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

The old dairy factory on the Retford Park estate in Bowral is our newest regional art gallery. Ngununggula, which means “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 historic and contemporary garden glory. And they’re great: the much-imitated “blob” 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 trimmed instant hedges; the much-loved ripe camellias, rhododendrons and crab apples; the peonies; the midwife; the emu walks.

Ngununggula is Sydney's newest regional art gallery, located in the old dairy factory on Bowral's Retford Park estate.

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

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

“We wanted to take advantage of the dairy’s position overlooking footpaths and grazing land with mail and rail fences and mature belly plants, and treat the space as part of the fields, rather than part of the garden,” she explains.

So the new gallery will sit inside a meadow of wildflowers, with paths mowed 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 a chief 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.

Tamara Dean’s High Jinks in the Hydreangeas feature at Ngununggula gallery.

Tamara Dean’s High Jinks in the Hydreangeas feature at Ngununggula gallery.Credit:Michael Reid

The mixture Gibson-Roy developed for the Ngununggula meadow consists of about 50 different species, ranging from common grasses such as kangaroo grass, wallaby grass, poao and lomandra, to native geraniums, scales such as hardenbergia and kennedia, and rarities such as the gray sunbeam, Leucochrysum albicans. This beautiful, gold-centered white paper daisy was once endemic in south-eastern Australia, but the large fields of it that once bloomed have been so shrunk due to changing land use that the species is now classified as endangered.

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

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