Life & Work
Margaret Rose McPherson was born on the 29th April, 1875 in Port Adelaide to parents David McPherson, a Scottish marine engineer, and Prudence McPherson. The oldest of two daughters, her sister Ethelwynne was born in 1877. The family referred to Margaret by her middle name, ‘Rose’, and Preston went by this name until her mid 30s when she began to use her given name of Margaret.
Preston was educated at Fort Street Girls School for two years following the family’s move to Sydney in 1885. Preston’s introduction to art began at the age of twelve, first through china painting, and then through private art classes with William Lister Lister. Preston recalled her formative years and budding interest in art in her article ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’ printed in Sydney Ure Smith’s, ‘Art in Australia’ 1927, which published many of Preston’s articles and reproductions of her work throughout her life. From ‘Eggs to Electrolux’ provides a charming insight into Preston’s personality and legendary ego through a sentimental recollection of her life, written at age 52, at the height of her career. Written in the third person, Preston recalled her first experience of visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales, aged twelve, with her mother:
She remembers quite well her excitement on going through the turnstile to be let at large in a big, quiet, nice smelling place with a lot of pictures hanging on the walls and here and there students sitting on high stools copying at easels. Her first impression was not of the beauty of wonder of the pictures, but how nice it must be to sit on a high stool with people giving you ‘looks’ as they went by … this visit led her to decide to be an artist.
Preston’s formal art training was distinguished by her instruction under major Australian artists. From her initial training with Lister Lister, Preston went on to study at the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria Art School in 1889, under Frederick McCubbin, where she studied until 1894. This training was interrupted by her father’s critical illness, which forced Preston to return to Adelaide to be with her family. Following her father’s death in 1896, Preston resumed her studies at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School with Bernard Hall, where her tuition included drawing from the nude model, a practice which Preston initially disliked, preferring to work quietly at still life in an adjoining studio. Here she would work day in and day out at her precious eggs.
Preston’s precocious talents were observed throughout her training, winning her various drawing awards including the prestigious Still life Scholarship in 1897. In 1898 she furthered her studies at the Adelaide School of Design, under H.P. Gill and Hans Heysen. Leon Gellert, the writer, poet and co-publisher of ‘Art and Australia’, was a fellow student at the time, and remembered Pretson as a lively redhead who figured prominently at the school…she was either an advanced student or an instructor of some sort.
Teaching would feature at various points in Margaret Preston’s career and she was an influential instructor. She began taking private students while at the Adelaide School of Design, establishing her own teaching studio in the city’s AMP building in 1899. Teaching offered her the financial independence critical to her artistic development, and was also a support for her family. Preston wanted to paint her pictures as she would, to choose her own subjects and do them in her own way, leaving all thought of selling out of her mind. Among her students were notable artists Bessie Davidson, Gladys Reynell and later, Stella Bowen, who referred to her as a red headed little firebrand of a woman, who was not only an excellent painter, but a most inspiring teacher.
Preston’s emergence as one of the most powerful exponents of Australian Modernism in the 1920s is inextricably linked to her extensive travels and studies in Europe between 1904 and 1919. These experiences and resulting artistic revelations would colour Preston’s practice, her critical thinking and theorising for the remainder of her life. Despite a deep self-confidence in her artistic talent, Preston was keen to travel abroad for ‘finishing lessons’, wanting to see how her work measured up in an international context. Following her mother Prudence’s death in 1903, Preston travelled with student Bessie Davidson to Europe where they stayed until 1907, studying in Munich and Paris, and travelling in Italy, Spain and Holland.
Preston’s Munich experience proved a difficult period in her artistic development. She briefly studied at the Government Art School for Women, but did not relate well to the teaching and current trends in German art. Preston’s difficulty in comprehending the art by which she was confronted is evident in her comment, half of German art is mad and vicious, and a good deal is dull. I am glad to say that my work stands with the best of them.[i]
Paris however, proved a critical and dynamic experience, with Preston revelling in the works of French Post Impressionists, Cezanne, the most architectural of all artists [ii], Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Delauney, Derain, Vlaminck and Roualt. Paris also provided the opportunity to exhibit, Preston taking part in the Paris Salon of 1905 and 1906. A seminal Parisian experience was her introduction to Japanese art and design at the Musée Guimet, where her perceptions of artistic vision and expression would be radically altered. Her study of Japanese art awakened her to a range of qualities that became evident in her later work: a delight in asymmetry; pattern as the dominant element of design; the close up observations of natural patterns; the celebration of particular flora; and a daring engagement with deliberate primitivism. [iii] Preston learnt that there is more than one vision in art. That a picture could have more than eye realism. That there was such a thing as aesthetic feeling. That a picture that is meant to fill a certain space should decorate that space. [iv]
Preston travelled to Paris for a second time in 1912 with student Gladys Reynell, and with the advent of World War 1, re-located to the UK, where she studied pottery and also the principals of Modernist design at Roger Fry’s Omega workshops. Later, she began teaching pottery and basket-weaving with Reynell to shell shocked soldiers at the Seale-Hayne Neurological Military Hospital in Devonshire.
Decoration without ornamentation. Enough or too much,[i] one of Preston’s many aphorisms, remained a primary objective and pre-occupation in her work. In 1913 she wrote to Australian artist, Norman Carter: I was very interested to hear of your decorative work – it’s the only thing worth aiming for this century – its really the key note of everything – I’m trying all I know to reduce my still lifes to decorations and I find it fearfully difficult. [ii]
A seminal influence in her work, Preston’s adoption of cubist principals gave her an analytical, and problem solving approach to design, a sense of the underlying structure of forms, and the simplified pictorial space and elements which would become the hallmarks of her work. Preston famously declared that: why there are so many tables of still life in modern paintings is because they are really laboratory tables on which aesthetic problems can be isolated. [iii] Leger’s curvelinear and cylindrical forms are echoed in works such as Implement Blue, 1927, and West Australian Gum Blossom, 1927, which employ a restricted palette, reflecting Preston’s interest in the Japanese aesthetic. While Preston’s work transcended the merely decorative and stylistic modernism which had emerged in Australian popular culture and print production, commercial photography and interior design would also prove an acute influence. As Ann Stephen points out, images such as Implement Blue, 1927, share the same currency of construction as the commercial photography of the period, favouring oblique angles of perception and dramatic lighting effects, which stress the formal or abstract qualities of the subject. [iv] While Preston eschewed the kitsch designs of popular culture, she capitalised on the agency that women’s magazines provided in allowing her to encourage the widest possible audience for her work, and for the opportunity to voice her opinions on Australian art and its future. Readers of the April 1929 edition of Women’s World were implored to keep the covers of their magazines on which Preston’s works were reproduced and frame them, as charming pictures … just the decorative asset we need for our walls.
Following their seven years in Berowra, the Preston’s returned to live again in Mosman where they would reside until Margaret Preston’s death in 1963. Their homes included 14 Thompson Street, near Clifton Gardens, (the former home of actress Nellie Stewart), and then famously the Hotel Mosman where they lived for 8 years, and then finally 22 Killarney Street with views over The Spit. Preston continued to paint and make monotypes throughout her later years, her works revealing her ongoing interest in Aboriginal art. Her last series of prints reflect a religious theme, and are thought to have been motivated by the Blake Prize, instituted in 1951.
A leading figure in the Australian art scene and within the Mosman community, Margaret Preston is remembered as a woman of cosmopolitan style possessing a forthright, and dynamic personality, who was responsive to the ideas and challenges of her time. Preston’s prodigious artistic output, her innovative, passionate, and lifelong pursuit of an Australian sensibility in her art, and her commitment to the development a national cultural identity, confirm her importance as one of the dominant exponents of the Modernist aesthetic in 20th century Australian art.
MP in Mosman
Mosman has enjoyed a long association with the visual arts. From the earliest days of the artists’ camps at Mosman Bay and Little Sirius Cove in the 19th century to the present, its beautiful bushlands and harbour foreshores have inspired generations of artists, writers, poets and musicians. Artistic luminaries who have lived and worked in Mosman include Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, James R Jackson, Dora Toovey, Harold Herbert, Sam Fullwood, Datillo Rubbo, Lloyd Rees, Nancy Borlase, Ken Done, and Kerrie Lester, as well as writers Ruth Park, Leon Gellert, Leslie and Coralie Rees, and Gavin and Ngaire Souter.
Margaret Preston first settled in Mosman following her marriage, aged 44, in late December 1919 to William George Preston, the handsome and recently discharged second lieutenant that she had met on her return trip to Australia from Europe. Bill Preston’s placid and even temperament provided the perfect foil to Margaret Preston’s assertive personality, and they were devoted to each other throughout their marriage. Preston’s friend Leon Gellert described their marriage as felicitious … the handsome and worshipful Bill seemed to regard it as a national duty to keep his beloved Margaret happy and artistically productive. [i] A successful businessman, Bill Preston was a company director for Anthony Hordens retailers, Dalton’s packaging company and later, Toohey’s brewery. His support for Margaret Preston’s work was absolute, and their marriage gave her the financial security to pursue her work exclusively, affording her many advantages, including extensive international travel.
The Prestons’ move to Mosman in 1920 would prove a dominant influence on Margaret Preston’s artistic development, and it was certainly while living in Mosman that her reputation became firmly established as the most prominent Australian woman artist of the 1920s and 1930s. Mosman’s natural environs, proximity to the harbour and the city provided her with creative stimuli, the locale featuring in many prints during the 1920s. Preston’s vigorous, graphic and colourful representations of the suburb caused the art critic for ‘The Sun’ to comment in 1929 that she has two or three landscapes of Mosman which it is certain would stagger the Mayor and Aldermen of that suburb.
Mosman’s location also provided the opportunity for Preston to become a leading force within the fervent post war activity of the Sydney arts scene. Within their first year of living in Mosman, Preston’s talents were acknowledged when the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased her 1915 painting Summer, at the 1920 Royal Art Society Spring exhibition. This marked the beginning of the meteoric trajectory of her artistic output, development and public profile in this decade. By 1930 Preston had been commissioned by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint her self-portrait, the first Australian female artist to be honoured with this request. Preston claimed of the conservative self-portrait, that she was a painter of flowers, and that she was no flower.
Margaret Preston’s strong involvement with the Society of Artists undeniably shaped her career, as she befriended its President, Sydney Ure Smith, the influential editor and publisher of Art in Australia and other journals, The Home and Australia National Journal. This friendship was arguably one of the most important of Preston’s career. Through Ure Smith’s publications, Preston had the opportunity to champion the ideas and theories about Australian art to which she was so fiercely committed, gaining an ever-increasing artistic profile in the process. Preston contributed fourteen articles to Art in Australia, thirteen articles to The Home, nine to the Australia National Journal and four articles to the Society of Artists yearbooks. During the 1920s more space was devoted to articles by or about Margaret Preston in these journals, than any other artist, including countless reproductions of her images. Indeed three Ure Smith publications were exclusively devoted to Preston’s work: the Margaret Preston Number of Art in Australia in 1927, Recent Paintings by Margaret Preston in 1929 and Margaret Preston’s Monotypes in 1949.
It is in Preston’s wood cuts and monotypes that her capacity for modernist innovation and vitality of design are most evident. Preston’s forays into printmaking began while she was living in England, where she experimented with etching. It was, however, in the friendly little craft of woodblock printing that she was to excel,[i] working with readily available materials, and drawing from her study of Japanese art to create the dynamic, colourful, vigorous and decorative images for which she received wide exposure and public acclaim. Inexpensive to produce, her prints gained wide spread appeal and were aimed at the domestic market.
Preston employed printmaking throughout her career with prodigious creative outcomes. There are over 400 known prints, however it is likely that she produced many more, as she was known to throw away any works that did not please her, and the documentation of some of her work is scarce. The overwhelming majority of Preston’s prints feature Australian native flora as their subjects, a deliberate selection in Preston’s quest to create uniquely Australian images. Delighting in their irregularity and asymmetry, flowers such as the banksia, waratah, gum blossom and wheelflower offered Preston the perfect specimens for her modernist approach. Printmaking offered Preston immediacy, dramatic qualities, decorative possibilities and a discipline for her designer’s mind, for the woodcut hinders facility and compels the worker to keep forms in his compositions severe. [i] Preston turned to the medium to keep her work fresh and enlivened: whenever I thought I was slipping in my art, I went into crafts – woodcuts, monotypes, stencils and etchings. I find it clears my brain.[ii] Disregarding formal methodologies of printmaking (registration, reductionist colour etc.), Preston preferred to work instead with hand-colouring and to experiment with new techniques, resulting in daring works of radical design, composition and unadulterated colour. Apart from experimentation, Preston employed woodblocks to solve representational and compositional problems. Sydney Ure Smith noted that it was through her prints that Preston achieved the primitive appeal in her work: Its conscious crudity makes it a succession of bald statements … The affectation of the primitive is more evident here, than in any other branch of her art.
From 1920 to 1963 the Prestons lived at a variety of addresses within Mosman, with the exception of seven years spent living in the bush at Berowra during the 1930s. Following a brief period at the Ritz Hotel in Cremorne, in 1920 the Prestons settled in a flat “Glenorie” in Musgrave Street, Mosman, which afforded generous views of Mosman Bay and Sydney Harbour. This view would inspire numerous works – at least six wood block prints rendered during the 1920s specifically capture Mosman Bay and the Mosman Bridge. By 1922 the Prestons moved a short distance to a substantial federation home in Park Avenue, situated at the top of Reid Park, where they were to stay for the following ten years. It was from this locale that many of Preston’s iconic Sydney images were made, including the famous Sydney Heads I & II, 1925, Harbour Foreshore, 1925, images which capture the tranquillity of the harbour foreshore near Ashton Park, with rippling blue waters, sailing boats and dramatic, sculptural angophora trees. The harbour also features in the works Circular Quay, 1925, and The Bridge from the North Shore, 1932, reflecting her interest in elaborate patterns and the stark, dramatic contrasts offered by the wood cut.
More intimate views of Mosman are reflected in Preston’s prints, Red Cross Fete, 1920, depicting the magical atmosphere of a fete in Hunter Park, viewed across the water from Balmoral Island at night. Edwards Beach Balmoral, 1929, and Rocks and Waves, 1929, are both views from Wyargine Point, near Edwards Beach, a favourite haunt, with dramatic coastal vegetation and rock formations.
Mosman features in numerous Preston paintings, including those of her later years. Two works Japanese Submarine exhibition, 1942, and Children’s Corner at the Zoo, 1944-46, are painted in a deliberately naive idiom, reflecting Preston’s responsiveness to current issues and theories. During the 1940s in Sydney there was a widespread interest in the art of children, ignited largely through the 1939 Department of Education Gallery exhibition of children’s art. Preston would have also been aware of Roger Fry’s theories on creativity and learning in children. Japanese Submarine exhibition, 1942, depicting the fragments of Japanese midget submarines raised from Sydney harbour after their attack in 1942, also indicates Preston’s wry sense of humour and irony, as a statement on wartime paranoia and the anti-Japanese sentiments of the day.
Between 1932 and 1939 the Prestons lived in the bush in Berowra, where Margaret Preston pursued her primary artistic concern regarding the development of a national cultural identity in Australian art. Preston’s works from this period express her firm desire to resolve this hypothesis in her art, employing aboriginal designs and a restricted palette of natural colours, also reflected in later works such as The Brown Pot, 1940, and Manly Pines, 1953. As the European Post Impressionists had sought inspiration from Primitivism, Preston turned to Australian Indigenous art as a source for creating a new, national art. Desperate that Australian art should cut its ties to ‘Mother England’, Preston rebelled against what she saw as the atrophy of Australian art in the dominant patriarchy of entrenched traditionalism, and masculine nationalism expressed through cliches of the bush ethos. While Preston had championed Aboriginality in her work and her writings from the mid-1920s, her early interest in indigenous art was more anthropological, than one empathetic with its spiritual sensibilities. The works from the Berowra period reflect the growing maturity of Preston’s approach to Aboriginal art and culture, revealing a strong spiritual connection with the land and in addition echo her deep interest in Chinese art.
Katrina Cashman is the Curator of the Mosman Art Gallery firstname.lastname@example.org
Butel, Elizabeth. Margaret Preston, ETT Imprint, 1995. Previous editions from Penguin 1985.
Butel, Elizabeth. ‘Mosman’s own art colony’, The Northern Herald, 2 January, 1986.
Butel, Elizabeth. A summary of Preston’s life
Butler, Roger. The Prints of Margaret Preston: A Catalogue Raisonné, Melbourne: Australian National Gallery & Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987.
Butler, Roger. The Prints of Margaret Preston, exhibition brochure, Australian National Gallery, 1987.
Burn, Ian & Nigel Lendon; Charles Merewether; Ann Stephen, The Necessity of Australian Art: An essay about interpretation, Power Publications, University of Sydney, 1988.
McDonald, John. ‘Margaret Preston’, Australian Painters of the twentieth century. Ed. Lou Klepac, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2000.
North, Ian. The Art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1980.
Prunster, Ursula. Australian Painters Seeing Cezanne, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998.
Preston, Margaret. ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, Art In Australia, 1927 Margaret Preston Number, 3rd series, No.22, 1927, Ed. Sydney Ure Smith.
Smith, Sydney Ure. ‘Margaret Preston Recent Paintings 1929’, Art In Australia, Margaret Preston Number, 1929.
Souter, Gavin. Mosman, A History, Melbourne University Press, 1994.
Topliss, Helen. Modernism and Feminism: Australian Women Artists 1900-1940, Craftsman House Australia, 1996.