Thea Proctor's tea party
Australia, England, France
29 Apr 1875 - 28 May 1963
In 1921 Thea Proctor returned to Australia after nearly 20 years' living in London and by 1923 was well established in her city studio in the Grosvenor Building at 219 George Street, Sydney. It was a thoroughly modern creation of colour accents set against white walls – 'notes of deep, sheer blue ... at intervals a high note of lemon-yellow, a glimpse of engine green through a white enamelled door, and on shelf and table hints of vivid Chinese lacquer red'. In Harold Cazneaux's photographs of the studio, two yellow lacquer tables stand centre-stage; on them are placed a Lunéville faience tea set on a red lacquer tray and two blue and white striped Portuguese plates 'of unusual shape and design. These objects are the ingredients from which Margaret Preston created the 1924 still life which she titled 'Thea Proctor's tea party'.
'Thea Proctor's tea party' belongs to the genre of still life, but it is also a kind of portrait. It is a symbolic rendering of the things that Thea Proctor stood for. Preston encapsulates her fellow artist's belief in the importance of surrounding one's self with objects of taste and beauty, and alludes to her enthusiasm for arranged flowers in domestic settings, something the two artists shared. And in giving the work its title, Preston drew attention to the way in which Proctor was as much a social figure as an artist, her studio as much a social space as a work place, where the ritual of the tea party had great importance (Proctor's students recall how classes in her studio always involved tea – not ordinary tea; in her later years the exotic Lapsang Souchong was her favourite).
In the 1920s Preston and Proctor were often seen as artists with similar approaches and modern ideals. Yet their outlook was never closer than in 1924–25. In 1925 the artists held two joint exhibitions, in Sydney and Melbourne. The Sydney exhibition was the occasion of a celebrated tiff between the artists. Although the story exists in various versions, it involves Preston throwing a cake at Proctor after discovering that the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Trustees had preferred Proctor's prints to her own. Given Proctor's genuine appreciation of Preston's work – describing her in 1927 as 'an artist with abundant vitality, unerring taste in selection, the intellectual gift of invention and an emotional colour sense which amounts to genius' – the 1925 incident has perhaps been given undue weight. Whatever the nature of the actual event, the anecdote survives because it dramatises the differences between the artists. Preston's frankness and egotism came face-to-face with Proctor's quieter belief in the qualities of her own art and the discernment of people of taste to whom her work was addressed. Bad manners faced off with gracious and long-suffering gentility. As with all such anecdotes, the incident allows for an over-simplification of the complexities of character. Proctor could be as outspoken and forthright as Preston and these qualities led to a significant cooling of her personal relationships with several artists besides Preston by 1929.
It is ironic that the only recorded public expression of personal difference between the two artists should centre upon the rituals of the tea party and that Preston's homage to the world of her contemporary, painted in the previous year, should be a picture of Thea Proctor's china and cutlery set out for just such an occasion.
There were also artistic differences between Preston and Proctor that became more pronounced in the years after 1925, the seeds of which, to some extent, are reflected in 'Thea Proctor's tea party'. Despite Preston's growing enthusiasm for native flora, it is perhaps significant that the flowers arranged for the painting are exotic – zinnias are prominent. Although in Proctor's words, Preston lifted 'the native flowers of the country from the rut of disgrace into which they had fallen', Proctor preferred European flowers and had none of the nationalist idealism that Preston associated with Australian subject matter. Quite the reverse; Proctor believed that locality was irrelevant when it came to making and judging the quality of art.
It was one of the great paradoxes of Thea Proctor's art that although its colour and design were seen as modern, its subject matter was often nostalgic, invoking earlier periods of elegance. In Proctor's world things could be valued for their intrinsic qualities alone – like a 19th-century tea set in the midst of a modern 1920s studio. Such a paradox would probably have worried Preston but was of no concern to Proctor. In 1938 when Proctor came to write a piece for 'Art in Australia' on modern art in Sydney, she chose to focus exclusively on the formal characteristics of the artists she discussed, their colour sense and their taste, and did not discuss subject matter at all. The one artist she did not discuss in the article, she excused with the sentence 'Mrs. Preston's work is already widely known'.
Andrew Sayers in Deborah Edwards and Rose Peel with Denise Mimmocchi, 'Margaret Preston', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005
oil on canvas on hardboard
55.9 x 45.7 cm board; 63.5 x 56.0 x 4.9 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.r. corner, pencil " Margaret Preston/ 24".
Not on display
© Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Copyright Agency
Shown in 9 exhibitions
Society of Artists Annual Exhibition (1924), Education Department Gallery [Loftus Street], Sydney, 12 Sep 1924–04 Oct 1924
Margaret Preston and William Dobell loan exhibition (1942), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 19 Mar 1942–16 Apr 1942
Margaret Preston in Mosman, Mosman Art Gallery, Mosman, 07 Sep 2002–13 Oct 2002
The world of Thea Proctor (2005), National Portrait Gallery [Old Parliament House], Canberra, 08 Apr 2005–31 Jul 2005
Margaret Preston retrospective:
Cuisine and country: a culinary venture in Australian Art:
- Orange Regional Gallery, Orange 06 Apr 2007–20 May 2007
- Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Booragul 08 Jun 2007–22 Jul 2007
- Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Mornington 28 Aug 2007–21 Oct 2007
- Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Australia 26 Oct 2007–09 Dec 2007
- Riddoch Art Gallery, Mt Gambier 15 Dec 2007–15 Feb 2008
- Broken Hill City Art Gallery, Broken Hill 26 Mar 2008–05 May 2008
- Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Manly 16 May 2008–15 Jun 2008
- Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns 01 Jul 2008–15 Aug 2008
- Artspace Mackay, Queensland 31 Aug 2008–30 Sep 2008
Sydney Moderns, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 06 Jul 2013–07 Oct 2013
Destination Sydney, S.H. Ervin Gallery, The Rocks, 11 Dec 2015–21 Feb 2016
O'Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism:
- Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne 12 Oct 2016–19 Feb 2017
- Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane 11 Mar 2017–11 Jun 2017
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 01 Jul 2017–02 Oct 2017