After spending the First World War in England, Margaret Preston returned to Australia in full possession of herself, happily married and with a newfound freedom of financial security. The time was right to assert her originality. The twenties felt like a period of fast growth and change, particularly in urban centers such as Sydney, where she and Bill now lived. Stepping up to an equally fast pace, and addressing as wide a public as she could reach, Preston pushed a concept of a uniquely Australian aesthetic, one that encompassed ‘more than one vision’1 of Australia and of art. The 1920s in general saw a closing of the gap between art and craft. This was particularly true for Preston.

She had always been craft-oriented. Introduced to woodcut printing in 1898 in her art school days in Adelaide, where the School of Design, Painting and Technical Arts had a strong alliance with England’s Arts and Crafts movement, she had pursued printmaking and other crafts during the war, and now found her stride in woodcut prints. These went onto the covers and into the pages of popular magazines and journals, so fulfilling her wish to reach a wide audience.2 By 1927 her paintings had taken a stark cue from her prints. The restraint of paintings such as Implement Blue, 1927, and Western Australian Gum Blossom, 1928, (both Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) arose from the rigours of emulating Aboriginal designs and the restrictions of wood-cutting. She told Gavin Long in 1935, ‘In my search for forms which will suggest Australia I prefer wood-blocking to painting, for the wood hinders facility and compels the worker to keep forms in his composition severe’.3

In articles for The Home and Art in Australia Preston advocated the role of crafts in developing a truly Australian aesthetic. In 1925 she explained, ’I have studied the aboriginals' art and have applied their designs to the simple things of life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed’.4 For Preston the decorative arts and crafts, with their practical and aesthetic values, would ensure that a native aesthetic remained alive and relevant to a modern and cosmopolitan Australia; additionally, a national aesthetic based on craft would have women as its spearhead. Her vision knowingly echoed the role of Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), which ‘had entered ordinary Japanese homes as inexpensive objects, where they represented the qualities of national character’.5

Preston first came face to face with Japanese art as a young woman studying in Paris. Her teacher, Rupert Bunny, ‘sent her to study Japanese art at the Musée Guimet, to let her learn slowly that there is more than one vision in art’.6 The staggered line of birds in flight and the decorative ripples of water in Black Swans, Wallis Lake, N.S.W., 1923 acknowledge a debt to the Japanese woodblock technique and relate closely to a wood panel of wild geese carved by Koyetsu (illustrated in Preston's copy of Japan and Its Art7), but Preston was not one for emulation for its own sake: the nod to Japan is in the context of a uniquely Australian scene, one she described in an article for The Home:

The trip is delicious. Starting early, the launch winds its way through the Wallis Lake, passing the little town until it enters the wide lagoon; from time to time regiments of black swans are seen, that slowly rise to flight as the boat comes in sight.8

Writing for Art in Australia in 1927 Preston recalled that as a student ‘the standardized beauty for art of landscapes, sunsets and ladies did not interest her … So she simply didn’t try’.9 Through woodcutting she developed an unstandardised way to address the Australian landscape that suited her and her time. In Mosman Bridge, c.1927 it is not just the Japanese accent that confronts the prevailing Australian landscape tradition; the urban subject matter declares Preston’s identity as a modern artist. The eye treks along a suspended walkway across the upper reaches of Mosman Bay, lingers on the elegantly cut calligraphy of the wooden bridge and the sharp shapeliness of a pictorial segmentation that encompasses whole groups of flat, coloured objects within firm black lines.

Sydney’s modern artists preferred urban subjects, especially those that celebrated the public life of a city rapidly emerging as the contemporary core of Australian culture. The Bridge from North Shore, c.1932 captures one of the most popular subjects of Sydney’s modern artists: the newly erected Harbour Bridge. Preston does not showcase the fashionable urban metropolis on the south side of the harbour, rather our gaze travels over the industrial hub of Lavender Bay towards Milsons Point. The gentle gradation of blue sky is reminiscent of landscape prints by nineteenth century Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige, which paradoxically makes us notice all the more that The Bridge from North Shore is firmly grounded in its urban locality. Our eye is caught by the spire of the St Francis Xavier Church whose red blaze against the gentle wash of the sky aroused Jindyworobak poet Rex Ingamells to write of this print:

Red-roofed two-story house and red-roofed church,
its spire a flame of red. Between the two
the backyards bath in golden sun. But search
one inch to find the Harbour’s joy of blue.

Sydney Ure Smith linked the artist's personality to her art:

Margaret Preston is the natural enemy of the dull. [Her] work is based on an unerring and instinctive knowledge of colour and pattern. Her chief assets are strength, vitality and an indubious originality in aesthetic values.10

Arguably these qualities shone brightest in Preston’s still lifes. As a teenager at the National Gallery of Victoria School she had been relieved when she was allowed to ‘work quietly at still life’ rather than fight for a place before the life model.11 Still life allowed her to pursue the formal and symbolic values that interested her and it was here that she evolved a supple modernist style. Flannel Flowers Etc., c.1936 contrasts the detailed texture of the banksia varietals against the broad, flat colour planes of native heath, Sturt Desert pea, Golden Glory pea, Feathery cassia, Morning iris, Sturt Desert rose and Flannel flowers. It is thus both a formalist study of colour, pattern and texture and a celebration of Australian native flowers that expressed an Australian aesthetic.

A decade later and Preston’s art had changed. For Dry River Crossing, N.T., 1946 Preston, in her seventies, utilised the monotype, a technique she had experimented with during the First World War, when she had been consciously opening her art to a number of alternative visions. The monotype process has its own 'vision' of the world that is very different from the graphic woodblock print.12 The result here is a softening of line and a blending of colour that at first glance seem more akin to the Impressionist than the modernist. At a sustained reading one sees, in the complex play of hazy sunlight and deep shadow, a formalist’s obsession with texture. Textures like those of bark spread from the trunks, over the grass, rocks and sky, flattening the picture plane, and imparting a mysterious obscurity to the scene. Do we see in this work a die-hard modernist hell bent on taking on a subject her younger self had shied away from, the nineteenth century tradition of Australian landscape painting?

It is not surprising that Preston, journeying beyond the frontiers of her own sensibility, chose as her guide the craft of printmaking. In 1950 she looked back, ’Whenever I thought I was slipping in my art, I went into crafts’.13 From the young artist who faced the prospect of ’bringing nothing new into art’ 14 she became, through the alternative visions opened to her by craft, the artist whom Daniel Thomas once proclaimed, ’was, without a doubt, the best painter working anywhere in Australia between the wars’.15

1. Preston, M., ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 22 (Margaret Preston Number), Sydney, December 1927, p. 50
2. Preston’s prints were included in publications such as Women’s World, Wentworth Magazine, Manuscripts, and Sydney Ure Smith’s The Home, Art in Australia, and Australia National Journal.
3. Margaret Preston quoted in Long, G., ‘Some Recent Paintings by Margaret Preston’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 59. Sydney, May 1935, p. 18
4. Preston, M., ‘The Indigenous Art of Australia’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 11, Sydney, March 1925, p. 52
5. Edwards, D., ‘Transitions 1920s’in Margaret Preston, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, pp. 84 – 5
6. Preston, M., ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, op. cit., pp. 50 – 51 7. Huish, M., Japan and its Art, Batsfod, London, 1912, p. 227 quoted in Butler, R., The Prints of Margaret Preston, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Melbourne, 1987, p. 83
8. Preston, M., ‘An Ideal Australian Tour’, The Home, November 1926, p. 46 quoted in Butler, op. cit., p. 83
9. Preston, M., ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, op. cit., p. 49
10. Ure Smith, S., ‘Editorial’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 22 (Margaret Preston Number), Sydney, December 1927
11. Preston, M., ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, op. cit.
12. In Ireland in 1915 and again at Seale-Hayne Neurological Military Hospital in Devon in 1918 as part of an experimental rehabilitation program. In 1939 she explained the monotype technique: ‘This craft was done with a small piece of plate glass, zinc or copper, a soft hair brush, a roller, a rag, and some blotting paper. The worker began by rubbing a little oil and paint onto the glass. This he tried to get fairly even. Then he drew his design on to this, wiping out the white parts to be, and the highlights with the rag. Then he quickly placed a piece of paper onto this drawing, rolled it over with his roller, and pulled it off the face of the glass.’ Preston, M., ‘Crafts that Aid’, Art in Australia, Sydney, third series, no. 77, November 1939, p. 30
13. The artist quoted in ‘Margaret Preston’s Two Artistic “Lives”’, Sunday Herald, Sydney, 3 September 1950, p. 11
14. Athenaeum, London, 20 February 1915, p. 172
15. Thomas, D., Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, 2 June 1963, p. 43