Margaret Preston, one of Australia’s greatest artists, began her career under William Lister Lister in Sydney. She then went onto study under Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School in Victoria. She was one of the first female artists to have her bold works of floral compositions recognised by the public and critics as art with merit. Preston was intensely ambitious on promoting contemporary ideas in the sphere of artistic creativity and became a voice and inspiration for female artists. Preston was passionate about creating a ‘National Art’ for Australia that was inspired by our indigenous heritage. In this respect, she was leaps and bounds ahead of her contemporaries. A joint exhibition between Preston and Thea Proctor in 1925 of colour woodcuts was considered ‘perhaps the most important of its kind ever arranged by local artists and as supplying the main distinction of the year’. (Preston, D Edwards & R Peel. 2005.p. 85)
Painter, printmaker and teacher, Preston was born on 29 April 1875 at Port Adelaide, elder daughter of David McPherson (also spelt Macpherson), a marine engineer, and Prudence Cleverdon, née Lyle. In Sydney from 1884 Rose attended Fort Street Girls’ School and had private art classes with W. Lister Lister . At Melbourne in 1893 she enrolled at the National Gallery School, possibly after lessons from Berthe Mouchette [although the Miss Macpherson listed in a catalogue of Mouchette’s students’ work has been identified by Mary Eagle as another Miss Macpherson; nevertheless, Rose McPherson and Mouchette would later have studios in the same Adelaide building]. In 1894 her father was admitted to the Parkside Lunatic Asylum and Rose joined her sister and mother in Adelaide. She completed her Melbourne studies in 1896-98 then returned home, studied at the Adelaide School of Design, leased a studio and began teaching. In 1904 she left for Europe with a former student, Bessie Davidson , took classes at the Munich Government Art School for Women then moved to Paris. She had an academic still-life painting hung in the Old Salon in 1905.
Back at Adelaide in 1907, Rose and Bessie rented a studio, held a combined exhibition and taught. Rose’s pupils included Gladys Reynell , with whom she returned to London in 1912. They lived in Paris and Brittany in 1913-14, moving back to London when war was imminent. Rose exhibited her first woodcuts with the Society of Women Artists and studied pottery at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. She had two paintings hung in the New Salon and the Royal Academy, admired the Bloomsbury Group and exhibited with the New English Art Club. In 1918-19 she and Gladys taught pottery, basketry and printmaking to soldiers at the Seale Hayne Neurological Hospital, Devon.
On the voyage home she met William George Preston, returning from serving with the AIF. They married on 31 December 1919. Rose McPherson became Margaret Preston and settled in Mosman, Sydney. The financial security Bill offered allowed her to travel; she visited New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (1923), South East Asia and China (1927) and Ceylon, Africa and India (1956-58). Exhibiting with the Society of Artists of NSW led to the patronage of Sydney Ure Smith , publisher of Art in Australia , to which she contributed many articles including her autobiographical ‘From eggs to Electrolux’ published in an issue devoted to her work (December 1927). Ure Smith also published a portfolio of her work (1929) and Margaret Preston’s Monotypes (1949). In 1925 she exhibited prints with Thea Proctor . Three solo shows followed, in 1929, 1936 and 1953. From 1926 she exhibited with the Contemporary Group. In 1929 the trustees of the NSW National Gallery (now Art Gallery of New South Wales) commissioned a self-portrait – the first by a woman artist in a series of artists’ self-portraits commissioned by the gallery’s trustees. In 1937 she won a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale, Paris.
The most popular of Preston’s works are probably her hand-coloured woodcuts of flowers, which gave a dramatic modern look to a traditional women’s subject; the most critically admired, modernist oils like Flying over the Shoalhaven River (1942); the most original – if least appreciated – her late naïve ‘Aboriginal’ images that rejected both academic and modernist styles for an indigenous Australian modernism. In works like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (1950), Expulsion(1955) and The Superimposed Feet (1959) the biblical founders of the human race are Australian Aborigines (and the angel who expels them from Eden is white).
Preston had begun to advocate a national style based on Aboriginal art in 1923, initially for craft items, then for colour, technique and finally for subjects in painting. From 1927 she made several trips with Bill to study Aboriginal art, collecting carvings by Kalboori Youngi , Nora Nathan and Linda Craigie in Far West Queensland in the early 1940s and much other material. She was interested in other non-western art sources too; on 2 April 1935 she gave a talk on ‘The Primitive Craftwork of China, Japan and New Guinea, etc.’ to the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW. It was one of many talks she gave to the Society, of which she was an early associate member (elected a vice-president in 1955).
Preston died at Mosman on 28 May 1963. Her reputation was high in her lifetime and has remained so. She is still the only woman artist most Australians know.
In 1928 Margaret Preston painted Aboriginal Flowers and exhibited it in the annual exhibition of the Society of Artists of NSW. The following year it was purchased by a leading Sydney patron of the arts, Charles Lloyd Jones, for £52.10.0 – a record price for her work at the time. At a moment when she was experimenting with a machine aesthetic, what intrigued Preston about a bunch of artificial ‘feather flowers’ made by an unknown Aboriginal woman? Her title declares ‘Aboriginality’, yet what forms of indigenous culture did she have access to in 1928?
Preston’s interest in Aboriginal art had been aroused in the mid-1920s by contact with both the ‘primitive’ elements in international modernism and Aboriginal art from the communities she had visited in northern Australia (where at some stage she collected carvings by Kalboori Youngi , Nora Nathan and Linda Craigie ). Her fervent advocacy of Aboriginal design as a source of inspiration for white Australian artists is now regarded as redolent of the neo-colonialism of a time that valued objects for being ‘authentic’, ‘tribal’ and uncorrupted by contact. Can we therefore assume that Preston was unaware of the hybrid character of these ‘feathery flowers’ in which Aboriginal materials and skills had shaped a form specifically addressing European taste? (Another object created for the European market, an Aboriginal shell-worked box from La Perouse, appears in her painting, New South Wales Everlastings of 1929.) Rather, it would appear that the visual ambiguities that the ‘feather flowers’ represented extended the terms of her work to such an extent that she overlooked the question of their ‘authenticity’.
Margaret Preston’s painting career began with the conventional feminine accomplishments of china and flower painting. Later, when studying professionally at Melbourne’s National Gallery School in the 1890s, she concentrated on still life rather than figure study, even though the latter was considered the basis of serious painting. Native botanical studies had absorbed the interests of many 19th century women artists and in the late 1920s – as a local modernist – Preston sought to reinvent the genre. Hers was a modernity fixated on objects. The red, black and white feathers produce a bouquet that is reductivist and unnatural, replacing the pastel flowers of earlier work. Formally, the bunch inscribes a semi-circle and, to emphasise the geometry, she suppresses detail. It is painted flatly, with no modelling, although the surroundings have a shallow pictorial space indicated by shadows and the yellow ellipse of the bowl glimpsed through the ‘flowers’. As in her Still-Life (1927), she employs a Leger-like composition: the two overlapping discs made by the concave bowl and the convex bouquet generate a spatial tension between flat colour and volumetric shapes. This late cubist composition holds the circular forms together through a series of black and grey broken verticals and diagonals.
The formal elements, however, are of less interest than the subject. The original Aboriginal feather-work that inspired her displays a highly developed capacity to mimic the taste of the colonising culture. We cannot ‘see’ the feathers separate from the ‘flowers’. This is no botanical specimen but a ‘cultured’ object suggestive of an Aboriginal strategy of engagement with European culture. Such feather-work did not fall within a European ‘fine art’ category and therefore did not enter art museums but was left marooned as curio kitsch in anthropological collections. Retrieved in Preston’s painting, the otherness of the bloom declares her work as ‘modernist’ with a particular local and feminine accent. The strangeness of this hybrid object, its doubling as ‘European-like’ and also ‘Aboriginal’, transfers into the painting an ontological instability. It opens up to question what ‘Aboriginal’ meant to Preston and, more significantly, the terms on which such translations can occur between cultures.
- Kerr, Joan