and a Maserati. Then when I decided to retire and live on a smaller amount of money I sold the Maserati and bought a Golf. I sold my smart house in Surry Hills filled with wonderful pictures and bought a small house down the coast. Now, when I sit at the traffic lights, I’m just another old grey-haired man in a Volkswagen. I’m not smart old Rex Irwin who has a gallery in Sydney. 

A woman said to me the other day: “Are you the Rex Irwin?” and I said: “No, I used to be.” I think that’s how I am now. I’m this new person who isn’t who I was, which was a slightly public person running an art gallery.

Retiring is magic, actually. I moved here, so this house and this view of the valley and the Barrengarry Mountain represents retirement. You could just sit and look at the view all day and really feel like you don’t have to do anything. I’m aware that some people find retirement a terrible threat, and some are clever and organised and have enough money to do whatever they want to do – that’s lovely. I’ve decided to make it work.

I think my middle-classness makes me not want to watch television before six o’clock in the evening and not really want to go unshaven for more than two days a week. I just think that slight Presbyterian discipline that I’ve had from going to a British naval school and coming from an army family will give me a little bit of structure. Because I live alone – well I have Bruno the dog, but really I live alone – you don’t even have to clean your teeth because you’re not going to offend the person next door. I think it would be very easy to become a slob. 

When David Hockney was out here recently for his major show at the National Gallery of Victoria we spoke. I’d sent him a photograph of my view and he rang and said: “It’s all very well, love, to have a lovely view – but what are you going to do for culture?” I said, “Well, yesterday I went to the opera in Sydney, and the day after tomorrow I’m going to see another opera, and I’m reading your new book. Will that do for the moment?”

I don’t think you have to abandon things just because you are out of town. OK, perhaps you don’t go to the opera as many times, but I think one just gets on with it. It will throw up challenges and delights, and at the moment it has mostly been delights.

In the village, mostly one connects to the most important people in the world: plumbers. One’s life is run by the tradesmen when you move into a house or when you are building a house, and you are at their command. There is this strange thing known as “valley time”. Things are a bit more slow, the rhythm is different and you mustn’t get angry with people because you are going to live with them. The dynamics of being a stranger in a village are different; when I lived in Surry Hills I didn’t know the neighbours.

I have had quite a few visitors. People will be visiting Bowral and ring and say: “I’m going to be passing your part of the world in half an hour, can I come and have a cup of tea?” They never said that when they lived 100 yards from me in the city. It’s really odd!

I’ve never owned a garage before. But suddenly I have a wombat and an echidna who go under the house, and a double garage! When I saw this enormous garage, I thought, “Oh, I’ll turn it into a library”, and I can also have my pictures in it. So that’s what I’ve done. My art library from the gallery takes up a quarter of the space so I’ve got quite important books on German expressionism, Picasso and the like in there. Suddenly, I’ve got a man cave and I never thought I was that sort of a man. But it’s filled with art.

One’s whole life does change [in retirement]. I’m not trying to cling on to anything from before. This is a new start and I hope it’s going to allow me to grow in a different way. I’m 75 years old, I’m healthy, I’ve still got a brain and I think it will be creative – not in the sense that I’m going to take up wicker work, it’s going to be creative in that suddenly people will realise, “He’s not such a little shit after all, it would be lovely to go see him as he does have nice people to lunch” – or something like that

As told to Jackie Dent

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