The Convent Gallery is a fortress of a building. It abuts the Botanic Gardens and looks out imperiously over Daylesford. On a clear day you can see Mt Franklin from one of its balconies. On a not so clear day you wouldn't be looking at the view anyway, you'd be inside having coffee or staring at the art.
We did all three. Coffee first, view second, art third. Coffee always comes first.
The Convent Gallery used to be a convent and I wondered how the nuns managed to trump the church heavies in getting an even better slice of land than the actual churches. Then I found out the building was not always a convent; it was the Gold Commissioner's private residence. How ironic: the churches weren't king of the heap after all. God came second to gold. The building is not exactly inconspicuous and would have been even more so in 1870, standing out like a ballerina in a bar. Then, in the 1880s the gold boom crashed and the Gold Commissioner left the goldrush town and the Presentation nuns bought his house and converted it into the Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls.
The building itself is an ornate adventure in nineteenth century architecture; three storeys of rambling brick trowelled into six hectares of stunning restored gardens. Today the rooms are filled with exhibits of art or are retail spaces selling local handcrafts, jewellery, artefacts, ceramics, precious metals and the like. There are cafes, bars and accommodation rooms as well. It's a jumble of culture, coffee and commerce, like Montsalvat meets Chadstone. (But a lot nicer. That was just a verbal illustration.)
The nuns' influence is evident in iconography, ironically minimalist internal design, wrought metal arches, a chapel and a general air of understatement in some of the exhibition spaces. Here, you expect Mother Superior to come quivering around a corner at any time. The eating areas and retail spaces are more ornate.
We picked our way through the building wondering what went on here during the Gold Commissioner's days. You could spend a day here and not see everything. You could get lost in it. Maybe he had a large family or enjoyed weekend house parties. Why does a Gold Commissioner need three storeys and hidden rooms and attics and blind turns and stairways and six hectares of garden?
Because he could.