BANKSIA ON A WINDOW LEDGE, 1934

Important Australian and International Fine Art + Important Indigenous Art
Melbourne
29 November 2017
1

MARGARET PRESTON

(1875 – 1963)
BANKSIA ON A WINDOW LEDGE, 1934

oil on canvas

52.0 x 43.0 cm

signed and dated lower left: M Preston / 34

Estimate: 
$150,000 – 200,000
Provenance

Possibly Sydney Ure Smith, Sydney by 1942
Leveson Street Gallery, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above in 1966
Thence by descent
Private collection, Melbourne

Exhibited

Society of Artists, annual exhibition, Education Department's Art Gallery, Sydney, 7 September – 5 October 1934, cat. 118 (illus. in exhibition catalogue as ‘Banksia’)

Literature

Art in Australia, Ure Smith Publishing, Sydney, 3rd series, no. 59, 15 May 1935, p. 21 (illus.)
Australia Beautiful: The Home annual, Ure Smith Publishing, Sydney, 1 October 1935, p. 86 (illus.)
Australasian, Melbourne, 21 September 1935, p. 17
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

Making a commitment to the still life as her primary subject, Margaret Preston characteristically defied convention, ignoring the low status of the genre within the hierarchy of the fine arts and casting off the stereotypical image of the amateur lady flower painter. For Preston, the still life represented a ‘laboratory table’ on which aesthetic problems could be isolated and where, in the process of testing the possibilities of Western modernism, Eastern art and colour theory,1 she would produce some of the most strikingly modern and unique images in early twentieth century Australian art.

In 1932 Preston and her husband moved to Berowra in the Hawkesbury River region of New South Wales, where they lived on fourteen acres of largely untouched bush. In this environment Preston could observe indigenous plant species in their natural setting and, as her campaign for the establishment of a national art developed, the varieties of introduced flowers she had painted previously were increasingly superseded by native examples. Preston became attuned to the transformations of each season, typically painting the flowers in her garden as they bloomed. Like all good artists, she aided her ability to represent the external appearance of her subject by understanding its structure. As she explained, ‘When I’m painting flowers I’ll pull one of its kind to pieces. I will know exactly how it’s formed. When I’ve done this I draw from another one – I do this with all my flowers.’ 2 While Preston continued her habit of bringing cut flowers into the studio to paint, contemporary photographs tell us that she also took her easel outside into the garden at Berowra.

The banksia was a favourite subject of Preston’s and had been the focus of one of her most impressive paintings of the 1920s, Banksia, 1927 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), a striking statement of modernity as austere in its composition as its colouring. On the property at Berowra, she found an established banksia tree that in her mind, symbolised ‘the ancientness of the land’,3 and the spiky cylindrical form of its distinctive flower became a familiar element of her 1930s paintings and prints including Banksia Cobs, 1933, the mid-1930s woodcut, Banksia and Trunk (both Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) and Banksia and Flannel Flowers, 1938 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).

In this painting of 1934, Preston clearly relishes the challenge of describing the varied colour and texture of the banksia flowers, gathered together here in a ceramic jug, and their long, serrated leaves. The geometry of the semi-abstract interior painted in black, brown and grey recalls the angular Léger-inspired settings of earlier paintings, Banksia, 1927 and Western Australian Gum Blossom, 1928 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), but the inclusion of a window behind the flowers, and a view of the landscape beyond, makes this image unusual in Preston’s oeuvre. While it was more than six years until Preston would embark on a series of landscape paintings that radically transformed the contemporary imagination of the country, Banksia on a Window Ledge, 1934 presages this development, combining a typically masterful still life with a tantalising glimpse of the outdoors bathed in the vivid Australian sunlight.

1. Harding, L., ‘The modern art of painting flowers: reinventing the still life’, O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Sydney and Victoria, 2016, p. 17
2. ‘Australian Artists Speak: Margaret Preston interviewed by Syd Ure Smith’, 2FC, Sydney, 3 June 1945 quoted in Edwards, D. and Peel, R. with Mimmocchi, D., Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2016, p. 156
3. ibid., p. 153 – 154

KIRSTY GRANT