Sydney Home: The home of Ann Lewis, AO

Art was a moveable feast for over 50 years in the harbourside home of the late Sydney gallerist collector and arts patron Ann Lewis, AO, where the walls reflected a vibrant colourful life.

If walls could talk, what tales the jewel-like interiors of the late Ann Lewis’s Sydney house would tell. For more than half a century home to one of Australia’s most influential art collectors, patrons and gallerists, the Rose Bay waterfront bungalow Amaroo hosted more artworks than most galleries. The vibrant glazed walls of the ever-evolving interiors were a vital adjunct to the collections and witnessed three generations of inspired colourists in interior designers Marion Hall Best, Ann Gyngell and, most recently, Briony Fitzgerald. They created a backdrop for the art – and an extraordinary life – that was vibrant, poetic and fun.

Lewis was not born into a world of art, or artists. Married at 19 to Concrete Constructions building entrepreneur John Lewis, her foray into art began and flourished with her directorship of Gallery A Sydney, the contemporary gallery that Max Hutchinson founded in Melbourne in 1959. From 1964 to 1983, the sandstone building in Gipps Street, Paddington, was devoted to new abstract art, with artists such as Janet Dawson, Colin Lanceley, Robert Klippel, John Olsen, Peter Powditch, John Firth-Smith, Clement Meadmore and Rosalie Gascoigne and, significantly, works by the Papunya Tula artists from the Western Desert.

A detail of Kayili artist Manupa Butler’s Untitled above the mantlepiece, with Metal Sculpture No. 182 (1965) by Robert Klippel and paper-covered hand shears and stones.

Lewis was one of the first to recognise Indigenous art as contemporary rather than ethnographic. As a foundation member of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board, she was prominent in the push to bring Indigenous art out of the shadows, and championed Australian art as well as Indigenous both at home and internationally for most of her life. The Western Desert art collection formed part of a Banque Nationale de Paris exhibition in 1983, part-curated by Ann Gyngell, whom Lewis had engaged to assist in the decorating of her own home.

Full-height windows in the main living room framed views of the harbour and flanked the 1997 bronze sculpture Up by Clement Meadmore. Saarinen ‘Tulip’ chairs were an original 1960 design.

Gyngell’s exuberant colour synergy was a perfect foil for Lewis and her fast-growing collection. A protégée of famous colourist Marion Hall Best, who in the late ’50s had imprinted Amaroo with her trademark glazes, white Italian Gabbinelli ceramic tiles and Japanese rattan blinds, Gyngell highlighted the art against walls of wax-glazed Winsor & Newton artist pigments in emerald, ochre, rose madder and moss green. The house was first photographed for Vogue Living in 1983. “At Gallery A, Ann was in her prime,” Gyngell recalls. “Ann’s love of art was integral to her being. She wanted the avant-garde, to be different, to be at the forefront.”

On the far wall of the study hung Debra Dawes’ 13-14, One Game All. The chair was upholstered in ‘Quatrefoil’ cotton-nylon from Maharam’s Textiles of the 20th Century collection, designed by Alexander Girard.

Lewis was active in all the art institutions here as well as internationally: twice commissioner for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, from 1972, becoming its vice president in 1993. She made her New York loft apartment available to curators, Australian artists and their works, mentoring and brokering international connections for countless arts professionals.

Above the sofa in the living room were three paintings by Sally Gabori: (from left): Dibirdibi Country (2009), My Father’s Country and Dibirdibi Country (2008).

At home, art reigned. The dining room, with its sweeping views of the Harbour Bridge, was the setting for the smartest dinner parties for Sydney’s elite, and movers and shakers from the art world. The colours of the harbour extended across the ceiling to merge with John Olsen’s Sea Sun of Five Bells, commissioned for the room in 1964. “Instinctively, I felt that the room had to be dark,” says Gyngell. “I chose a lush, mossy green from the painting for the walls and introduced a harbour blue in a checked carpet, woven in the Philippines to the dimensions of the room. I was never one for gallery-white walls – even grey is better! Paintings have to have something to nestle into. I never tried to match the art. The art was constantly changing.”

The bedroom walls, in Porter’s Paints Duchess Satin ‘Ambassador Sterling’, were paired with a silk carpet creating a serene setting for John Firth-Smith’s Untitled as it stretched across the wall.

Lewis needed the excitement, so, along with the art, the furniture and interiors also changed, “a bite here or there; always piecemeal,” says Gyngell. After Gyngell retired, her daughter Briony Fitzgerald, a fashion designer who was beginning to skirt around interiors, moved to initiate colour changes and lay new carpet when the Gabbinelli tiles started to crack. “Ann wanted to change the Olsen room,” says Fitzgerald. “I chose a deep plummy red and halfway in she called my mother to come and fix it! I was mortified – I don’t recall what Mum said, but she must have agreed with me. Ann was strong-willed, scary at times. She was always looking for change – she encouraged me to be brave with colour.”

A deep Japanese tub had water views in the ensuite bathroom, above, with glass wall tiles from Pazotti.

After her husband’s death in 1996, Lewis commissioned Fitzgerald to redo the master bedroom. Glamorous and tranquil was her request: handmade silk carpet, metallic paint, Bang and Olufsen speakers and a deep Japanese tub. “It was very different from the rest of the house, but she loved it.”  Next came the new study and, inspired by her mother’s original pink ceiling, she chose a compelling watermelon-pink for the walls, with a sea-blue ceiling and a semi-circular desk positioned so that Lewis could gaze over the harbour.

Lewis’s thirst for change and need to “refresh her eye” resulted in the art being rotated every six to eight weeks, with a major
re-hang every three months. “She would put something of great value next to an idiosyncratic younger artist, and make both look fabulous,” according to Alison Renwick, head of Australian art for Mossgreen Auctions, who curated the collection during Lewis’s
last decade. “She wasn’t precious about art, yet it was fundamental to her life. The one constant for over 45 years was the John Olsen, perhaps because it was attached to the ceiling.”

Deep blue walls and a custom stripe navy/brown carpet in a guest bedroom were foil to the floor-to-ceiling mounted art. Echoing afternoon light filtered through wooden blinds was Debra Dawes’ Glare, top left, and Imants Alfred Tillers’ Horizon, bottom left.

A year before she died, Lewis donated the Olsen to Newcastle Art Gallery, in Olsen’s home town, and commissioned the little-known Shaun Gladwell to fill the space, knowing she would possibly not live to see it. “It’s just the adventurous person she was,” Renwick says. “Ann supported artists; her life-long altruism assisted the recognition of many Australian artists.” A passionate philanthropist in her last years, Lewis enriched the community with major gifts to galleries and institutions. In 2009, she was awarded the Office of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to visual arts.

Briony Fitzgerald created a new study, this page, for Lewis, featuring a semicircular desk with a view of the harbour and a library bookcase. On this wall hung Virginia Cuppaidge’s Nizana from Gallery A, the Sydney gallery of the ’60s and ’70s of which Lewis was director.

Lewis died in May 2011, aged 76. Vogue Living was invited to photograph her home prior to the sale and dispersal of the collection of more than 590 works. Fresh, colourful and lively, the interiors speak of the spirit of this remarkable woman. “She was one of those exceptional people who changed lives; changing how we see and do things,” says Professor Ted Small, chair of the Australia Council Visual Arts Board. Says Fitzgerald: “Ann inspired you to be better. She let you be your best.”

This story was first published in Vogue Living May/June 2012.

Photographer: Marcel Aucar
Producer/Writer: Helen Redmond

3 Responses to “Sydney Home: The home of Ann Lewis, AO”
  1. Tony Lewis says:

    Lovely article about my mother’s home. She would have loved it. Thank you…

    • Vogue Living says:

      Hi Tony,
      That’s lovely to hear. We will send your feedback to the story’s author Helen Redmond and I know she will be thrilled.
      Madeleine, Vogue Living Contrib. Editor

  2. Jack says:

    That’s great to hear. I also would bet Helen will be thrilled.

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