Important Fine Art + Aboriginal Art
2 December 2015


1875 – 1963

oil on canvas

31.0 x 30.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: M. Preston / 1929

Sold for $55,890 (inc. BP) in Auction 41 - 2 December 2015, Sydney

Sydney Ure Smith, Sydney, a gift from the artist
Thence by descent
Ure Smith collection, Sydney


Margaret Preston Catalogue Raisonné of paintings, monotypes and ceramics, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, CD-ROM compiled by Mimmocchi, D., with Edwards, D., and Peel, R.

Catalogue text

Margaret Preston is arguably the most significant artist Ure Smith promoted as regards the development of Australian art. He clearly admired Preston’s paintings and lent three from his fine collection (including Native Flowers and Australian Wild Flowers) to the Margaret Preston and William Dobell Loan Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1942 and kept this group now on offer until his death. 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.

In 1875 when Margaret Rose McPherson was born in Adelaide, Captain Cook had landed in Sydney just over 100 years before and Queen Victoria was mid-way through her reign. Until her death in 1963, Margaret Preston was one of those women of reliable, independent means who lived an adventurous unconventional life.

Unlike most Australian artists she was able to train in several cities, first in Sydney with Lister Lister, then Melbourne at the National Gallery’s School of Design headed by Frederick McCubbin, and later in 1896 at the National Gallery School of Art with Bernard Hall. In 1898 she returned to Adelaide and studied with Harry Gill and ran her own art classes.

Although she maintained a conventional oil painting style until 1916, during her first European trip between 1904 and 1907 Preston exposed herself to a very wide range of contentious art. In Munich she looked at the Secessionists, in Paris at Cézanne, Rouault and importantly oriental craft design. Back in Adelaide she began to exhibit, including a still life of onions. Then in 1912 on her second overseas visit, Preston managed to see Roger Fry’s startling second Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery, London and more importantly for her own art, Gauguin’s woodcuts on paper that fostered her intrigue for design and craft as opposed to museum bound masterpieces.

At 44 years old McPherson married the company director, William George Preston and their apparently un-domestic Sydney life meant time for art, writing and travel. This is when Preston became a figure of real influence in Australian cultural life and was able to expose her work and ideas via Ure Smith’s publications, and by the early 1920s The Society of Artists, then the Contemporary Group and the Macquarie Galleries.

She was always outspoken and interested not just in the look of an object but what challenges it posed her as an artist. Her first real foray into print was ‘Why I became a Convert to Modern Art’ in 1923 for Ure Smith’s fashionable Home magazine. It reveals a supremely confident autobiographical Preston assuring her genteel readers that a work is modern ‘When it represents the age it is painted in.’

She was one of many artists around the world who were espousing modernising society in part by creating a national art based on the regional folk or a native art. The ideal was to build an authentic national identity that would reinvigorate Western culture which many believed had become a tired, failed civilisation. For Preston, Indigenous art partnered her love of abstracted pattern free of narrative meaning. She often chose native flowers for still lives and claimed the patterns she studied in the Sydney museum and out on anthropological trips would suit home decoration including woodcuts, materials and pottery.

This quote from the 1942 Preston/Dobell exhibition catalogue sums her up:
‘Know your subject and paint your knowledge,’ she says. Provocative and stimulating, she is trying to start a ‘New Order’ in Australian Art, and develop a truly National Art.