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Margaret Rose Preston (1875–1963)

by Isobel Seivl

This article was published:

Margaret Preston, by Harold Cazneaux, c.1924

Margaret Preston, by Harold Cazneaux, c.1924

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Margaret Rose Preston (1875-1963), artist, was born on 29 April 1875 at Port Adelaide, elder daughter of David McPherson, marine engineer, and his wife Prudence Cleverdon (d.1903), née Lyle. By 1885 the family was living in Sydney where Rose about 1888 began training with Lister Lister. In Melbourne in 1893 she enrolled at the National Gallery's school of design under Frederick McCubbin.

Her father was admitted in February 1894 to Parkside Lunatic Asylum, Adelaide, where he died next year. In June 1894 she joined her sister and mother in Adelaide. She exhibited with the (Royal) South Australian Society of Arts (and continued to do so annually when in Adelaide). Returning to Melbourne in July 1896, she enrolled at the National Gallery's school of painting under Bernard Hall and with a painting, 'Still Life', won a year's free tuition. Returning to Adelaide, in 1898 she studied at the School of Design, Painting and Technical Arts under Harry Gill. She leased a studio next year and began teaching full time and painting at week-ends, chiefly still-life subjects.

Inheriting her mother's money in 1903, she moved to a new studio where one of her students was Bessie Davidson. 'Eggs' (1903), painted in an academic illusionist style, reveals her skill. After the selection committee of the Society of Arts rejected what she believed to be her 'best still life', she left Adelaide on 2 July 1904, bound for Europe with Davidson. In Munich they viewed an exhibition of the German Secessionists. Shocked by her first view of the European avant garde, Rose MacPherson took lessons at the Munich Government Art School for Women. She then went to Paris where she saw the work of Cézanne, Matisse, Kandinsky and Rouault. Still conservative, Rose was thrilled to have one of her traditional oils accepted by the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français. With renewed self-confidence she studied Japanese and Chinese art at the Musée Guimet, learning 'slowly that there is more than one vision in art'.

On her return to Adelaide in 1907 she leased a studio with Bessie Davidson and they held a combined exhibition in March. 'Onions' (1905) was purchased by the National Gallery of South Australia. Gladys Reynell and Stella Bowen joined her classes in 1908. She also taught at the Collegiate School of St Peter and Presbyterian Ladies' College. A citizens' committee in 1911 commissioned her to paint a posthumous portrait of Catherine Spence for the gallery.

In 1912 Rose and her now intimate friend Gladys Reynell arrived in London to see the Second Post Impressionist Exhibition, organized by Roger Fry, in which Matisse and Picasso were well represented. They lived in Paris and Brittany in 1913-14 before moving to London on the outbreak of war; Rose now admired Gauguin's colour. She exhibited her first woodcuts with the Society of Women Artists, studied pottery at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and became familiar with the designs of Fry and the Bloomsbury group. Her paintings, 'November on the Balcony' and 'Still-Life Sunshine Indoors' were exhibited at the New Salon, Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. She also studied under the Scot A. E. H. Miller, and exhibited with the New English Art Club; 'Anemones' (1916) marks her final rejection of academic realism and the emergence of her new style based on colour theory.

From August 1918 MacPherson and Reynell taught shell-shocked soldiers ceramics, basketmaking and printmaking at Seale Hayne Neurological Hospital, Devon. The task required great ingenuity because traditional materials were unavailable. Next year Rose was invited to exhibit at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, United States of America. On the voyage home she met her future husband, William George Preston (1881-1978), a gunner returning after serving with the Australian Imperial Force. She and Reynell held a joint exhibition in Adelaide in September 1919 and made some of the first pottery at Reynella. There Margaret (as she was henceforth known) married Preston on 31 December.

They settled at Mosman, Sydney. Preston became a director of Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd, Tooheys Ltd and other companies, and belonged to the Union Club. Margaret's financial security enabled her to travel and to experiment with new styles and techniques. Her travels included visits to New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (1923), South East Asian countries and China (1924-26), North Queensland (1927) and Ceylon, Africa and India (1956-58). In the 1930s the Prestons also lived at Berowra where Margaret kept two exuberant terriers and enjoyed pottering in her garden, left half in its native state, and filling her cupboards with home-made bottled fruit and jam. Fiery and volatile in temperament, she once threw a plate of cakes at Thea Proctor. Leon Gellert later recalled, however, that never 'was a domestic alliance so felicitous … Bill seemed to regard it as a national duty to keep his beloved Margaret happy and artistically productive'.

At first Margaret had exhibited with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. 'Summer' (1915), showing Post-Impressionist influence, was bought by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1920. She soon joined the less hidebound Society of Artists, where she was supported by Sydney Ure Smith. The Contemporary Group from 1926 gave her the opportunity to show her 'modernist' style. She was now familiar with Leger and Purism and with Cubism. 'Implement Blue' (1927) shows a Japanese influence fused with a technique of lighting used by contemporary photographers.

Increasingly adept at promoting her art and ideas, Margaret Preston contributed twenty-seven articles to Ure Smith's journals, Art in Australia and the Home, as well as writing for other publications. In December 1927 she published her autobiographical essay, 'From Eggs to Electrolux', in Art in Australia. Between the wars she had a substantial part in articulating new attitudes towards art and in creating a receptive climate for changing aesthetic taste in Sydney.

For her first major printmaking exhibition she teamed with Thea Proctor in 1925; and in 1929, 1936 and 1953 held three major one-woman shows. The first woman to be commissioned by the trustees of the Art Gallery to paint a 'Self Portrait' (1930), she chose a style which conveys some of the direct challenge she communicated in her writing. Three of Ure Smith's publications were exclusively devoted to her work. In 1937 she won a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale, Paris.

Paradoxically, when her style was most international, Margaret proposed a 'national' art for Australia based on Aboriginal art. Although she was primarily a still-life artist for most of her career, in the 1940s she concentrated on landscapes in oils: in 'Aboriginal Landscape' (1941) and 'Flying Over Shoalhaven River' (1942) she reduced her palette to earth colours and surrounded simplified forms with black lines, based on her study of Aboriginal art. Still experimenting, in the 1950s she made a series of gouache stencils based on religious subjects: 'Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden' (1950) shows black figures in an Australian setting.

Survived by her husband, Margaret Preston died at Mosman on 28 May 1963 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Never an imitator, Preston needed different forms of expression. She experimented constantly in a variety of media, but her ability to present something fresh in her dynamic designs with her unerring sense of colour allowed her to break traditional barriers. Her originality and powerful expression is evident in her printmaking, especially her hand-coloured woodcuts. Her monotypes such as 'Hawkesbury River' (1946) demonstrate her acute observation of Australian landscape and flora.

Select Bibliography

  • H. McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass (Syd, 1979)
  • J. Burke (ed), Australian Women Artists (Melb, 1980)
  • I. North et al, The Art of Margaret Preston (Adel, 1980)
  • E. Butel, Margaret Preston (Melb, 1986)
  • Art Network, 2, Spring 1980, p 14
  • I. Seivl, Margaret Preston (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1986).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Isobel Seivl, 'Preston, Margaret Rose (1875–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Margaret Preston, by Harold Cazneaux, c.1924

Margaret Preston, by Harold Cazneaux, c.1924

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McPherson, Margaret Rose

29 April, 1875
Port Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


28 May, 1963 (aged 88)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations