A pioneer in Australian art and design, the modernist painter, wood engraver and print maker, Margaret Preston made a profound effect on the art world with her highly decorative and stylistic works. Creating distinctive cosmopolitan still life prints, the art of Margaret Preston serves to symbolise one of Australia’s most aesthetically original historical periods.
Born in Port Adelaide in 1875 Margaret Rose Macpherson, as she was known until 1920, showed an avid interest in the arts from an early age. With an introduction to art beginning at the age of twelve through China painting with her mother, Macpherson went on to receive formal art training that was distinguished by her instructors, who themselves were highly successful artists.
Following several months’ private tuition with reputable landscape painter, William Lister in 1888, Macpherson resumed her studies in art at the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria Art School in 1889. Guided under the instruction of Frederick McCubbin Macpherson studied here until 1894 when her training was interrupted by her father’s illness and she was forced to return to Adelaide to be with her family.
In 1896 following her father’s death, Macpherson returned to the prestigious art school where she was guided under the instruction of Bernard Hall. During this time, Macpherson’s tuition included having to draw from a nude model. Although she disliked this practice at first, it was particularly significant in helping the artist to understand that her passion lay in creating still life works.
Registering as a student at the South Australian School of Design and the Technical Arts School in 1899, Macpherson soon began teaching art in private classes that were held at her own studio in the city’s AMP building. As teaching provided Macpherson with financial independence, it also allowed her the chance to develop her artistic skills. As an influential instructor, with such notable students as Bessie Davidson, Gladys Revell and Stella Bowen, teaching proved to constitute a dominant feature of Macpherson’s career in the arts.
Although Macpherson possessed a deep confidence in her artistic talent, she was keen to travel abroad for ‘finishing lessons’. Following her mother’s death in 1903, she and student Bessie Davidson travelled to Europe where they stayed until 1907. Studying in Munich and Paris, and travelling in Italy, Spain and Holland Macpherson’s experiences gained from her travels proved to greatly colour her artistic practice and critical thinking.
Attending Munich’s Government Art School for Women Macpherson found difficulty in understanding the unfamiliar styles of art that were being exposed to her. Unable to relate to these currents trends in German art, the artist’s Munich experience proved a difficult period in her artistic development, having little impact on the naturalism that dominated much of her work at this time. Macpherson’s experiences in Paris, however, were critical, dynamic and influential. Studying at the Musee Guimet, she became particularly familiar with the works of the French Post Impressionists, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Kandinsky and Picasso and was introduced to the fundamentals of Japanese art and design. Exposure to these different styles of artistic expression ultimately allowed the artist to recognize the decorative possibilities of art.
Macpherson’s Parisian experience instigated a drastic change in her perceptions of artistic vision and expression. This was first made evident in the Paris Salon Exhibition in 1905 and 1906, where she was given the chance to exhibit her still life works.
Macpherson travelled to Paris for a second time in 1912 with student Gladys Reynell. When the First World War began, however she was re-located to England. During this time Macpherson exhibited her works at the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club and the Society of Women Artists. In 1916 she enrolled at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts where she learnt pottery and developed her interest in modernist design, fabric painting and dyeing, basket weaving and printmaking.
It was during this time that Macpherson was introduced to the craft of woodblock painting; a technique to which she proved to excel. Using her knowledge of the fundamentals of Japanese design and working with readily available materials, Macoherson cut ornamental prints of still-life subjects. Still life and flowers (c. 1916-19) was one of her earliest woodcuts and acts as a true reflection of how the artist was captivated and influenced by Japanese art.
Following her time at Camberwell, Macpherson and Revnell together went on to work with disabled soldiers at the Seale-Hayne Neurological Military Hospital in Devonshire where they taught pottery and basket-weaving.
After returning to Australia Margaret Macpherson married William George Preston, a businessman, and settled in Mosman, Sydney in 1920 under the new name of Margaret Rose Preston. Continuing to develop her distinctive artistic style Preston’s first major Australian exhibitions were held in Melbourne and Sydney in 1925. Including a total of 65 still life prints, her works depicted popular themes and subjects such as harbour views and native flora and fauna. All complemented with the artist’s stylistic and decorative cosmopolitan style, Preston’s exhibition left an extraordinary impact on her audiences. Consequently, the modernist work of Margaret Preston became well-known for reflecting an avoidance of the popular methods used to create the kitsch designs of Australian popular culture at the time.
Between 1932 and1939 Preston lived with her husband in Berowra, on the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River. Living in a house surrounded by dense native scrubland, Preston no longer had to purchase flowers to act as inspiration for her prints, as they now grew in abundance around her home. Consequently, her prints became larger, simpler and no longer showed flowers arranged in vases, but instead, in their natural state. As Preston’s woodcut and linocut prints of native Australian flora became nationally celebrated, they served to reflect the artist’s keen appreciation for different aspects of Australian flora and a concern for demonstrating a sense of Australian identity in her works.
During her time spent living in Berowra, and prompted by the Aboriginal rock engravings found around her property, Preston also developed what was to become a lifelong interest in Aboriginal art. On her return to Sydney in 1939 she became a member of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, and later visited many important Aboriginal sites throughout Australia.
Preston believed that Aboriginal art provided the key to establishing a distinctive national cultural identity and as a firm believer in the importance of Aboriginal art, the artist became an active campaigner of Aboriginal bark paintings, and one of the first Australian artists to recognise its decorative beauty.
This passion came to heavily influence Preston’s works and during the 1940s burnt, earthy colours and Aoboriginal motifs and symbols became prominent features of her prints. As a result of this innovative artistic pursuit, Margaret Preston came to be considered as one of the dominant advocates of the Modernist aesthetic in Australian art of the 20th century.
In 1946, compelled by a number of influences Preston produced over 100 works that varied greatly in both subject and style. While some of her prints featured realistic landscape and still-life subjects, others reflected a faithful adoption of Aboriginal techniques in art making. These works were well received by both critics and audiences.
It was in 1953, however, that Preston produced her most significant prints. The exhibition held at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, included 29 prints made by Preston using the ancient technique of stencilling and reflecting Aboriginal and Chinese influences. Having always admired Chinese art, Preston combined Chinese ideas with her understanding of the Dreamtime of Aboriginal Australians to create original and celebrated masterpieces. Her work, Shoalhaven Gorge, N.S.W. 1953, is perhaps of the artist’s most successful representations of the amalgamation of these two traditions in art.
Preston continued to create her signature Australian prints, paint and travel right up until her death in 1963 when at the age of 8, she had produced over 400 works. With a career that spanned almost six decades, she created a body of work that demonstrates her extraordinary originality and the intensity of her commitment to a national art.
Holding many important positions in the Australian art world Preston was a member of the Society of Artists, the Australian Art Association and the Contemporary Group, Sydney. As a reflection of the impact she had, also on the international art world, Preston was awarded a silver medal in 1937 at the Paris International Exhibition.
Today Margaret Preston is highly regarded as the woman responsible for demonstrating a sense of a cosmopolitan Australian identity in her works.