(Australia, England, France 29 Apr 1875 – 28 May 1963)
44.3 x 51.2 cm board; 55.8 x 62.4 x 3.2 cm frame
By March 1915, when Margaret Rose McPherson revisited Bunmahon (then Bonmahon) in County Waterford, Ireland, with her friend the artist Gladys Reynell and 21 students including New Zealand artist Edith Collier, the world was at war.
Copper mining and fishing no longer sustained the economically impoverished people of Bunmahon but, wrote McPherson to Will Ashton, with 'such cliff scenery, its [sic] quite heroic' – reason enough to attract the charismatic teacher and her students. Living cheaply with locals, Collier wrote to her parents that the students 'lived in a peasant's cottage. A ladder was placed for them to climb to the upper storey bed, and when they were aloft it was taken away!'
This Arcadian summer reflected in the painting '(Still life with teapot and daisies)' 1915 belies the tragedy unfolding in Europe. On 25 April Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey – a poignant action that would signify Australia's emerging nationalism and result in the death of Reynell's brother Carew on 28 August. Despite the traumas and horrors of World War I the artists sketched and painted still lifes, portraits of local people, landscapes and printed monotypes, prompting Rupert Reynell, another brother and war surgeon, to write to their father in October, '... Gladys' attitude is testing my comprehension ...'
'(Still life with teapot and daisies)' must have been a treasured painting for Preston as it remained in her possession. The flat white sands of Bunmahon places the table firmly outside as its pink striped cloth manipulates the viewer's eye around and back to the central construction of bowls, flowers and teacups so diminishing an artificial perspective that would be created if the stripes travelled into depth. The flattening of the design and the positioning of the objects on a strong diagonal emulates Japanese ukiyo-e prints – an arrangement Preston continued to use, most notably for 'Implement blue'. Her engaging play with reflections, a device she returned to throughout her long painting career, shows another landscape mirrored in the teapot. A hammock of pink cradles a solitary figure in long dress holding a parasol and standing in a green field with blue sky, so introducing a human element to the painting's design. The figure could be the viewer or a partaker returning to the afternoon tea.
The uncertainty of reality continues in 'Still life' 1915, where the black lacquer tray in shallow space is placed precariously on the checked table's edge defying the design's geometric formality, perhaps a metaphor of the instability brought with war. Still life, also painted in Ireland, was reproduced in the high-quality commercially savvy 'Colour' magazine of June 1917. Subscribers were treated to rich colour plates, reviews, poetry and articles supported by advertisers, for instance Pears' soap: 'Womanhood in war-time No. 1 My lady of Munitions – The maker of munitions places her complexion and her hands in charge of Pears whilst she so nobly helps the nation "carry on" ...' In the summer of 1916 McPherson, Reynell, Collier and other students repeated the experience of the 'summer school'. But having been warned the previous year not to sketch or photograph the Irish coast with its insidious German submarine activity, they stayed instead in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Bibury in England. 'Sunshine' 1916 depicts a rustic raft – an outdoor table with a jug of wildflowers centrally placed, surrounded by oranges and apples piled into a decorative bowl with, as those randomly placed to the lower right suggest, an echo of Cézanne. The empty teacup in the foreground sits dangerously close to the edge, perhaps hurriedly left there by its drinker, whose presence is strongly implied. Once again human connections are suggested through still life. Screening the background is a lattice-shaped design enclosing the table and domesticating the space while curtailing a distant view. The leaves on an overhanging branch further suggest a Japanese influence of cropped, flattened decoration, allowing the viewer's imagination to extend to a tree outside the constraints of the frame.
The casual diagonal positioning of the objects forms a broken cross, which if read superficially appears unstable but through shadow is anchored to the table. Perhaps it is this contradiction in the construction that anthropologist A Radcliffe-Brown observed in Preston's 1916 works, 'her rendering is soft, lacking in solidity and appealing chiefly by its glow of harmonious colour'. The broad flat bands of paint from a loaded brush show a new confidence with colour and light. Leaving the constrictions of tonal realism behind, it was around this time that Preston formulated theories on colour harmony related to musical scales. The relentless grey and bloodied stories that dominated life in the summers of 1915 and 1916 pushed her palette in the opposite direction. As the light scatters over objects of normalcy, the paintings burst with the warmth of a summer's day, the daisy's yellow stamens mimicking mini suns.
Rose Peel in Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel with Denise Mimmocchi, 'Margaret Preston', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005
Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel, Margaret Preston: Catalogue raisonné of paintings, monotypes and ceramics, Sydney, 2005, (colour illus.). Artworks: paintings 1915.
John McDonald, Australian painters of the twentieth century, 'Margaret Preston', pg. 16-27, Roseville, 2000, 16 (colour illus.).
Ross Mellick and Nick Waterlow, Spirit and place: Art in Australia 1861-1996, Sydney, Nov 1996, 149.
Elizabeth Butel, Margaret Preston: the art of constant rearrangement, Ringwood, 1985, 14 (colour illus.), 85. cat.no. O.2
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2006, Sydney, 2006, front cover (colour illus.).
Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a transformed light: writing the still life, 'Portrait of the author as still life', pg. 91-114, Ithaca, 2005, 95, 96 (illus.). figure no. 9
Rose Peel, Margaret Preston, 'Still life with teapot and daisies', pg. 54, Sydney, 2005, 48, 51-53, 54, 55 (colour illus.), 254, 282.
Spirit and place: art in Australia 1861-1996, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 21 Nov 1996–31 Mar 1997
Edith Collier and her circle:
Australian icons: twenty artists from the collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 04 Aug 2000–03 Dec 2000
Margaret Preston retrospective: