Margaret Preston

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Margaret Preston
Margaret Preston Berowra 1936.jpg
Margaret Preston outside her home in Berowra, 1936.
Born (1875-04-29)April 29, 1875
Died May 23, 1963(1963-05-23) (aged 88)
Nationality Australian
Style Modernism

Margaret Rose Preston (29 April 1875 – 28 May 1963) was an Australian artist. She was known during the 1920s to 1940s for her modernist works as a painter and printmaker and for introducing Aboriginal motifs into contemporary art.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Margaret Rose Preston was born on 29 April 1875 in Port Adelaide to David McPherson, a Scottish marine engineer, and Prudence McPherson. She was the first-born child; 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 Margaret.

Preston was educated at Fort Street Girls' High School for two years following the family's move to Sydney in 1885. Preston's interest in 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 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. Writing in the third person, Preston recalled her first experience of visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales, aged twelve, with her mother.

"I remember quite well my 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. My 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 me to the decision to be an artist."[citation needed]

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 under Frederick McCubbin from 1889 to 1894. This training was interrupted by her father's critical illness, which forced her to return to Adelaide to be with her family. Following her father's death in 1895, 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. Preston wanted to choose her own subjects and paint her pictures as she would, leaving all thought of selling out of her mind.

Preston's precocious talents were acknowledged throughout her training, winning her various drawing awards including the prestigious Still Life Scholarship in 1897. In 1898 she furthered her studies at Adelaide's 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 Preston as a lively redhead who figured prominently at the school.[citation needed]


Teaching would feature at various points in Margaret Preston's career and she was an influential instructor. She began taking private students while still at Adelaide's 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. She later taught at St Peter's College, Adelaide and Presbyterian Ladies' College, Adelaide.[1] Among her students were the notable artists Bessie Davidson, Gladys Reynell and 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".[citation needed]

Art Career[edit]

Traveling years (1904–1907; 1912)[edit]

Despite a deep self-confidence in her artistic talent, Preston was keen to travel abroad, wanting to see how her work measured up in an international context. Following her mother Prudence's death in 1903, Preston travelled with her student Bessie Davidson to Europe, where they stayed until 1907, studying in Munich and Paris, and travelling in Italy, Africa, Spain and Holland. Preston's emergence as one of the most powerful exponents of Australian Modernism in the 1920s is closely linked to these travels and studies.

In Munich, Preston 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".[citation needed]

Paris, by contrast, proved a success, with Preston reveling in the works of the French Post Impressionists like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse. Paris also provided an opportunity to exhibit, with Preston taking part in the Paris Salon of 1905 and 1906. Also influential on her development was her introduction to Japanese art and design at the Musée Guimet, which awakened in her a delight in asymmetry; a focus on plant life; and an appreciation of pattern as a dominant element of design. "Decoration without ornamentation"—one of Preston's many aphorisms—remained a primary preoccupation in her work.[citation needed] 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 – it's really the keynote of everything – I'm trying all I know to reduce my still lifes to decorations and I find it fearfully difficult."[citation needed]

Preston travelled to Paris for a second time in 1912 with student Gladys Reynell, and with the advent of World War 1, relocated to Great Britain, where she studied pottery and also the principles 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 Military Hospital in Devonshire.

From these European studies, Preston returned to Australia having adopted cubist principles for their analytical approach to design, sense of underlying form, and simplified pictorial space, all of which would become hallmarks of her work. Fernand Léger's curvilinear 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 Japanese aesthetics. Preston also drew on elements of commercial photography and interior design; as Ann Stephen points out, images such as Implement Blue, 1927, share with contemporary photography a tendency towards dramatic lighting and oblique angles.[citation needed] Preston capitalized on the forum that women's magazines provided in allowing her to reach a wide audience for both her work and her opinions on the future of Australian art. Readers of the April 1929 edition of Woman's World were implored to keep the covers of their magazines on which Preston's works were reproduced and frame them, as charming pictures.

Early Mosman years (1919–1932)[edit]

Margaret Preston first settled in the Sydney suburb of Mosman following her marriage in late December 1919 to William George "Bill" Preston, a recently discharged second lieutenant whom she met on her return trip to Australia from Europe. Mosman has enjoyed a long association with the visual arts, attracting generations of artists, writers, poets and musicians to its bushlands and harbor. Artistic luminaries who have lived and worked in Mosman include Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Harold Herbert, Dattilo Rubbo, Lloyd Rees, Nancy Borlase, and Ken Done. Mosman's natural environs featured in many of Preston's prints during the 1920s, and her vigorous, colourful representations of the suburb caused the art critic for The Sun to comment in 1929 that some of her Mosman landscapes were sure to stagger the mayor and aldermen.[citation needed]

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 that afforded generous views of Mosman Bay and Sydney Harbour. This view would inspire numerous works—at least six prints during the 1920s specifically capture Mosman Bay and the Mosman Bridge. By 1922 the Prestons had moved a short distance to a substantial home in Park Avenue at the top of Reid Park, where they were to stay for the following ten years. It was from this locale that another set of Preston's iconic images were made, including the famous Sydney Head I and Sydney Head II (1925) and Harbour Foreshore (1925), images that 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 stark contrasts.

More intimate views of Mosman are reflected in Preston’s prints, Red Cross Fete (1920), depicting the magical atmosphere of a fete, 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.

Bill Preston's placid 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 noted that Bill seemed to regard it as a national duty to keep his beloved Margaret happy and artistically productive.[citation needed] A successful businessman, Bill Preston was a company director for Anthony Horderns retailers, Dalton's packaging company and later, Tooheys Brewery. Their marriage gave Margaret the financial security to pursue her work exclusively and travel extensively.

The Prestons' move to Mosman in 1920 would prove a dominant influence on Margaret Preston's artistic development, and it was while living in Mosman that she became firmly established as the most prominent Australian woman artist of the 1920s and 1930s. Mosman's location also provided the opportunity for Preston to become a leading force in the fervent postwar 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 a meteoric rise in her reputation. 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 rather conservative self-portrait, that she was a painter of flowers, and that she was no flower.[citation needed]

Margaret Preston’s strong involvement with the Society of Artists further shaped her career, as she befriended its president, Sydney Ure Smith, the influential editor and publisher of Art in Australia',' The Home',' and Australia National Journal. Through Ure Smith’s publications, Preston had the opportunity to champion the ideas about Australian art to which she was so fiercely committed, gaining an ever-increasing fame 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.


However, 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 had experimented with etching. In her mature work, she excelled at woodblock printing, working with readily available materials and drawing from her study of Japanese art to create the dynamic images for which she received wide exposure and public acclaim. Inexpensive to produce, her prints were aimed to appeal to a broad domestic market.

Preston created over 400 known prints, some of which have gone missing, as she was known to throw away any works that did not please her. Documentation of some of her work is also scarce. The overwhelming majority of Preston’s surviving prints feature Australian native flora as their subjects, a deliberate selection in Preston’s quest to create uniquely Australian images. Flowers such as the banksia, waratah, gum blossom and wheelflower offered Preston the perfect specimens for her modernist approach and focus on asymmetry.

Preston turned to printmaking to keep her work fresh, writing: "Whenever I thought I was slipping in my art, I went into crafts – woodcuts, monotypes, stencils and etchings. I find it clears my brain."[citation needed] Often disregarding traditional methods, Preston preferred to experiment with new techniques and to work with hand-colouring. The result was compositions that were radical in their design and colouring. Preston also employed woodblocks to solve representational and compositional problems. Sydney Ure Smith noted that it was through her prints that Preston achieved a "conscious crudity" that makes "a succession of bald statements … The affectation of the primitive is more evident here, than in any other branch of her art."[citation needed]


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 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.[citation needed] 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 displays Preston’s wry sense of humour, as a statement on wartime paranoia and the anti-Japanese sentiments of the day.

Berowra years (1932–1939)[edit]

Between 1932 and 1939, the Prestons lived in the bush of Berowra, where Margaret Preston pursued her primary artistic concern for the development of a national cultural identity in Australian art. 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. In her works from this period, she deploys Aboriginal designs and a restricted palette of natural colours, also reflected in later works such as The Brown Pot (1940) and Manly Pines (1953). Believing that Australian art needed to cut its ties to England, Preston rebelled against what she saw as the atrophy of Australian art under entrenched traditionalism and masculinist nationalism.[citation needed] While Preston had championed Aboriginality in her work and her writings since the mid-1920s, her early interest in indigenous art was more anthropological than in the Berowra years. 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 its people.

Return to Mosman (1939–1963)[edit]

Following their seven years in Berowra, the Prestons returned to live again in Mosman, where they would stay until Margaret Preston's death on 28 May 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 four 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.

See also[edit]

Australian art


  1. ^ a b Seivl, Isobel. 'Preston, Margaret Rose (1875–1963)'. Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Accessed 6 April 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Edwards, Deborah; Rosemary Peel; Denise Mimmocchi (2010). Margaret Preston. Thames & Hudson Australia Pty. Limited, 300 pp + CD ROM. ISBN 0500500223. 

External links[edit]