An old dairy is transformed into Sydney’s newest regional art gallery

The old dairy on the Retford Park estate in Bowral is our newest regional art gallery. Ngununggula, meaning “belonging” in the traditional language of the Gundungurra people, opened last month.

In designing a garden to fit around the new gallery, landscape architect Jane Irwin chose not to compete with Retford’s historical and contemporary garden glories. And they are great: the much-imitated “blobbery” of neat domes leading to the front of the house; the minimalist perfection of the “Green Room” with Inge King’s bronze “Euphoric Angels” in a frame of clipped thuja hedges; the much-loved mature camellias, rhododendrons and crabapples; the peonies; the parterre; the emu walk.

Ngununggula is Sydney’s newest regional art gallery, located in the old dairy on Bowral’s Retford Park estate.Credit:Zan Wimberley

One of the things that strikes visitors to Retford Park is how beautifully it is gardened by the head gardener Rick Shepherd and his team. In contrast, Irwin’s design offers visitors an almost invisibly gardened space. The Ngununggula gardens take inspiration not from Retford’s gardens, but from the rural context of the buildings and a much older, pre-colonial landscape history.

“We wanted to take advantage of the position of the dairy overlooking paddocks and grazing country with post and rail fences and mature windbreak plantings, and treat the space as part of the fields, rather than part of the garden,” she explains.

So the new gallery will sit within a meadow of wildflowers, with paths mown through the grasses and flowers to invite exploration.

Irwin’s team worked with ecologist Paul Gibson-Roy to develop a specific seed mix for the site. Gibson-Roy is lead scientist for Greening Australia and has a passionate commitment to the restoration of wildflower grasslands and grassy woodlands, two of our most threatened plant communities.

High Jinks in the Hydreangeas by Tamara Dean features at Ngununggula gallery.Credit:Michael Reid

The mix Gibson-Roy developed for the Ngununggula meadow comprises some 50 different species, ranging from common grasses such kangaroo grass, wallaby grass, poa and lomandra, to native geraniums, scamblers such hardenbergia and kennedia, and rarities like the hoary sunray, Leucochrysum albicans. This pretty, gold-centred white paper daisy was once endemic in south-eastern Australia, but the great fields of it which once bloomed have been so shrunk by changing land use that the species is now classified as threatened.

The seed for the meadow was sown by hand in September and Irwin is curious to see what comes up first and how the planting develops – as well as how visitors respond to a very different garden experience from that offered elsewhere at Retford Park.

The ways in which we respond to gardened spaces is also the theme of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, which will run until December 12. For “High Jinks in the Hydrangeas” Tamara Dean has staged photographs in private gardens around the Southern Highlands that consider our experience of isolation and the consolations of the garden.

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