86 River Road - The Site
1819 - 1941
The Gallery site adjoins that of the former Government Farm Buildings, which between 1819 and 1830 included the barracks for 500 male convicts. These buildings, shown on a 1926 plan as being located close to the river, subsequently became the Police Barracks and later a woollen mill.
The original house was built c. 1905 on a 10-acre allotment with direct frontage to the Nepean River. The property was used for several agricultural purposes and then as a pig farm. It was approached from the Blue Mountains side (Nepean Road) through its farmland and, like all adjoining properties, had direct access to the Nepean River, including water usage rights. Following the construction of River Road from 1939 (which took approximately 1 acre of river frontage), access to the house became available from the riverside. Access to the river for ‘stock and carts’ and pumping was obtained via a walk-through bridged culvert beneath the road. This access was formalised via a 12-foot wide right-of-way adjacent to the Ancher House north courtyard wall.
Following the progressive development of River Road, the garden was fenced on the riverside and the riverbank was fenced along the edge of the road.
Lewers Period 1942–1980
Gerald Lewers bought the property in 1942 and lived there during the week while he managed the Farley and Lewers’ quarry at Castlereagh, sculpting at night after work. Gerry went to Sydney for weekends and the family came to Emu Plains for occasional holidays.
In 1950, when Gerry decided to retire from the family business in order to devote himself full-time to his sculpture-making, he and Margo moved permanently to Emu Plains with their two daughters Darani and Tanya. The isolation of the house enabled Gerry to work on his sculptures (especially the larger carved stone pieces) without concern for disturbing the neighbours. A Douglas Gordon-designed studio was built for him at the north-western edge of the yard, while Margo used a room at the rear (north-west corner) of the old house as her painting studio. The progressive placement of Gerry’s sculptures within the garden became a subtle but highly significant design element.
Once the family were living in Emu Plains permanently, the development of the garden proceeded rapidly. A new citrus orchard and asparagus patch were established to the south and the old home paddock to the north was retained. The farmyard area north of the house’s kitchen was progressively gardened for vegetables, necessitating the removal of parts of the large areas of concrete paving. In time, the vegetables gave way to flowers.
Margo entered the garden in the Sydney Morning Herald garden competitions from the mid-1950s, twice winning first prize. In 1966 the garden won the Herald’s Homestead Garden category (entered after completion of Ancher House and garden) and by this time the basic form of the garden appears to have been developed, with changes within this pattern continuing until Margo’s death in 1978.
In 1956 the property was subdivided into three lots:
- the market garden (approximately 7 acres between Nepean Road and the rear of Lewers House) and orchard
- the Lewers House and Ancher House area
- a small lot north of Ancher House.
In the same year the market garden was sold off. The residential lot north of Ancher House was sold in 1966 and subsequently built upon, and in 1968 the south-west orchard block was sold off and a house constructed. In 1971 the market garden land to the west was developed into a residential subdivision and Margo had a high brick wall and concrete block wall built along the western boundary.
In 1956 architect Sydney Ancher remodelled the old kitchen wing of Lewers House, which had become two small bedrooms and a small living room, into a Modernist living room opening onto a new courtyard space enclosed by a new brick wall. The new courtyard took the place of the old picket-fenced garden on the mountain side; it is now the Lewers House courtyard and succulent garden. Margo constructed a mosaic tile floor for the new kitchen and a large mosaic tile panel at the kitchen threshold. She also created a mosaic tile floor for the modernised external bathroom.
Shortly after Gerry’s sudden death in 1962, following a horse-riding accident near Chillagoe in north Queensland, his studio was converted to a self-contained work space in which various artists such as Keith Looby lived and worked at different times.
Ancher House was built between 1961 and 1964 and had its own courtyard garden enclosed by a brick wall. The house was intended for Margo’s mother Gilly Plate, but she died before the house was completed. Prior to the title being transferred to Margo and Gerry’s daughters, Darani Larson and Tanya Crothers, in 1967, Ancher House was used as either a residential letting or a low-key commercial art gallery.
From 1973 Margo began making plans to donate the property to Penrith City Council for public use as a centre for creative activity.
Immediately following Margo’s death, the garden and grounds were looked after by volunteer helpers, particularly Petite Dallimore and her husband Dal who acted as resident caretakers and gardeners, with Petite learning Margo’s gardening techniques from Bart, Margo’s long-time gardener.
Margo Lewers’ wishes were fulfilled by her daughters Darani and Tanya, who with much community support and agitation (including that of the local State member of Parliament Peter Anderson) – under what was to become known as the Lewers Bequest – donated the property, buildings and art Collection – without condition in 1979 – to the City of Penrith for the people of Western Sydney. Assistance from the Wran Labor government enabled the building of purpose built art gallery on site. Thus, the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest was established in 1981.
The donation of the Lewers property to the community and Penrith Council’s collaboration was secured in August 1979 … In a letter to Darani Larsen and Tanya Crothers the Premier Mr Wran (having announced a capital grant to Penrith City Council for the project) expressed the view that the gallery would provide ‘a unique and valuable facility for the western region of Sydney’ and that the new project would be a ‘fitting Memorial to Gerald and Margo Lewers and an artistic contribution to the artistic life of this state and the nation’.