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The question obliquely raised by Peter Pinson’s compact monograph Gerald Lewers Sculptor is whether Lewers really counts among the pantheon of significant Australian artists, or was he just a patrician dabbler—as suggested by this description from a feature in Art Monthly about his wife, the abstractionist Margo Lewers: ‘Gerald Lewers, the well-to-do son of the quarry and construction company, Farley & Lewers—famous for its lolly-pink cement trucks into the 80s’?
Pinson can also quote fellow sculptor Lyndon Dadswell as listing Lewers’s talents thus: ‘He inspired affection, he started and kept the Society of Sculptors and Associates going, and he had a talent for integrating materials and art forms’. Not a resounding tribute, suggesting clubbability more than raw artistic talent.
In fact, we learn in his own words that he was ‘not a joiner’, and in Pinson’s assessment, his Farley & Lewers connection was a burden rather than the core of his life. For his bank manager father committed suicide and the company was started by two Lewers brothers and a brother-in-law. When Gerald returned from sculpture studies in London in 1934 fired by the ideas of Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, he nevertheless felt a ‘sense of family duty’ to return to the business for the next fifteen years, building a railway in South Australia and running the company’s Castlereagh quarry. His art during this time was, in Pinson’s estimate, only of ‘moderate significance’.
Indeed, artist, critic for The Sun (and later friend) James Gleeson damned a 1949 contemporary sculpture show, which included Lewers, with the words: ‘Australia has not so far produced a Dobell or a Drysdale of sculpture’.
But, extraordinarily, we have already learnt that in 1934 in London, after just months of study at the Central School of Art under John Skeaping, Lewers had seven precocious works in a show called Six Colonial Artists. They included Plough (later incorrectly called The Plough, denying its active sense) which showed evidence of biomorphic abstraction, then popular amongst Surrealists, and a latent sexuality that only became acknowledged in the 1990s. A critic in The Spectator hailed ‘The new style as practised by Gerald Lewers’.
Talking of sexuality, another distraction from Lewers’s sculpting may have been the twenty year relationship he maintained with Jean Booth, with whom he had a third daughter to add to the artistic pair—Darani Lewers and Tanya Crothers—who did much to encourage Pinson into reminding us of their father’s reputation. For Lewers died at the height of his artistic life in a tragic riding accident just ten years after he had finally retired from Farley & Lewers, and has been barely recognised by the Australian art world since his 1963 Memorial Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Fountains made up much of Lewers’s public work, with nine commissions between 1958 and the posthumous works completed by Margo in 1962. Most revealed that ‘talent for integrating materials and art forms’ noted by Dadswell—copper and concrete, for example, or copper and stones. He liked the flexibility of copper and often incorporated spirals in his work; but Pinson notes that the always-moving water was another sculptural medium for him, making its sound an integral part of the experience.
Pinson also suggests that Lewers, the businessman was not entirely absent from a public art push that allowed developers to obtain better plot ratios where art and a garden (by Margo) were included. The ICI Building (1958 ) in Melbourne was, as a consequence, the tallest in Australia for a time.
Was the Lady Theadon Hancock Memorial Fountain – Swans in Flight (1961) at the Australian National University (ANU) his finest work? He had given much thought to finding a way to show the animals he enjoyed in the nature which he loved, while avoiding both sentiment and decoration. Somehow, he needed to convey weightlessness and speed in metal, stone or wood. The hollowed-out spiral was one answer, similar to the Futurists’ ‘synthetic continuity’. But Lewers could also use wood grain sensitively to suggest the passage of wind over birds’ plumage in flight. With the copper work at the ANU, using two different emanations of water, Pinson describes how: ‘The swans appear to emerge from this watery skirmishing and continue to project upwards towards untroubled air and open space’.
Perhaps this work helped Gleeson to revise his ‘intimist’ judgment of Lewers and conclude that ultimately he was ‘a monumentalist sculptor of the first rank’.
Cover, Gerald Lewers Sculptor by Peter Pinson.
Gerald Lewers Sculptor. Hardcover, 86 pages, Colour & black and white images, ISBN: 9780646944968. RRP $36.