A charmed slice of Victoria’s coastline 
is now home to some of the biggest 
stars of contemporary sculpture. 
Kendall Hill checks them out.

A nine-metre cast-iron head towers over a grove of spotted gums. Onshore winds transform a slender structure of steel blades into an elegant weathervane riding the breeze beside centenarian elms. In a natural amphitheatre above Western Port Bay, a cast-bronze work by British sculptor Tony Cragg at first resembles a chocolate soft serve but gaze at it long enough and a human profile reveals itself in the swirled metal.

Australians have a natural affinity for art in the great outdoors. Each year, crowds flock to the Sculpture by the Sea exhibits staged in Sydney and Perth. Now, Pt Leo Estate in Merricks, on the Mornington Peninsula, is giving the country its first permanent sculptures by the sea, featuring works by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, American kinetic sculptor George Rickey and, of course, Cragg.

From front: Lenton Parr’s Vega; Cosmic Resonance by Augustine Dall’Ava; Geoffrey Bartlett’s Nautilus, Study with Three Legs.

“This is a key piece,” says curatorial adviser Geoffrey Edwards of Cragg’s intriguing work. “Some would say he is the world’s most eminent sculptor today.”

The Mornington Peninsula – Melbourne’s answer to the Hamptons – has a passion for sculpture that is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Visitors arriving via the Peninsula Link freeway find it punctuated with monumental artworks including, currently, a nine-metre stainless-steel gnome. The works are commissioned by McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, established in 1971 at the urging of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, a major patron. In the park itself there are another 100 sculptures, by leading Australian artists, spread across 16 hectares of landscaped grounds, tea-tree forests and heathlands. In Red Hill in the hinterland, Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove has held an annual sculpture prize and exhibition since 2003. There are also significant private collections, including that of retail scion Baillieu Myer at the family property, Elgee Park, in Merricks North. And now art collector Pauline Gandel and her property-magnate husband John Gandel – who ranked seventh on this year’s Financial Review Rich List with a fortune of $6.1 billion – have opened their 135-hectare seafront property and private art collection to visitors.

Gregor Kregar’s stainless-steel Reflective Lullaby – Frankie gnome stands guard on the Peninsula Link freeway.

The emphasis at Pt Leo Estate is on contemporary Australian sculpture since 1959, including notable pieces by Clement Meadmore, Lenton Parr and Andrew Rogers. Victorians will recognise Bruce Armstrong’s Bunjil, inspired by the eaglehawk that’s become Melbourne’s de facto Indigenous totem, and a typically whimsical mosaic creature by Deborah Halpern that casts a quizzical eye over passers-by.

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Alongside more than 50 artworks, the centrepiece of the $50 million development is a 110-seat restaurant and cellar door inside a flowing structure of textured concrete, glass and timber that appears to rise from, and subside into, the surrounding slope.

Pt Leo Estate Restaurant’s culinary director is former Neil Perry protégé Phil Wood, the much-admired executive chef of Sydney’s Rockpool and Eleven Bridge. He has entered into his new role enthusiastically, hunting out local suppliers, foraging foreshores and expanding the Gandels’ vegie patch to help meet the kitchen’s needs. The estate’s herd of Angus cattle and beehives will also come in handy.

Executive chef Phil Wood’s calamari with squid oil, lardo and parsley purée at the Pt Leo Estate winery restaurant.

Highlights from a pre-launch lunch to sample Wood’s “flavour-forward, produce-driven” menu were the ricotta polenta with pickled fennel and a nutty Caprinella goat’s cheese from Main Ridge Dairy; and the supple, snow-white calamari with squid oil, lardo and parsley purée.

Wood raves about peninsula produce, including Hawkes potatoes – “quite simply the most amazing kipflers I have ever had” – and Cape Schanck olive oil. “You have all these generational farmers here who have amazing products that aren’t yet well known,” he says. At the end of this month, he’ll open the second stage of the restaurant, a 40-seat fine-diner flanked by a wine wall of 1300 bottles, including some of the Gandels’ own labels, Pt Leo Estate and Two Friends.

Winemaker Tod Dexter has been creating vintages from Pt Leo Estate’s 22 hectares of pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and shiraz vines since 2009 but the 2016 vintage is the first public release. Visitors can taste the fruits of Dexter’s labour at the cellar door or sip a glass while wandering among the art.

The winery restaurant’s ricotta polenta with goat’s-cheese shavings.

There’s no on-site accommodation but the 46-room Jackalope Hotel, the peninsula’s other star attraction of 2017, is a 10-minute drive away. As is Tussie Mussie, a former flower farm that sleeps 14 in a lodge and two cottages. Interiors are decorated in a faintly Provençal style but outlooks are purely peninsula – vines, fruit trees and lofty eucalypts.

Make a weekend of it and visit the new-look Ten Minutes by Tractor restaurant with its sage-green banquettes, Japanese marble screens and exceptional food and wines. The dégustation will ensure you fully appreciate the magic that chef Stuart Bell’s classical French training works on regional produce. Red Hill’s hottest newcomer is Red Gum BBQ, a hearty barn-like restaurant serving beers on tap and ethically sourced meats – pork ribs, beef brisket, chicken – smoked over Australian hardwoods. Or settle in for a long lunch at Montalto’s glass-walled dining room overlooking the pinot and chardonnay vines, followed by a stroll along the one-kilometre art walk.

Montalto sculpture exhibition curator Neil Williams isn’t sure what’s behind the peninsula’s preoccupation with outdoor art, beyond the fact that there are many affluent locals with a love for the arts. “But I often say to people, the Mornington Peninsula must have, per capita, the most sculptures of anywhere in the world.”

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Top image: Riff by Australian-American artist Clement Meadmore.
Photography credit: Lauren Bamford 

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