Born in Bruce Rock, Western Australia on 1 February 1923, John Perceval moved to Melbourne with his mother in 1934. Attending a local boarding school, Trinity Grammar, here he had his first access to a large library, where the school’s collection of art books left a profound impact on the teenager. Greatly influenced by Van Gogh’s famous painting of the same title, Perceval’s first work Sunflowers (1935) captures the essence of Van Gogh’s work but Perceval’s own flair can be seen in its depth and unique textural qualities.
When he contracted polio in 1938 and was confined to a hospital bed, Perceval spent much of this time developing his skills in drawing and painting. Although he survived the infection, it seriously affected his neck muscles, speech patterns and left him with a permanent limp. These problems continued to give Perceval constant troubles throughout his life.
Enlisting in the army in 1941, following the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Perceval was assigned to the Army Survey Corps when he was rejected as unfit for military duty. During this time he used his drawing skills to become a draughtsman and soon met other young artists such as Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. Becoming a close friend with Boyd, Perceval later met his sister, Mary whom he married in 1944. His associations with Boyd also allowed him to be introduced to the well-known art patrons John and Sunday Reed who helped establish his name within Australia’s art circles.
From 1943, and the aftermath of the war, Perceval began to produce joyful religious and genre paintings with richly textured surfaces. Although he was exhibiting regularly with the Contemporary Art Society, Perceval held his first one-man show at the Melbourne Book Club in 1948.
Establishing a pottery workshop at Murrumbeena with Arthur Boyd and Peter Herbst in 1944, between 1949 and 1955, Perceval turned to ceramic work and created a series of angel figures. Returning to painting in 1956, Perceval produced a series of spontaneous images depicting Williamstown, Gaffney’s Creek and a range of seascapes.
In 1959, Perceval became a member of the Antipodeans, a group of self-taught Australian painters who dramatically changed the local art scene in the 1940s and 50s. Working alongside Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester, during his time as an Antipodean Perceval worked with passionate intensity to put his strong responses to nature onto canvas. Proving to be one his most creative periods, his palette and style had matured greatly to show subtle contrasts in tone and vibrant use of colour. In 1961 he began to receive wider recognition and was asked to contribute to the renowned Whitechapel Gallery’s 50 Australian Painters show in London. His work was also included in the 1962 Rebels and Precursors in Australia, London’s Tate Gallery in 1963 and later at Brazil’s Museum of Modern Art.
Moving to England in 1963, Perceval held a number of solo shows in London and travelled extensively in Europe. He returned to Australia in 1965 to take up the first Australian National University Creative Fellowship in Canberra. John Perceval, a major retrospective exhibition, was held at Albert Hall, Canberra in 1966 and Margaret Plant’s monograph John Perceval, was published in 1971.
However, despite his rising success, Perceval was tackling alcoholism and other serious problems. In 1977 he was admitted to a Melbourne psychiatric institution where was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent nearly ten years of his life.
Although he produced a small number of crayon sketches during this time, he did not seriously take up drawing and painting until 1987. Some of the images Perceval produced after his release from hospital reflect strong elements of tension and trauma. This can be seen in his works Jack-in-the-box with rooster lid (1987) and Feeding the Seagulls (1988) which include axe images and distraught faces.
Perceval continued with his art until his death in 2000. As the last of the original core of the Antipodeans, his death was considered a great tragedy.