Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lewers, Gerald Francis (1905–1962)

by Michael Crayford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

This is a shared entry with Hettie Margaret Ernestine Lewers

Gerald Francis Lewers (1905-1962), sculptor and construction engineer, and Hettie Margaret Ernestine Lewers (1908-1978), artist, were husband and wife. Gerald was born on 1 July 1905 in Hobart, seventh of eight children of Robert David Lewers (d.1911), a bank manager from Ireland, and his Tasmanian-born wife Maria Bispham, née Propsting, both of whom were Quakers. By 1906 Robert had been transferred to Sydney, where he settled on the North Shore. Gerry's early interest in the bush was nurtured by his parents. He attended Chatswood Public School, the Friends' High School, Hobart (as a boarder in 1920), and Barker College (1920-23), Sydney. In 1924 he sailed in a lugger with A. F. B. Hull's zoological expedition to the Great Barrier Reef. Two years later Lewers joined his brother-in-law Mervyn Farley in a construction and quarry business which was mainly engaged in building roads and installing sewerage works; he studied part time at (East) Sydney Technical College and played first-grade Rugby Union for Northern Suburbs.

Margo was born on 23 April 1908 at Mosman, Sydney, second of three children of Gustav Adolf Plate (d.1913), a German-born grazier and artist, and his English-born wife Elsie Gill, née Burton. Having learned to type, Margo worked successively as a secretary, as a cadet commercial artist with the Daily Telegraph, and with a small firm that produced hand-made wooden articles with Australian motifs. She soon established her own studio and made hand-printed textiles and pottery. Later, she designed pots for R. Fowler Ltd.

Gerald and Margo met at Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo's evening art-classes in the late 1920s. In 1931 he travelled in Europe and studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Vienna. Back in Sydney, on 6 October 1932 he married Margo at the district registrar's office, Mosman. In 1934 they went abroad and enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. Gerald studied under John Skeaping and exhibited (1934) with 'Six Colonial Artists' at the Cooling galleries, New Bond Street. Margo worked at textile design, painting and drawing with John Farleigh. They saw exhibitions with Gerald's brother-in-law Arthur Wheen and also journeyed through Europe.

In Sydney in 1935 Margo established the Notanda Gallery, an interior-decorating shop in Rowe Street, and continued to design hand-printed fabrics. Her daughters Darani and Tanya were born in 1936 and 1940. The shop closed in 1939. An active member of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia, Margo was a pupil (1945-50) in Desiderius Orban's evening painting-classes. Gerald had returned to Farley & Lewers which built (1937) the Port Pirie-Port Augusta railway line in South Australia. About 1942 he took over the management of the firm's quarry at Castlereagh, New South Wales.

During his spare time Lewers carved animals and birds in wood and stone, creating a large number of realistic and semi-abstract sculptures. These intimate and small-scale works (mainly in private collections) captured the physical characteristics and movement of penguins, ants, numbats, kangaroos, giraffes, dolphins and fish. They included 'Camel's Head' and 'Tortoise' (Art Gallery of New South Wales), and 'Pelican Birdbath' (Lewers gallery). Margel Hinder, a close friend, said that Lewers' 'love and understanding for the wood and stone of his own land, coupled with his sensitivity for the inner life of wild animals and birds, carried out with his assured craftsmanship, led to some of his finest and most distinguished works'.

In 1950 Gerald retired from Farley & Lewers to become a full-time sculptor. Next year the family moved to his farmhouse on the Nepean River, where Margo was to make a garden of trees and river boulders. Patrick White wrote that in 'the house at Emu Plains ideas hurtled, argument flared, voices shouted, sparks flew. It was a place in which people gathered spontaneously'. J. D. Pringle recalled that guests 'were rewarded by exquisite food cooked by Margo and a great deal of wine provided by Gerry'. Quiet and gentle, Lewers 'always remained an all-round man—an excellent rider and bushman, a practical engineer who could turn his hand to anything, a skilled craftsman'. Margo gave an 'enduring impression of warmth, tenacity, candour and intelligence', although Pringle found her 'slightly terrifying with her hoarse voice and black stare'.

A member of the Society of Artists, Sydney, and of the Contemporary Art Society, Lewers took part in solo and group exhibitions. He helped to establish the Society of Sculptors and Associates in 1951 and was its founding treasurer. From 1953 until his death Lewers received over fifteen major commissions, among them 'Relaxation', a reclining 'sandstone figure of heroic size' (University House, Canberra), and the sandstone relief on the York Street front of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Sydney, 1954). He and Margo were jointly commissioned to create a garden of pebbles, cacti and sandstone shapes for the M.L.C. Building, North Sydney (1957). Lewers worked with swiftness and certainty, and later began to use metal, especially for public fountains 'whose shapes mirrored and reflected the moving waters' (I.C.I. House, Melbourne; Macquarie Place, Sydney).

From 1950 Margo worked in a variety of mediums including painting, textiles, sculpture and mosaic. She won recognition as a leading postwar abstract expressionist. Her early compositions explored colour and formal geometric abstraction; her work became more fluid and expressionistic by the early 1960s. She showed extensively in Australia and in several international travelling exhibitions; she received numerous public commissions (including the mosaic wall for the Canberra-Rex Hotel (1957) and the Aubusson tapestry (1968) for the Reserve Bank of Australia's boardroom); and she won at least fourteen awards and prizes.

While holidaying at Chillagoe, Queensland, Lewers was thrown from a horse and fractured his skull. He died of a brain haemorrhage on 9 August 1962 at Cairns hospital and was cremated. A major memorial exhibition was held at the A.G.N.S.W. in 1963. At the wish of Dr H. C. Coombs, Margo completed (1965) Gerald's design for a huge copper relief in the Reserve Bank, Canberra.

Margo Lewers died of cancer on 20 February 1978 at her Emu Plains home and was cremated. Through the generosity and persistence of her daughters, the Emu Plains property and collection of artworks was offered to Penrith City Council. In 1981 the Lewers Bequest and Penrith Regional Art Gallery was opened. The Lewers' work is represented in most national and State galleries, as well as in regional and university collections.

Margo's brother Carl Olaf Plate (1909-1977) was born on 19 December 1909 in South Perth and was brought to Sydney in 1913. He worked in advertising, studied art at (East) Sydney Technical College and travelled extensively (1936-40) in Europe, visiting Paris, several Scandinavian countries and the Soviet Union. In London he attended St Martin's School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Upon returning to Sydney (1940), he re-established the Notanda Gallery, where he exhibited British and Australian modern art, and sold art books and posters. He married Jocelyn Brittain Zander on 13 August 1945 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne.

Like his sister, Plate was represented in many solo, group and travelling exhibitions, and was responsible for bringing to Australia several important exhibitions by British artists. He used collage as a form of drawing: he often found it the most efficient way of documenting ideas and impressions for future works. Plate believed that 'Ambivalence, contradiction and paradox are the factors of life which affect me most'. His early influences were the British Surrealists, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, but from the late 1950s his work was more aligned to the philosophies and practices of Australian and European abstract expressionism. He died of cancer on 15 May 1977 at his Woronora River home and was cremated; his wife, son and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Thomas, Gerald Lewers Memorial Exhibition (Syd, 1963)
  • A. Watson, Carl Plate 1909-1977, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1977)
  • K. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1980)
  • D. Hickey, Gerald and Margo Lewers, Their Lives and Their Work (Syd, 1982)
  • Art and Australia, vol 7, no 2, Sept 1969, p 144, vol 7, no 3, Dec 1969, p 235, vol 16, no 2, Dec 1978, p 131
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Aug 1929, 1 Nov 1934, 12 Jan, 26 June 1954, 1 Aug 1957, 10, 18 Aug 1962, 19, 22 June 1963, 22 Feb, 3 Nov 1978, 12 July 1980, 26 June 1982
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 14 Apr 1954
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 21 July 1963, 11 July 1965, 29 Oct 1967
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 11 Sept 1960
  • Australian, 21 Oct 1967, 30 Aug 1969
  • National Times, 21-27 Jan 1979, p 28
  • H. de Berg, interview with Margo Lewers (transcript, 1962 and 1965, National Library of Australia)
  • M. and G. Lewers papers and Carl Plate papers (Lewers Bequest and Penrith Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Crayford, 'Lewers, Gerald Francis (1905–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewers-gerald-francis-10821/text19197, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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