Margo Lewers: no limits

Margo Lewers: no limits
Grasstrees Press

In 1935 The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine offered reassurance when reporting on the opening of Margo Lewers’ (1908–1978) Bauhaus-influenced design shop, Notanda: “Don’t be alarmed at the backgrounds [to her hand-printed textiles], they are abstracts!” This was the same discerning magazine that had headlined Lewers’ earlier homecoming from study in Europe, “Clever Australian Woman Returns!”

The intriguing discovery from reading the new book, Margo Lewers: no limits, is that both apparently patronising suggestions were accurate for the time. And so is that adjunct to the title, “no limits.” For the untrained Lewers became a significant artist in post-war abstraction, graduating through a cadetship as a commercial artist at The Daily Telegraph, a pokerwork and pottery design business, interior and garden design at her own and others’ properties, and involvement in architecture at the family home in Emu Plains with Modernist leader Sydney Ancher.


In a sense, the book is a riposte to Pamela Bell, curator of the 2002 retrospective exhibition of Lewers’ art, which toured from the S.H. Ervin Gallery for eighteen months. She declared that “Margo’s first big solo show” was “certainly not going to contain any furniture or clothes.” The monograph covers all facets of Lewers’ creativity to paint a portrait of her “ideology for a new way of living.” Well-qualified writers cover Interior Design, Garden Design, her relations with Ancher and the home, which has become the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest.

The art is covered by Lewers’ daughters, Darani and Tanya – both creative practitioners themselves and not unwilling to include criticality by others of their mother. Personal reflections tend to appear as footnotes. James Gleeson, for instance, thought that she showed “exciting, impetuous ideas” in a joint exhibition with sculptor husband Gerald in 1952, “but she doesn’t always have the technique to do them justice.” Two years later, Lewers herself told Margaret Jones of The Sydney Morning Herald that she still had “an enormous distance to go.” By 1959, she was winning the Mosman Art Prize – the first municipal prize in the country, which had initially rejected abstraction out of hand. Interestingly, it was the architect and artist Alderman Allan Gamble who judged that year – suggesting that Lewers had been valuably influenced by the touring Portuguese-born French artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, who had emphasised the built environment as the key starting point for abstraction.

A pity the book contains none of da Silva’s work – though it does have thirty-eight paintings by Lewers, seven plexiglass constructions that were a late phase in her work, eleven mosaics ranging from a sensational bathroom floor that could be a hard-edged artwork in its own right to an eight-metre work for the new Canberra Rex Hotel, a tapestry, and various free hanging fabrics that, arguably, were the culmination of her lust for colour and movement.

To get the full picture of this limitless artist, you do have to read the whole book – for no one chapter takes in the complete picture of Margo, or the times when art leader Julian Ashton could condemn abstraction as “the scum rising to the surface as a result of the burnout caused by the [First World] War,” and when Modernism was still such a ferment of the ideas that have produced the world we now live in.


Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator with a special interest in Indigenous culture.

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