MARGARET ROSE PRESTON (1875-1963)
Margaret Rose Preston is remembered as one of the great Australian early 20th century female artists. Her still life oils and woodcuts are iconic and hold a permanent place in Australian art history.
Margaret Rose Preston was born in 1875 in Port Adelaide to marine engineer, Daniel McPherson and his wife Prudence. In 1885 the family moved to Sydney and a few years after Margaret began training with Lister Lister before enrolling in the National Gallery School in 1893 to study under Frederick McCubbin.
This stay would be short lived and Margaret joined her mother and sister in Adelaide in 1894 after her father's health declined. Remaining in Adelaide for two years and exhibiting with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts Margaret returned to Melbourne in 1896 and once again enrolled in the National Gallery School, this time to study painting under Bernard Hall. A "Still Life" painted by Margaret secured her a year long scholarship. It would remain her favourite subject matter for the rest of her life.
Two years later Margaret returned to Adelaide and studied at the School of Design, Painting and Technical Arts under the tutelage of Harry Gill and in 1898 she began teaching full time. With the death of her mother Prudence in February 1903, Margaret found herself in a stable financial situation having inherited her mother's estate and decided to plan a trip to Europe with her good friend and pupil Bessie Davidson. On 2 July 1904 Bessie and Margaret embarked on the German mail steamer Gera in Adelaide, bound for Genoa. Interested in the German Secessionists, Bessie and Margaret visited an exhibition in Munich before travelling to Paris to view the works by artists like Matisse, Cezanne and Kandinsky. Despite viewing the great modern artists, Margaret was still conservative and and submitted a traditional oil to the Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais and was overjoyed to be accepted. This small success in Paris provided Margaret with a confidence boost and she began to expand her skills by taking up Japanese and Chinese art at the Musee Guimet.
Bessie and Margaret returned to Adelaide in 1907 and established themselves in a studio in the heart of Adelaide and held a combined show. The National Gallery of South Australia purchased "Onions, 1905". In 1912 Margaret returned to Europe, this time arriving in London with friend Gladys Reynell to view the Second Post Impressionist Exhibition. Margaret removed between London and Brittany prior to World War 1 and exhibited her woodcuts with the Society of Women Artists whilst also studying at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Over the next few years Margaret had further success exhibiting works with the New Salon, Paris, the Royal Academy of Arts, London as well as the New English Art Club. It was during this period over upheaval and turmoil in Europe that Margaret relinquished her traditional style and developed a much more modern style incorporating her interest in the modern art and colour theory.
After a period of teaching arts and crafts to shell-shocked survivors of World War 1, Margaret and Gladys returned to home to Sydney on 2 August 1919 on the RMS Makura. During her time in London, Margaret had met her future husband, William George Preston whilst he was assigned to canteen work at Vauxhall Bridge Road in 1916 and it just so happened that Preston and Margaret were both aboard the RMS Makura. Their relationship had grown increasingly closer over the duration of the trip and by the time the ship docked in Sydney Margaret had accepted Preston's offer of marriage.
This decision was not well received by Margaret's long-time friend Gladys, particularly as Margaret would now be residing in Sydney. Neither Margaret nor Gladys made an appearance at the opening of a joint show to demonstrate new modern styles in Adelaide as a result of the friction however the pair mended the friendship after the show and remained friends until Gladys's passing many years later.
Margaret and William Preston married on 31 December 1919 in Adelaide. Interestingly, Margaret noted the age of 36 on her marriage certificate when in actuality she was 44 and 6 years older than Preston. The Preston's settled in 'Glenorie' in Musgrave Street, Mosman and began their married life together. William Preston was quiet and understanding man who happily indulged his wife's passion for art. It was a kindness and freedom Margaret never forgot and perhaps as a sign of thanks Margaret changed her working name to Margaret Preston (it was common for well-known female artists to work under their maiden name if they found success before marriage).
Margaret Preston first exhibited under her married name with the Royal Art Society and following this success the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased "Summer, 1915" (an out-door still life with a table setting). In 1922 Preston exhibited with the Royal Art Society (perceived as a conservative group) for the last time. Having recently moved to the iconic address '11 Park Avenue, Mosman' Preston began to exhibit with the more contemporary Society of Artists. In hindsight, this would be an important move as the President of the Society was none other than Sydney Ure Smith, edition of Art in Australia and The Home. Ure Smith became a great supporter of Preston's work and many of Preston's reproductions made the cover of Art in Australia and The Home.
These broad reaching publications increased Preston's fame and made her name, style and ideas well known to even those outside the art world. An article Preston published in The Home in 1922 titled "Why I became a convert to modern art' solidified her reputation as quintessential contemporary female artist. By the mid 1920s Preston's works were being exhibited around the country and her articles regularly published.
In 1926 Preston held a joint show with another well known female modernist, Thea Proctor whom had also been a pupil of Preston's as well as holding a solo show in Adelaide in 1927. Both shows were so well received as well as being financial successes that Preston's place in the art world seemed assured however the lack of response from the major public galleries in Australia upset Preston greatly. This wound appeared particularly deep when the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased works by Thea Proctor in their joint exhibition.
Preston's temper was well reported and recorded by other established artists. Lionel Lindsay famously described her as:
the most envious thing I know, a raging creature who burns her work when it doesn't sell. Hasn't one ounce of gratitude in her body.
Sydney Ure Smith bore many of Preston's frustrations however an issue of Art in Australia in 1927 dedicated to Preston seemed to soothe the beast and in 1929 Margaret Preston: recent Paintings 1929 was published. This interwar period for Preston was time in which she refined her skills and took the critics' responses seriously. The late 1920's was a time of great productivity and finally received the recognition of a major public state institution when in 1929 the Art Gallery of New South Wales commissioned Preston to paint her self portrait (the first female artist to be extended this honour).
In 1937 Margaret Preston made a name for herself on the international when she was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale in Paris.
Deeply interested in Indigenous art, Preston encouraged artists to explore this ancient art form to develop a 'national' art for Australia based on it. Despite remaining true to her love of still life oils, Preston also painted many landscapes inspired by Indigenous art in the early 1940s. Using a palette of muted earth tones, Preston paid tribute to this traditional art practise as well as attempting to discover the 'spiritual essence' residing in Indigenous art.
Still keen on trying with new styles and techniques and perhaps influenced by her increasing age, Margaret Preston experimented with religious subjects in the 1950s, painting a series of gouache stencils depicting black figures in different Australian settings bearing titles such as "Noah's Ark" and "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden".
Margaret Preston died in 1963, leaving behind her a long and fruitful career that had seen her develop a signature and yet at the same time evolving style. Each Preston's artworks appears to fit neatly into the story of her career. It appears by the end of her life she found the acceptance into major public galleries she had craved her entire career. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has nearly 130 of her works held in the public collection and available online.