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Margaret Preston - printmaker

Image of Margaret Preston

Margaret Preston (1875 - 1963), The Aeroplane, 1925, woodcut. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia Accn No: 76.310.

Margaret Preston was an Australian painter and printmaker who was a leading example of early Australian modernism. She drew on artistic and cultural influences from all over the world. Her subjects ranged from bold, colourful still life paintings and prints of native and introduced Australian flowers, to urban impressions of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney's Mosman area.

Preston's art and writing

As an artist, Preston concentrated on painting and printmaking - especially wood engravings and linocuts. One technique she used involved printing with large blocks of wood in black and then adding colour to the print by hand. The effect of this approach can be seen in works such as the woodcuts Mosman Bridge (c.1925) and Native Flowers (c.1928). Some of her prints adorned the covers of magazines such as Woman's World and Art In Australia .

Writing was an important part of Preston's life and expression. Her essays and articles were published in Australian journals including Art in Australia , Undergrowth, Jindyworobak Review and Australia National Journal . Preston wrote about modern art, home arts, artistic techniques and Aboriginal art.

In her essay Arts for Crafts Preston wrote:

Australia must honestly confess to having no designs of her own. Taking native flowers, etc. of any country and twiddling them into unique forms will never give a national decorative art.
The Home , December 1924.

Image of Margaret Preston

Margaret Preston (1875 - 1963), Wooden Bridge, Mosman, NSW, 1925, woodcut. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia. Accn No: 86.598.

Preston suggested that designs could be based on other sources such as Australian Aboriginal art. The style and design elements within some of her black and white woodcuts, and the gouache Aboriginal Glyph (1953-58), show how she experimented with this idea.

Preston's interest in Aboriginal art was life long and she remained strongly committed to her belief that Australia should develop its own style of art. At various times in history, Preston's views have been considered from different perspectives, questioning how far her approach supports Aboriginal art or takes away from it.

Preston's early life

Margaret Rose McPherson was born on 29 April 1875 in Adelaide, South Australia. She was the first of David and Prudence McPherson's two daughters, and later took the name Preston by marriage. As a child, Margaret's artistic interests and abilities were already obvious. Her early formal art education included studies at the National Gallery School in Melbourne and the Adelaide School of Design, Painting and Technical Arts.

In 1904, Margaret travelled to Munich where she attended the Government Art School for Women. From Germany she moved on to Paris to study at the Musee Guimeta . In 1907, she returned briefly to Adelaide and then went back to Europe.

Teaching helped Margaret to contribute to the McPherson family income after her father died in 1894. She used these skills again during World War I when she lived in England and taught wounded soldiers basket-weaving and pottery.

After World War I, Margaret married businessman William George Preston and they settled in Sydney. The marriage gave her financial stability and overseas travel became an important part of the Prestons' lives. Settled, secure and without children, Preston was able to put her art first.

Preston's emergence as an exponent of Australian Modernism in the 1920s is inextricably linked to her extensive travels and studies in Europe between 1904 and 1919. Her varied works suggest the inspiration and ideas gained from extensive travel throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Asia and Australia.

Preston's influences

Image of Margaret Preston

Margaret Preston (1875 - 1963), Hollyhocks , 1928, woodcut, printed in black ink and hand-coloured. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia. Accn No: 83.1272.

Preston's early art teachers included W Lister Lister, Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall. Her artistic influences included Post-Impressionism, Japanese art, Chinese art, Aboriginal art, European Modernism and Cubism.

She was a member of the Society of Artists and the Australian Association. Alongside artists such as Roy de Maistre, John D. Moore and Grace Cossington Smith, Preston was a founding member of the Contemporary Group established in 1926.

Recognition and awards

Preston was the first female artist commissioned to paint a self-portrait by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in 1929.

In 1937 she was awarded a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition.

Margaret Preston died on 28 May 1963, at the age of 88. Many of her artworks are now held in the collections of Australian art institutions including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.

Australasian prints online

Prints and printmaking Australia Asia Pacific is a website providing access to more than 16,000 records of Australian prints by some of Australia's most exciting artists - Margaret Preston, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Fred Williams, Karen Casey, Banduk Marika and Bede Tungutalum amongst others. Around four thousand of these records have accompanying images.

There are printed works from Australia, Aboriginal Australia, the Torres Strait Islands, Papua New Guinea, Maori and Pakeha Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific region including New Caledonia, Nuie, Samoa, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands. The site also includes references to prints and printmaking in China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

This website is an access initiative of the Gordon Darling Australia Pacific Print Fund at the National Gallery of Australia. Other initiatives of the fund include the digitisation of the Australian print collection, the Gordon Darling Fellowship , the Gordon Darling Graduate Internship and the Australian Prints Online project.

Useful links

Margaret Preston links

Artwork links

References used in preparing this story

  • Burke, J 1980 Australian Women Artists 1840-1940, Greenhouse Publications, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Butel, E 1995 Margaret Preston , Imprint Books, Sydney, Australia.
  • Butel, E 2003 (compiler) Art and Australia by Margaret Preston, Selected Writings 1920-1950 , Richmond Ventures, Sydney, Australia.
  • Linden, P 1997 Australia's Best Painters, Heinemann, Melbourne, Australia.

Last updated: 20th August 2007
Creators: Jacki Thomas