Emu Island – Modernism in Place encompasses a suite of exhibitions, essays, and public programs. Together they commemorate the legacy of artists Margo and Gerald Lewers, and the importance of their home at Emu Plains as a site for the development of Australian modernism.
In 1981 the couple’s home became an art gallery, now part of the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest. In her essay, ‘Modern through and through: the art and lives of Gerald and Margo Lewers,’ Kirsty Grant offers an insight into their creative lives at Emu Plains. Her essay is reproduced with permission.
Modern through and through: the art and lives of Gerald and Margo Lewers
by Kirsty Grant
‘In the house at Emu Plains ideas hurtled, argument flared, voices shouted, sparks flew. It was a place in which people gathered spontaneously, to eat, drink and discuss … Along with the paintings and the sculpture, the mosaics and the watergarden, an ephemeral dish of food wore the expression of a work of art. As I see it, the house on the Nepean … provided one of the focus points of our still tentative civilisation.’(1)
In his evocative recollection of the lives that Gerald and Margo Lewers lived at Emu Plains in Penrith, their friend and renowned Australian author, Patrick White, described an atmosphere in which art, ideas, beauty and community were nurtured and celebrated in equal measure. For him, the Lewers’ home represented a haven in which creativity flourished and intellectual challenge and enquiry was encouraged and where, consequently, some of the diverse strands of endeavour and thought that combined to form a modern and distinctly Australian culture were able to develop.
The Lewers’ contribution to Australian cultural life was located firmly within the context of modernism. Both Gerald and Margo were born in the first decade of the 20th century, their formative years taking place against a backdrop of immense social, cultural and technological change, when new ideas and ways of living were transforming the traditions and habits of the past. They both shared an artistic vocation and established significant careers – Gerald working in three dimensions as a sculptor in wood, stone and later metals, and Margo, after being one of a handful of pioneering figures who promoted modernism within the field of interior design in Sydney during the 1930s, working across textiles, painting and sculpture. Both artists were recognised with prizes, commissions and the acquisition of their work by major galleries during their lifetimes. They were also responsible for major public commissions during the 1950s and 1960s that introduced the language of modernist abstraction into the suburbs and the cities.
Gerald and Margo Lewers also played active roles in Sydney’s broader cultural and creative life through their involvement with influential groups such as the NSW branch of the Contemporary Art Society and the Society of Sculptors and Associates. Within the modernist context, perhaps equally as important as their public endeavours was the way in which the Lewers lived, incorporating creative expression into every aspect of their lives so that it ran like an interconnecting thread between the art they exhibited, the design of their home and its interior, the garden they created at Emu Plains and, as Patrick White recalled, even the food they served.
Margo hailed from a creative family; her father was an artist and her younger brother, Carl Plate, would study at the East Sydney Technical College in the 1930s and establish a reputation as a significant abstract artist. Like so many women of her generation, Margo’s initial training led to secretarial work; however, she quickly gravitated towards a more creative field, working as a cadet commercial artist with the Daily Telegraph and then employed to decorate domestic wooden objects before establishing her own design workshop and later, operating a commercial pottery business. Gerald had studied art part-time at the East Sydney Technical College during the mid 1920s and in 1926 he joined Farley & Lewers, a construction and quarrying company with a family connection, working there until 1950 when he left to make art full time.(2)
Gerald and Margo married in 1932 and in 1934 they travelled to London and enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Gerald had studied painting and drawing at the Künstgewerbeschüle in Vienna in 1931 and in London, he took classes with the British sculptor John Skeaping, while Margo studied textile design and painting with John Farleigh. Gerald’s brother-in-law, Arthur Wheen, was assistant librarian at the Victoria and Albert Museum and, with an established network among progressive artistic and literary circles in London, he provided useful introductions to the visiting Australian couple. Through him, Gerald and Margo met Herbert Read, the art critic and a vocal advocate for modernism, and artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. In a letter sent home to her mother in April after visiting the Hampstead enclave where the three lived and worked in close proximity, Margo expressed some misgivings, writing ‘… it would seem, at least to me, that the scribblings of a child was their basis. Ben Nicholson, who cuts holes in cardboard, and pastes them on squares and even rips pieces right out of the picture, paints over it and sells it to the nearest mug. His [companion] was Barbara Hepworth, who sculpts. Some of her more representative pieces were quite nice, but when it came to placing one stone on top of another and calling it a Composition or Mother and child … I was just left in a daze.’(3) However, by the time Margo wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald that was published two months later, she had significantly revised her opinions on the merits of Nicholson and Hepworth’s approach to art. ‘I was ushered into an entirely new world of ideas, where the photographic style of reproduction is discarded, and in its place these contemporaries strive to portray with a penetration into the reality, and an expression of the significance of life.’(4) She also signalled the beginnings of what would become a lifelong interest in and adherence to the abstract idiom in her own practice, stating: ‘There is no doubt that this less representative art gives more interest, and surely it must have great depths when it evolves from sincerity and emotional feelings.’(5)
During her visit, Margo Lewers also noted ‘a few hand-printed material lengths … draped here and there [and] … the most delightful mat, carried out in the rarest colours, mechanical balances and movements of their own invention’.(6) The British artists’ unified approach to living, in which their distinctive aesthetic was carried across to the decoration of functional objects and their domestic interior, must have influenced the Lewers who, upon their return to Australia, infused all aspects of their lives with their own distinctive vison and style. The concept of a creative aesthetic applied to both the fine and applied arts, as well as to architecture, was presented to the Lewers again later in the year when they travelled to Europe and in Germany, witnessed the influence of the revolutionary Bauhaus which, although it had closed the previous year in the face of pressure from the Nazi regime, was still strong in all areas of art and design. Margo was impressed by the modern architecture she saw, as well as the design of contemporary pared-back timber furniture, textiles and decorative ceramics(7) and this, combined with other overseas experiences, inspired Margo to adopt the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk – the total creative work in which various different art forms are synthesised – a principle as well as an active practice that would remain a fundamental feature of the Lewers’ life.
‘I thought I was pregnant at the time, but was not going to allow that to interfere. The day I knew for certain, I went in and signed the lease.’(8) Describing it as ‘the only shop … like it at the time’, she explained:
‘as an interior consultant I designed furniture. I sold bold natural-wood bowls, hand-printed linens to order, original small sculpture and drawings, my own pots, pottery sent from Mexico by my brother, hand-beaten aluminium bowls and dishes, and prints of the Impressionists … most of my clients were architects who had come back from overseas. The average person didn’t like what I sold at all.’(9)
Even if Notanda’s clientele was mostly limited to those who already had an openness to progressive design in interiors, the gallery made a significant contribution to the growing awareness of modernism in Sydney, promoting its wares in articles – some written by Margo – and simply through its presence. In Melbourne during the early 1930s, Cynthia Reed operated a modern art and design business in Collins Street which, like Notanda, was the only place of its kind that promoted and sold the elements of the modern interior, including furniture by Fred Ward and Sam Atyeo, and textiles by Michael O’Connell, as well as exhibiting contemporary art.(10) It was often the case that modernism was first accepted in the context of functional design and work designated as craft, which held a lower place in the fine arts hierarchy and was less fiercely protected by the establishment. In the words of Roy de Maistre, an early proponent of modernism in Sydney, ‘people understand … interior decoration … but when they see the same point of view expressed in pictures they are quite at sea … in Art they narrow things down to a very rigid formula.’ (11)
Reflecting the Lewers’ cross-disciplinary approach, Notanda also became a venue for exhibitions of fine art(12) with the first held in 1936 displaying a selection of animal drawings by John Skeaping that they had brought home from England. Material shortages and difficulties importing goods into Australia caused by the outbreak of the World War II prompted Lewers to close Notanda Gallery in 1939; however, her brother, Carl Plate, opened a gallery under the same name two doors up in Rowe Street late the following year. Showing the work of local and international modern artists, Plate’s first exhibition, England Today, included work by Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and Henry Moore. Like Gino Nibbi’s Leonardo Bookshop in Melbourne, Plate also stocked postcards, prints and publications on modern art, and Notanda Gallery became a popular meeting place, where knowledge was shared and ideas discussed, as well as a vital source of information about contemporary international developments.
Gerald had also begun his professional career, exhibiting a group of striking modern sculptures that was very positively received by the London critics. Their role as conduits of information was significant and Margo’s report for the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that she was conscious of the vast distance that separated Australia and its artists from activities in the leading international centres and the value of current information from people ‘on the ground’. Like Dorrit Black and Grace Crowley before them, and artists including Yvonne Audette, John Olsen and Robert Jacks in the generation that followed, the Lewers’ experiences and knowledge, shared informally through their circle of friends and the larger artistic community, as well as reflected in their unique approach to art and life, contributed to the local understanding of modernism and acceptance of new thinking and ways of creating. The eventual evolution of their Emu Plains home into a public gallery that honours their role in the creative life of 20th century Australia and supports the contemporary artistic practice of today through the presentation of exhibitions, education and practical programs continues this process on a large scale. While the Lewers’ experiences overseas saw them poised to develop careers at the forefront of the avant-garde, this took some time to manifest as the realities of daily life and prevailing social mores of 1930s Australia exerted their influence. Gerald returned to full-time work and in 1936, their first child was born, a second daughter following five years later. Inevitably, this slowed them down and it was not until Gerald retired and they moved to Emu Plains in 1950 that both were able to devote more time to making art and their careers realised their fullest potential.
Having returned to his job at Farley & Lewers, Gerald made sculpture in his spare time, but one of the upsides of his professional life was that the company’s quarrying activities gave him access to a diverse range of stone for carving, as well as exposure to different timbers. He had a facility with these materials, a stated desire to discover the best form for each of them, and a sensitivity for his subject matter that prompted the artist and critic James Gleeson to write that it was ‘as though he had some secret knowledge of the nature of wood and stone, birds, fish and animals denied to the rest of us.’(13)
Gerald quickly established a reputation as a sculptor of significance with his work being selected for public commission as early as 1940 and two stone sculptures of stylised animal forms being acquired for the collection of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (now Art Gallery of New South Wales) by 1946. There was, however, an inevitable loss of momentum and the strikingly modern machine-inspired sculptures such as Plough, 1934, that he had made and exhibited in London to considerable critical acclaim did not reappear. He showed two of those sculptures, along with several others made following his return in Exhibition 1, the landmark 1939 exhibition that brought together a disparate group of painters and sculptors including Ralph Balson, Grace Crowley, Eleonore Lange, Frank and Margel Hinder, who were each exploring approaches to abstraction through the figure.
Founded in Melbourne in 1938 in response to the restrictive conservatism of the establishment and reactionary nature of the Australian Academy of Art, the CAS sought to encourage and foster ‘contemporary painting, sculpture and other visual art forms which … strive to give expression to progressive contemporary thought and life, as opposed to work which is reactionary, retrogressive, including work which has no aim other than representation.’(14) Preliminary meetings of the Sydney group were held at Rah Fizelle’s studio in 1939 and soon after the NSW branch was fully operational with Fizelle as president and Peter Bellew elected secretary. Gerald was a founding member and participated in the inaugural exhibition and throughout the war years, both Margo and her brother Carl Plate were on the committee, Frank Hinder recalling that in effect, they ran it.(15) Margo later became more involved taking on the role of secretary around 1949–50, during which time the NSW committee organised Art Without Epoch, a major loan exhibition of European art spanning the 13th to 20th centuries that included work by Breughel, Rembrandt, Turner, Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso, among others. An ambitious undertaking by any standard, the exhibition was without precedent in Australia in terms of its scale, range and the quality of material displayed.(16)
While artistic and political divisions among the members of the Melbourne CAS during its early years resulted in various breakaway groups, with those who remained being largely socially-motivated artists whose figurative art revealed a strong expressionist inflection, the attitude in Sydney was radically different. From the outset, the NSW branch of the CAS was determinedly liberal in its approach, welcoming a diverse membership of all artistic persuasions that included craftspeople, designers, architects, educators and amateurs – a non-hierarchical approach that acknowledged all forms of creativity and that mirrored the Lewers’ own inclusive attitudes. Artistic freedom was the guiding principle and there was ‘a deep distrust of any form of social order or artistic dogma that might restrict individual creativity in any way … Rather than pursuing nationalist themes and overt social criticism, NSW CAS members took a pluralist approach turning their focus outwards and in several directions [from] … developments in constructivism and abstraction … [and] surrealism [to] … the grand tradition of European art’.(17) This welcoming attitude was reflected in annual exhibitions that were open to all members (despite frequent criticism of the unedited nature and variable quality of the entries), as well as in wide-ranging monthly public lectures and a broadsheet that was published from 1947.
It has been argued that the NSW CAS was also distinguished from its other Australian counterparts by its active promotion of abstraction as an advanced stream of modernism,(18) and the activities of the organisation and energy of its early members helped pave the way for Sydney to become the most vigorous centre of contemporary abstract painting in the 1950s and beyond. This development also owed much to the fact that the abstract idiom had long been a prominent element of the art of the harbour city with the first wave of ‘Sydney moderns’ including Balson, Crowley and de Maistre, discarding traditional styles of painting in favour of non-representational imagery in the first decades of the 20th century.
The Lewers were part of this generation of artists active in the mid 20th century who sought to develop a new visual language ‘that expressed the ideals and dilemmas of the new modern world rather than the world of appearances’(19) and in Sydney they found a supportive environment. Gerald’s work shows a steady progression towards pure abstraction and the expression of a singular, highly personal vision based on his affinity with the natural world, from the early sculptures that reflect the influence of Skeaping in their stylised figuration of animal forms, to the graceful refinement of mature works such as Sleeping bird (c. 1950), and the late steel sculptures and fountains that miraculously convey dynamic movement through static form. From the very beginning Margo’s work was characterised by a consistent focus on abstraction. She believed that ‘by reducing the whole to an abstract minimum, the painting should say more’(20) and during the course of her career working across various media, she responded to the contemporary zeitgeist in art, moving from geometric imagery in the 1950s, to gestural expressionism the following decade and vibrantly coloured hard-edged sculpture in the 1970s.
Gerald left Farley & Lewers in 1950 and in the same year, moved with his family from Sydney to Emu Plains, almost 60 kilometres west of the city, to a 10-acre block on the banks of the Nepean River. While at first Margo felt isolated from their friends and the busy life of the city, the move would represent a significant turning point for her and for Gerald. Now able to work on his art full time, Gerald received a series of commissions from 1952 and would undertake the biggest projects of his career over the next decade. With their daughters at boarding school, Margo was freed from some of her family and domestic responsibilities and able to paint consistently for the first time.(21) As well as making art in their studios, Margo and Gerald worked on the Emu Plains garden that became a major collaborative project. Rocks brought up from the river and placed according to Margo’s design, sculptures, a pool and fishpond, as well as striking plantings were brought together on the property that, apart from two trees, had been completely bare when they bought it. Reflecting their philosophy of the total work of art and belief that a landscape, like a work of art, could provoke both an emotional and aesthetic response,(22) the garden has been likened to an abstract expressionist painting: ‘meandering paths like broad, snaking calligraphic lines … flower-beds … with plantings filling in colour and texture … straight lines … avoided … plants [spilling] from the garden beds onto the grass, like a watercolourist’s paint bleeding from one shape into another; shrubs … inclined to be unruly and never pruned into formal shapes; and belligerent conflicts of scale, shape and texture … embraced.’(23)
Preliminary meetings were held at the Lewers’ house and he was subsequently elected inaugural treasurer alongside Paul Beadle as secretary, Lyndon Dadswell as vice-president and Professor Denis Winston as president. Founded along similar lines as the Victorian Sculptors’ Society that had been established three years earlier, the society aimed to promote understanding and appreciation of sculpture and, importantly, to lobby government and industry for greater opportunities and support for sculptors. Lewers was the driving force behind the first exhibition of outdoor sculpture held in Sydney, a major undertaking that introduced the work of contemporary sculptors to the public in 1951. The advantages of a close association between architecture and sculpture – something the Melbourne-based Centre Five group had been advocating for since the early 1950s – was recognised, and while membership was offered to sculptors, associate membership was available to architects, town planners and designers. In this regard the society achieved success, contributing to the resurgence of interest in the commissioning of public art as part of major new public buildings in the 1950s and 1960s.(24)
It is not surprising then that Gerald’s work in these years is marked by a series of major public commissions in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and beyond. Placed in relation to prominent new structures including the Reserve Bank building in York Street, Sydney, and University House at the Australian National University, Canberra, these sculptures and fountains allowed Gerald to work on an unprecedented scale and brought contemporary abstraction into the public domain. Word of the Emu Plains garden must have spread because in 1957 the Lewers were commissioned to design a landscaped rock garden (combining sculpture, rocks and plants) for the MLC Building in North Sydney. Similarly, the copper fountain Gerald made for ICI House in Spring Street, Melbourne in 1958, was also commissioned as part of a garden, the overall design of which was a collaboration between the architects, Gerald and landscape consultant, Jon Stevens.(25) Designed by Bates Smart McCutcheon, ICI House was the tallest building in Melbourne at the time, a stark and ultramodern tower of steel and glass. From 1958 Gerald began to work primarily in metals and moved more decisively towards total abstraction. The ICI commission revealed his natural skill with both his new medium and non-representational form. As a fountain, this work incorporated moving water, which contributed to the overall expression of movement, as well as introducing a dynamic sound component as it poured and splashed onto the stones beneath. Fellow sculptor Lyndon Dadswell wrote of this piece ‘that [Lewers’] solving the problem of wedding his fountain to the ICI Building … [was] so successful that, if ever a man made a memorial to himself, it was in this splendid integration of sculpture and architecture.’(26) While this was not what Gerald had in mind when he made the ICI sculpture, his life would end prematurely in a riding accident only four years later.
Margo’s career developed dramatically in the 1950s and following the joint exhibitions held with Gerald in 1952 at David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, and Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne, she exhibited commercially almost every year until the end of her life. Her work had been acquired by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in the 1940s, and this very public recognition and support of her art continued with further purchases throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. She was commissioned to produce a large-scale mosaic for the new Rex Hotel in Canberra and from the late 1950s onwards won numerous prizes including the Mosman Art Prize in 1959 and 1960. By the early 1960s Margo had established herself as a major figure in contemporary Australian art, a measure of her standing reflected in her inclusion in the landmark exhibition Recent Australian Painting that introduced contemporary Australian art to a British audience at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1961. Several years later, her painting Something to come, 1964, was acquired for the collection that Kym Bonython was developing for Harold E Mertz, a wealthy American who wanted a comprehensive survey of paintings by the very best Australian artists practising at the time. Within a group of 200 paintings by 84 artists that included John Brack, Russell Drysdale, Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams, Margo Lewers was one of only three women to be represented.(27)
From the beginning, Margo’s practice was characterised by a singular commitment to abstraction; however, it was not in her nature to stand still, and her work continued to evolve throughout her career as she responded to various influences, experimenting with new materials, techniques and modes of expression.
There were numerous influences at work: her long-held interest in light and colour, and the ways in which they interact; the memory of seeing work in perspex by the constructivist Naum Gabo in London almost 40 years earlier; the example of other artists, including her friend Frank Hinder, working with plastics that were becoming increasingly accessible; the contemporary trend in art towards the hard-edge and bright colour; and her own recent paintings which overlaid large, geometric planes of flat colour to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Margo’s decision to work in three dimensions may also have been influenced by her experience of completing two of Gerald’s large sculptural commissions after his death,(28) and they were arguably the most unique and distinctive works of her career.
In describing the Lewers’ house at Emu Plains as a focus point of Australia’s still tentative civilisation, Patrick White recognised it as a site of progressive thought and activity. Gerald and Margo Lewers created that place, consciously fashioning an environment that allowed them and the circle of people that gathered around them to foster innovative ideas and to express themselves in new and inventive ways.
Within the history of the visual arts in Australia, Gerald and Margo Lewers are key figures who played a pivotal role in the introduction of modernist ideas and ideals, and each made a significant contribution to the development of a modernist language in design, painting and sculpture. The Lewers are unusual in that they were a couple, united by marriage and a shared goal that was expressed through their individual practices and the way they lived. Unlike the work of many artists, which is typically seen in private spaces, the Lewers both eventually worked on a grand scale, undertaking major public commissions that brought contemporary abstraction into the public realm and, while they may not be household names, their work – from Melbourne to Canberra, Sydney and beyond – remains familiar. It is fitting that their spirit and vision is continued in the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest at their home in Emu Plains, celebrating their work and encouraging that of subsequent generations.
Author Kirsty Grant was published for the online catalogue for the exhibition Emu Island: Modernism is Place at Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, celebrating 75 years of modernist art and living at Emu Plains.