Important Fine Art + Indigenous Art
29 November 2017


(1923 – 2000)

oil on composition board

81.0 x 96.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: 1954 Perceval
inscribed with title verso: FABIAN in the GaRDEN / FOR. / MAX LAKE / Please Ring  BU4343

$100,000 – 150,000
Sold for $115,900 (inc. BP) in Auction 52 - 29 November 2017, Melbourne

Dr Max Lake, Melbourne
Clune Galleries, Sydney
The Estate of the late James O. Fairfax AC, Sydney

Catalogue text

This vibrant and little-known painting by John Perceval comes from the years preceding his renowned Angels ceramics and, in many ways, prefigures the themes and stylisation found within that series. Perceval’s own childhood was fraught with anxiety and isolation, further blighted by long-term hospitalisation due to polio. His subsequent friendship with Arthur Boyd and resultant marriage to Boyd’s sister Mary gave Perceval a new family. As his own children started arriving, Perceval’s art reflected this familial joy, particularly in the paintings of the working environment at AMB Pottery, a bustling enterprise he ran with Boyd from 1944 where children were a welcome presence. One of the decorators for the ceramics at AMB was Neil Douglas who would later become a partner in the business in 1950; and Fabian in the Garden, 1954 features Douglas’ second child who was born the previous year. Given his father’s passion as a conservationist, it is fitting that Perceval has depicted the cherubic toddler sitting happily within a tangle of flowers and vegetation.

Douglas was formerly the live-in gardener at John and Sunday Reed’s property Heide where he created the ‘wild garden’, and it was here that he met Perceval in the early 1940s. Although the Reeds were dismissive of his talents as an artist, Douglas’ delicately observed paintings of plants and bush became a perfect addition to the ceramics being produced at AMB and have been credited with being ‘a factor in leading Perceval back to his bush paintings of later years’.1 Douglas also created an ‘English’ garden at his widowed mother’s house in Bayswater, Victoria, one that was ‘at once useful, tame and ordered, and yet everywhere a tumultuous tangle of tumbling richness all around the house’.2 It would have been a fragrant paradise and in the painting on offer here, Fabian is shown within this personal Eden contemplating what appears to be a flowering garlic head surrounded by flowers and bushes. Painted in Perceval’s trademark controlled yet exuberant manner, the harmonious mood of Fabian in the Garden sits in stark contrast to its companion portrait Fabian Douglas, 1954, a comparatively anxious image featuring disproportionately small hands and misaligned eyes amidst a swirl of agitated hair. Indeed, the child’s golden curls are a significant identifier which not only reappear in many of the Angels (Perceval’s own children having much straighter hair) but also caused a public controversy in later years when Fabian was asked to leave the Hurstbridge School because of his refusal to cut his long hair.

Fabian in the Garden was originally owned by Dr Max Lake, Australia’s first specialist hand surgeon, who is better remembered as the founder of Lake’s Folly in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, now considered to be Australia's first boutique winery and a major influence on the Australian wine industry. More recently, it was a feature of the collection of the late James O. Fairfax AC who chose, aptly, to hang it in his holiday house at Bilgola on Sydney’s northern beaches.

1. Barrett Reid, Of Light and Dark: the art of John Perceval, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1992, p.19
2. Jones, P., ‘Bush lover and a law unto himself’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 30 October 2003, accessed online 21 October 2017