Margaret Preston: When Botanical Art Becomes Fine Art

by Mary Mageau

Women engaged in the creative arts have often struggled to make a place for themselves and to build a public profile that recognizes and rewards their endeavours. Yet a small number of women have tasted success through the application of their talent, determination and relentless hard work. One such woman was Margaret Preston, who is still recognized today for her outstanding achievements as a painter and printmaker.

Wheel Flower printWheel Flower, Stenocarpus sinuatus (1929) woodblock print, hand coloured in gouache on brown mulberry paper. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Margaret Rose McPherson (1875 – 1963) was born in Adelaide, South Australia, to David and Prudence McPherson. After the family moved to Sydney in 1885, Margaret enjoyed the benefits of a quality education. At this time her artistic talents were noted, so private art study began with William Lister, a well-known painter of seascapes and coastal subjects. In her teens, Margaret was accepted by the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria Art School, then under the direction of Frederick McCubbin. A tireless worker, Margaret’s talents won her several scholarships, one of importance to the Adelaide School of Design for personal study with Hans Heysen.

Margaret Preston Self-portraitMargaret Preston, self- portrait (1930) oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In Adelaide where she was nicknamed, ‘Mad Maggie,’ one student fondly recalled her as a lively redhead who was either an advanced student or an instructor of some sort. Here Margaret moved toward the genre of still life painting, as she valued this endeavour over the more lucrative and popular forms of landscape and portraiture.

Always an eager traveller, Margaret undertook many study trips to Europe and the British Isles. In August of 1918 she and Gladys Reynell, a former student and close friend, taught shell-shocked soldiers ceramics and printmaking at Seale Hayne Neurological Hospital in Devon. On the return voyage home, she met her future husband, William George Preston, a gunner returning from service with the Australian Imperial Force. The couple were married in December and settled in Mossman, Sydney. Bill Preston became a director of Hordern & Sons, Tooheys, and other companies. He was a successful businessman and fervent supporter of her work. Financial security enabled them to travel widely where she could study and experiment with new styles and techniques.

During a visit to Paris, Margaret became captivated by the Chinese and Japanese art displayed at the Musee Guimet. It was here that her perceptions of artistic vision and expression were radically altered. The study of Japanese art first awakened her senses as she imbibed: its delight in asymmetry, pattern as the dominant element of design, the celebration of a particular flower or plant and an engagement with deliberate primitivism. But it was in the ‘friendly little craft’ of woodblock printing that Margaret Preston would discover her greatest source of inspiration – one through which she would excel.

Rock Lilly PrintAustralian Rock Lily, Dendrobium speciousum (1933) hand coloured woodblock print. Image courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery GOMA.

Working within a small scale, and with readily available materials, Margaret used the knowledge acquired from her previous study of Japanese prints to cut, print and hand colour her own bold botanical designs. Inexpensive to produce, her woodblock prints were aimed at the domestic market where they gained wide appeal, while rewarding her with financial success.

Woodblock printing is created by moving through a number of steps. First a wood block is selected, sanded and rubbed smooth before a design is drawn on its surface. Small scalpels cut away the borders and outlines of the design, along the grain of the wood, leaving a thin protruding edge to take the ink. Spaces within the outlines are scooped out using chisels of different sizes. Oil or water based ink is poured onto a glass surface with a roller smoothing the ink over the glass. Finally the inked roller is applied to the raised outlines of the design. A piece of quality paper is dropped over the block then gently rubbed — Margaret used the back of a spoon — until the design is transferred onto the paper. After the ink is dry, the open areas are hand coloured with gouache or another type of water based paint.

Throughout her entire career Margaret Preston was fanatical about botanical as the majority of her prints feature Australian native flowers as their subjects. Within this genre that was directed through the Japanese aesthetic, she selected bold, bright colours on plane surfaces, avoiding shadows or any form of centeredness. Inspired by the prints of the ukiyo-e school, she cultivated an instinct for the asymmetrical zig-zag arrangement of forms and cut-off compositions. Even her earlier monogram, MRM, the initials of her maiden name, or the MP adopted after her marriage, had occasionally been cut in the manner of a Japanese seal and inked in red. While comparing her approach to the craft of printmaking with that of the great Japanese artists, she always stressed that her work represented a Western form of wood cutting, quite different from that of the East.

Telopea Flower printWaratas, Telopea speciosissima (1925) hand coloured woodblock print. Image courtesy of the Australian National Gallery.

Fine art has always featured plants by showcasing them in many mediums: painting, drawing, print making, embroidery, and photography. Early botanical art with its formal and accurate presentation of the seed, the bud, and a mature flower, was both artistic and scientific. The popularity of global travel in the 19th century had led to the discovery and classification of many new species of flora, and the public was eager to study and appreciate them. Only later were flowers, shrubs, and trees presented with artistic freedom.

Margaret Preston, one of Australia’s foremost artists between the wars, sent shock-waves through art circles with her lively art, her spirited journalism and her enthusiasm for work and travel. Her active career spanned over seventy years. During the past twenty years the National Gallery of Australia has assembled an extraordinary collection of her etchings, woodcuts, monotypes, paintings and stencils. Of all our Australian artists, she is best known for her vibrant and decorative prints of Australian flowers, birds and landscapes. Her last major exhibition was held at the Sydney Macquarie Gallery in 1953 where she exhibited twenty eight stencil prints. Here at one of her last public appearances, the 78 year old artist attended, carrying a bouquet of Australian wild flowers in one of her own hand woven baskets.

Click Here to visit Mary Mageau’s blog: Nature as Art and Inspiration

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