Native honeysuckle 1933 signed and dated 'M. Preston 33' lower right oil on canvas 56.5 x 46.0cm (22 1/4 x 18 1/8in).
PROVENANCE Allen, Allen and Hemsley, Sydney Gifted to Mr Reichenbach, Sydney John Williams Auction, Sydney, December 2001 Gould Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 2002
EXHIBITED Contemporary group, Farmer's Blaxland Galleries, Sydney, 24 October - 4 November 1933, cat. no. 24 Gould Modern, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 8 February 10 March 2002; Gould Galleries, Sydney, 16 March - 14 April 2002, cat. no. 3 Margaret Preston: Art and Life, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 July 23 October 2005; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 12 November 2005 - 29 January 2006; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 18 February - 7 May 2006; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 26 May - 13 August 2006 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE Roger Butler, The prints of Margaret Preston, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987/2005, p. 346 (2005 edition) Gould Modern, exh. cat., Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 2002, cat. no. 3 (illus.) Deborah Edwards, Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, pp. 153 (illus.), 156, 283
In her unwavering quest to develop a quintessentially Australian style, Margaret Preston frequently focussed on indigenous flora and fauna as a vehicle for her exceptionally strong sense of design and composition. Among her most famous and satisfying paintings and prints are those in which she brings the distinctive qualities of Australian flora the unusually structured flowers, the tough, drought-resistant leaves and the harmonious, earthy colours into an impressive and decisive whole. It is these works that, when exhibited during the late 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, had substantial impact on her audiences, and drew bitter criticism and considerable acclaim in almost equal measure.
Preston's superbly arranged Native honeysuckle 1933 was painted during the time she and her husband Bill lived at an expansive property in Berowra, located forty kilometres north of Sydney in the region of the Hawkesbury River. They were there from 1932 to 1939, their residency interspersed with extensive overseas travel to exotic and unusual destinations such as the Pacific Islands, China, South America and Mexico as well as the United States. Preston wrote at length about these explorations into the world. While what she saw influenced her work, it helped also to reinforce her nationalistic ideals, and hopes for an Australian art expressive of cultural individuality and difference. The region in which she lived at the time she painted Native honeysuckle was rich with inspiration. In a garden containing some 250 species of Australian plants, Preston was delighted that 'our lovely Australian flora' was 'accorded the place of honor'. 1 Aboriginal paintings and carvings close to the property gave the artist the opportunity to access such material outside anthropological collections.
This garden was the source of many of Preston's still-life subjects, in which she continued to explore the strong compositional forms offered by the large, heavy flowers of Banksia serrata, as well as waratahs, an array of eucalypts, native lilies and flannel flowers. Where previously, while resident in Sydney, she had been obliged to obtain native blooms from a variety of sources, at Berowra they were at her doorstep. For Preston the banksia particularly represented Australia's 'ancientness'. Armfuls of these and other dramatic blooms were frequently and seemingly casually placed into pots, imbuing many works from this period with an overwhelming sense of abundance. During the previous decade and into the early 1930s Preston had been fruitfully exploring modernistic principles in her work, and while these remained present in her paintings from this Berowra period, they took second place to the sheer joy of observational painting and love of subject-matter. The generous bunches of native flowers were depicted with a natural realism that caused one critic to pronounce she may have taken the tendency too far, while another declared happily that the works were 'extraordinarily attractive'. 3
Strict compositional symmetry is the key to much of Preston's work, including during this period, and Native honeysuckle is a fine example of her innate ability to draw together seemingly incongruous elements into a satisfying whole. The large, weighty banksias have been placed in a pot heavy enough to hold them without toppling, and other items have been added to the picture to provide scale and complexity. These sit effectively together to create a well-balanced still life, in which the flowers dominate and hold the centre of the composition because of their sheer size. Strong verticals lead the eye from the top to the bottom of the picture, while the rigid horizontality is cleverly broken by the angle of a few of the banksias, and a small errant branch that has fallen to the foreground. The domestic items decanter, wine glass, whole and sliced watermelon, the folded cloth offer something more than just stability to this picture. These everyday objects provide an insight into Preston's belief that Australian-ness, defined here by the banksias, was not a characteristic that should exist in isolation. Instead it was part of one's daily existence and routines, such as eating and drinking, and as a result the various textures and shapes in her still life sit naturally together without discord.
Banksias appear frequently in Preston's work. In 1927 while still living in Mosman, she produced Banksia (National Gallery of Australia), a deliberately modernistic composition in which the strong geometric shapes of the vases, background forms and table are contrasted with the bulky complexity of the banksias themselves. These distinctive elements are further resolved in Preston's impressive later woodcut WA Banksia c.1929 (National Gallery of Australia). By contrast the composition of Native honeysuckle, created some five years later in quite different circumstances, is much more organic. The later work still contains a degree of formality with the table, vases, and background details lending structural rigidity, but it has an informality which is the hallmark of so many of Preston's Berowra still lives. Even the pictorially less cluttered Banksia cobs (Art Gallery of NSW), painted at Berowra in the same year as Native honeysuckle (and also the subject of another c.1933 woodcut) contains this sense of ease. Despite their differences, the works are bound by a severely tonal palette common to both, and the artist's passionate love of these unique Australian plants.
In her relentless pursuit of the artistic 'essence of Australia' Margaret Preston continued to use banksias as a compositional motif. 4 During the 1940s, having left Berowra and taken up residence in the Sydney suburb of Clifton Gardens, Preston brought together her interest in Aboriginal design and her immense knowledge of Australian native flora to create paintings and monotypes that reflected a national idiom. Important works such as Native honeysuckle can be seen as pivotal in the artist's transition into a phase of her career that successfully reflected her ambition to achieve a national art.
1 Margaret Preston quoted in Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987, p. 16 2 Margaret Preston quoted in Deborah Edwards, Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, p. 154 3 Margaret Preston quoted in Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987, p. 18 4 Margaret Preston quoted in Edwards, Deborah Edwards, Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005, p. 173