After the 1914-18 war Margaret Preston lived, and created artworks in Mosman.
During the war, Margaret and friend Gladys Reynell got the chance to help rebuild shattered lives.
More than one vision.
Margaret Rose Preston (nee. McPherson) was born on 29 April 1875. She began training as an traditional artist in Sydney at age 9. In 1893 she enrolled at the National Gallery’s art school in Melbourne, under Frederick McCubbin.
Margaret McPherson left Australia in 1904. She travelled with home town friend and fellow artist Gladys Reynell. They absorbed European culture and studied contemporary art trends.
Ms. McPherson’s antipodean eyes were opened to Post-Impressionism;
Cézanne, Matisse, Kandinsky, Rouault, Picasso and Paul Gaugin influenced her work. She admired Gaugin in particular, describing him as a ‘magnificent colourist’.1
Like so many artists and theorists of the time, she developed fascination for Japonisme. She studied decorative arts and traditional design at the Musée Guimet, the Louvre, and the Victoria & Albert Museums. Of particular interest to her were the woodblock Ukiyo-e masterworks.
In her own words she
learnt slowly that there is more than one vision in art.2
Margaret and Gladys, based in England after the invasion of France, continued to practice, study and teach.
In 1915 Margaret, Gladys and 21 students went on a field trip to Ireland. She painted Still life with teapot and Daisies by the sea at Bunmahon, County Wexford. Ukiyo-e influences are present in the placement of objects and spacial flattening.
The painting’s warm pastel tones seem to defy the storm clouds of industrialised armegedon in Europe. The light, cheery seaside setting completely contrasts with Otto Dix’s nightmarish depictions.
U-boats lurking off the coast and the sinking of the Lusitania confined Margaret and Gladys to England. In 1916 they enrolled at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Here they studied pottery, basket weaving, printmaking, fabric printing and dyeing.
Gladys’ family were doing their bit.
Rupert had written to their father in 1915,
Gladys’ attitude is testing my comprehension4
He invited Gladys and Margaret to become more useful to the war effort. He wrote in 1918
Gladys and Margaret McPherson[are] coming to teach pottery to the patients here..”5
The poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) wrote poem ‘Survivors’, whilst being treated for shell-shock in 1917 at the Craiglockhart medical facility in Edinburgh. While recuperating he became friends with fellow patient and poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, awarded for bravery, was killed in action 1 week before the war ended.
Survivors from Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)
NO doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
A film made at Seale Hayne documents patients remarkable progress. These disturbing and yet hopeful images include footage of men weaving baskets.
Crafts that aid
Margaret and Gladys, arrived at Seale-Hayne Hospital in August 1918. Margaret remembered6:
25-35 men would arrive every few weeks to the Hospital. These the various doctors would bring down to the shed known as the Pottery. The work was under the strict supervision.
They were given instruction in weaving, pottery or other crafts depending on their condition.
This was to aid them to regain confidence in their own abilities as well as to interest them while they were waiting for their cures.
Basket weaving was recognised as the most useful therapy for twisted and stiffened hands. The teachers improvised when weaving materials ran out. Any branches strong and supple enough would do.
When these baskets were sold to the local housewives of Newton Abbott (the nearest town), some of the women complained that the baskets “started to shoot” on shopping expeditions, and were a little conspicuous; but it was pointed out to them that these were really “war baskets,” so no money had to be given back….
Some men later earned a living making fish and clothes baskets, ‘which take strong hands and careful work’
Preston noted that pottery work was ‘of the greatest assistance’ to men with shell shock.
This craft helped cure in many ways. For one thing, it gave an easy and interesting occupation. For another, it restored confidence, when the patient found that he could make things that his doctor could not. Again, it gave healthy exercise and allowed the brain to work out original ideas and put them into practice. Perhaps the great thing was, that, at the end of the labour, the patient possessed an object that even the doctors wanted, and that he could raise money on if he so wished.
First Margaret and Gladys had to design and supervise the making of a kiln.
It was found that amongst the patients were bricklayers, who were capable, under strict supervision, of laying the bricks. This was done from a simple plan of a small brick kiln, of the kind generally used as an experimental one for brick factories.
After the kiln was built, clay was excavated from the local area. It was put into tubs of water and hand-mixed by patients the next day. Therapeutic mud-kneading did not work for one patient
Memory goes back to one poor “Tommy” who had decided that his hands could not move. When they were gently “pushed” into this mud, he quickly decided to pull them out and use them on the “pusher,” who was myself. The doctor rushed to the rescue and took away a soldier who had been partly cured of a difficult complex.
Finally they made a basic turning wheel.
One soldier would turn the handle, while another threw on the wheel. It would hardly seem possible that turning a wheel would start a cure in a case of badly shaking nerves, but this happened.
Preston notes that for those did not like throwing clay on the wheel.
They were shown how to make objects by winding sausages of clay together. Some of these men produced fantastic animals and grim creatures that would have turned Dali green with envy.
She also notes that other crafts interested the men. Simple dyeing was one
This meant long walks on the moors, looking for plants that would give dyes… These were brought back to the shed, cooked in jam tins, and later fixed ..Thus the dye would not come out of the cloth when it was washed.
Dyeing was used in conjunction with batik work. ‘Cushion covers were generally the greatest extent of our ambitions.’
Simple wood-cut prints ‘helped things along.’
everything that could be made to do was used. Cigar-box lids, old pieces of furniture that could be cut into shapes; any wood that had a fine grain .
Paint would be rubbed on an old tray with a photographer’s squeegee, and then over the upstanding design of the wood. A piece of dampened paper would be put on this, and rolled over with a clean roller. The paper was taken off, and the results shown around for criticism.
Monotypes and Stencilling were also popular,
as they caused no excessive expenditure of energy. … Many made Christmas Cards this way. The cards were of course unique, as it is only possible to get one copy by this method.
All the crafts are better than that horrible work known as crewel work. The most pathetic thing was to see a big wounded soldier plugging away in crewels at the motto, “God Bless our Happy Home,” which was often to be seen in the war hospitals.
Doctors and guests visited and took an interest in the patient’s handiwork. The men were reluctant to part with their creations, which ended up in houses and workplaces
remind[ing] their owners of the pottery shed at Seale Hayne Hospital on the Devon moors.
William George Preston was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Australian Artillery. He met Margaret McPherson in London and proposed to her en route to Australia.
Margaret and Gladys held a joint pottery exhibition in Adelaide in September 1919 which included pottery from the Seale Hayne Hospital.
Margaret married George Preston on the 31/12/1919 in Adelaide. The reception was held at ‘Reynella’, the Reynell family home.
Margaret and George moved to Sydney and settled into ‘Glenorie’, a bayside flat in Musgrave St., Mosman. Here her artistic endeavours continued. The move effectively ended her creative partnership with Gladys. In George’s words, he’d ‘broken up the ‘twosome.’7
George resumed his position as manager of Dalton Bros. Ltd. Later at Anthony Hordern &Sons his overseas imports included Japanese textiles. The Prestons moved to ‘Preston’, 11 Park Ave., Mosman in 1922 where they lived for 10 years.
Later they lived as long term residents at the Mosman Hotel. Margaret took over the guests’ sunroom, using it as her personal studio, and ‘tended to treat staff as personal servants.’8
..through a Japanese sieve.
Her work in the 20’s and 30’s incorporated colour theories developed during the war years. Preston
systematically compiled subsets of colours based on all the possible major and minor scales in small squares of oil paint. These subsets correspond to traditional Western scales but Preston also developed ‘Japanese schemes’.9
By the 20’s her style was well defined: flat planes of decorative colour; linear definition of form; diagonal structure and expanded space (encouraging viewers to use their ‘mind’s eye’.)10
Still Life, 1925 is a good example of Preston’s evolution from academic realism to oriental inspired modernism.
During the 20’s
In Rocks and waves, Balmoral Preston emulates Japanese masterworks by ‘borrowing motifs such as swirling stylised patterns of water.’12
Preston put Sydney’s urban environment through a Japanese sieve..and contributed to the continuing relevance of Japonisme in 1920’s Australian design.11
Prestons sense of place was also represented through the urban landscape.
In moving closer to the traditions and intimacies of Hiroshige and Hokusai produced a set of Sydney-Australian views depicting the emphatic modernity of the harbour through its increasing mechanisation.13
During her Mosman period Preston also produced works such as Edward’s Beach, Balmoral and Red Cross Fete. These idyllic, intimate visual vignettes are glimpses into inner-harbour life in the 1920’s. But they also have a timeless quality, like the foreshores themselves..
Don’t ask questions
Prestons later works ventured beyond her main subject matter of still life and landscape.
2 paintings relating to the local area are of Taronga Zoo and the Japanese Midget Sub sunk in 1942.
Japanese submarine exhibition depicts the wreckage of the mini-sub recovered from Taylor’s Bay.
In the picture Australian navy surveillance boats patrol the harbour. A sailor stands watch over the exhibit and wreckage strewn about in front of a ‘Souvenir’ shed. ‘Souvenir-ing’ can be read as a general comment on, or metaphor about, the dirty business of war profiteering..’14
2 signs warn the onlooker: ‘Do not ask questions’
‘ Do not ask questions’ (a command recognised as antithetical to Preston’s credo) embod[ies] the cynicism with which Preston greeted the aftermath of the submarine tragedy.15
although Preston left no explanation of her wartime pictures, her correspondence and 1943 articles indicate her concerns. Preston was one of the few Australians with first-hand experience of Japanese culture, an appreciation deepened by her 1934 travels there. Hence she could not share the vehemence of Australian propagandists..13
She and George were disturbed by internments of acquaintances and denouncement of neighbour Ken Prior, as a Japanese agent.16 Her concerns about censorship and cultural xenophobia came through in Tank traps and General Post Office.
exploited the design of massive pyramidal barriers on her local beaches of Mosman and Narrabeen, to portray the country subsumed in the machinery of war.. [and the] metaphorical closing down of the country to the possibility of involvement with Asia..17
The General Post Office on George Street, Sydney, boarded up and sandbagged, is ‘a metaphor for censorship at that hub of communications.’18The viewer is drawn to a recruitment poster in the middle of the picture, and then Martin Place Cenotaph.
…as a reminder of the slaughtered in the Great War, during which she had nurtured the wounded.19
When looking at the picture one can almost see life and death fast-tracked. The recruit passes through the black doors of the recruitment office, then is remembered at the Cenotaph.
a memorial she long despised for its ‘realism without offering conviction of grief or anything else but tailor’s dummies’.20
The drapers shop to the right of the Post Office on Rowe St. references the tailors dummies.
The Mosman Art Gallery also holds some of Preston’s works. Its exhition Tokkotai: Contemporary Australian and Japanese Artists on war and the Battle of Sydney Harbour commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Midget Sub sinking.
1 Harding, Lesley Margaret Preston: recipies for food and art [Carlton, Victoria] The Miegunyah Press, and imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2016. p.156
2 Preston, Margaret From Eggs to Electrolux Art in Australia; No 22, Dec. 1927, p.25.
4 Margaret Preston: Still life with teapot and daisies Art Gallery NSW retrieved online 21/02/18 https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/192.1977/
5 Edwards, Deborah, Peel, Rosemary and Mimmocchi, Denise Margaret Preston (New ed). Thames & Hudson, Fishermans Bend, Vic, 2010. p1917
6 All quotes on Seale Hayne in The arts that heal are from Margaret Preston’s article: Preston, ‘Crafts That Aid’ Art in Australia 3rd Series No.77 Nov. 15, 1939
7 Harding, Lesley Margaret Preston: recipes for food and art [Carlton, Victoria] The Miegunyah Press, and imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2016. p.61
8 Huxley, John The pot that nearly spoilt a moment in art retrieved online smh.com.au http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/09/20/1032054960256.html 14/02/18
9 Peel, Rose Margaret Preston: A material girl explained retrieved online 14/02/18 https://aiccm.org.au/sites/default/files/docs/BPG2006/AICCM_B&P2006_Peel_p18-35.pdf
11 Edwards, Deborah, Peel, Rosemary and Mimmocchi, Denise Margaret Preston (New ed). Thames & Hudson, Fishermans Bend, Vic, 2010. p.82
14 Ibid. McQueen, Humphrey p182.
16 Edwards, Deborah, Peel, Rosemary and Mimmocchi, Denise Margaret Preston 2010. p.179
17 Ibid. p.184
18 Ibid. McQueen, p.182.
Butel, Elizabeth Margaret Preston (New ed). Royal Exchange, NSW ETT Imprint, 2015
Butler, Roger, Preston, Margaret, 1875-1963 and National Gallery of Australia The prints of Margaret Preston : a catalogue raisonné (Rev. and enlarged ed). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005.
Edwards, Deborah, Peel, Rosemary and Mimmocchi, Denise Margaret Preston (New ed). Thames & Hudson, Fishermans Bend, Vic, 2010.
Harding, Lesley Margaret Preston: recipies for food and art [Carlton, Victoria] The Miegunyah Press, and imprint of Melbourne University Publishing, 2016.
Peel, Rose Margaret Preston: A material girl explained retrieved online 14/02/18 https://aiccm.org.au/sites/default/files/docs/BPG2006/AICCM_B&P2006_Peel_p18-35.pdf
All quotes on Seale Hayne in The arts that heal are from Margaret Preston’s article:‘Crafts That Aid’ Art in Australia 3rd Series No.77 Nov. 15, 1939 copied in full below:
Crafts That Aid
This is an article from Art in Australia, November 15th, 1939 entitled Crafts That Aid. Preston notes that it is ‘partly reminiscent and partly it deals with the immediate future.’ (The Second World War had just started.) Having experienced the effects of war she realised that ‘the moment to prepare for such work’ had, unfortunately, come again.
Mrs. Preston is one of Australia’s leading artists, and she can talk interestingly about the crafts she practises. A few months ago, under the auspices of the Carnegie Institute, she gave a series of lectures at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. These proved highly genial and entertaining. The subject-matter included many aspects of art, such as the preservation of oil paintings and the best way of printing woodcuts. Mrs. Preston touched briefly then on the use of various crafts in war-time. The present article amplifies those remarks.
THIS article is a personal one. It is partly reminiscent and partly it deals with the immediate future.
In 1916, British shell-shocked and injured soldiers started pouring into England. This necessitated hospitals that were fitted to deal with their maladies. Many cases, such as those with shock to the nerves and with injured limbs had long intervals between the various times when they were seen by the doctors and by the administration. This circumstance demanded the services of persons who were able to interest the men, and to aid the doctors in ways that did not come under the heading of “nursing.” Some of this work took the form of handicrafts.
My own experience was gained in a shell-shock hospital situated on Dartmoor, England. The building had been an agricultural college, and it was requisitioned by the Government for the use of soldiers suffering from nerve trouble. This was the main object of the hospital, but there were also cases of twisted hands and stiffened limbs that had to be treated. The hospital was for the rank and file, and not for officers.
The men would arrive in fortnightly batches from the war areas. My work was to take from twenty-five to thirty men every two or three weeks. These the various doctors would bring down to the shed known as the Pottery. This outhouse was originally the dairy of the agricultural college. The work was under the strict supervision of the doctors. It consisted of basket-making for twisted and stiffened hands; of pottery for the shell-shocked men. This was to aid them to regain confidence in their own abilities as well as to interest them while they were waiting for their cures. There were others who came to the shed with complaints that allowed them only to amuse themselves. These did monotypes, batik, and other handicrafts.
Perhaps the most valuable of them all was basket-making. This simple craft has the greatest right of all the handicrafts to the name, as it is about the only one that cannot be carried on by machinery. The great help that basket-making gives to twisted hands and stiff arms is now acknowledged by doctors who have worked in war hospitals. Pulling of the canes and holding and separating the rods used muscles and fingers that had become stiff and hard. Another thing that helped was the simplicity of the craft. It did not worry tired brains, and took very little concentration to obtain a good result. These facts place basket-making well on the way to being one of the most useful of the handicrafts for war-time work.
For those who know nothing of this art, a few explanations and illustrations might be of interest. The materials are inexpensive and substitutes can be easily procured. When cane gave out at the hospital, young rose shoots, raffia, and Paddy’s lucerne were used. In fact, any branches that were strong and supple enough to twist were made into
baskets. When these baskets were sold to the local housewives of Newton Abbott (the nearest town), some of the women complained that the baskets “started to shoot” on shopping expeditions, and were a little conspicuous; but it was pointed out to them that these were really “war baskets,” so no money had to be given back
As regards the materials for this work, only a few tools are necessary — a basket-maker’s bodkin, a pair of sharp shears, a picking knife, and a basket-maker’s iron for knocking the cane together. For a simple basket, two kinds of rods are employed. Some of these are young and pliable. The others are older branches, known as “sticks.” For larger baskets, stronger canes and a different method are used, but it can be seen how the hands are used in manipulating the sticks. The pulling and stretching of the fingers all help in the recovery of lost suppleness. It is suggested here that lessons could be taken from the blind, so that when a time comes there will be found persons who will be able to help when necessary. At the hospital on Dartmoor, some of the men went on to advanced lessons in this craft. They are now earning their living making fish and clothes baskets, which take strong hands and careful work.
Next to basket-making, pottery work was of the greatest assistance. This craft helped cure in many ways. For one thing, it gave an easy and interesting occupation. For another, it restored confidence, when the patient found that he could make things that his doctor could not. Again, it gave healthy exercise and allowed the brain to work out original ideas and put them into practice. Perhaps the great thing was, that, at the end of the labour, the patient possessed an object that even the doctors wanted, and that he could raise money on if he so wished. The method of making pottery by these shell-shocked men was simple in the extreme and had no connection with public money making. As the hospital was out on the moors, there was no gas or electricity for firing. There was no factory at which to buy ready prepared clay, and there were no shops to run to when the glaze supplied failed. It was a self-made affair from beginning to end. The first thing that had to be seen to was the making of a kiln. It was found that amongst the patients were bricklayers, who were capable, under strict supervision, of laying the bricks. This was done from a simple plan of a small brick kiln, of the kind generally used as an experimental one for brick factories. It had been proved quite successful in Cornwall, where I had worked with my friend Gladys Reynell.
After the kiln was built, the next thing was to get the clay. This meant that all the patients who could walk would carry pieces of sacking or bags and shovels. As the hospital was in Devon, the finding of clay was no bother. (By the way, there is plenty of rough clay in our Australian ranges not suitable for commercial pottery perhaps, but quite useful for amateur work). At the end of the walk, the men would hump the clay on their backs, and then go back to the shed. Sometimes when the men were not able to carry the clay, a cart and horse would be begged from the farmer nearby, but generally we humped it back ourselves. When the clay arrived at the shed it was thrown into an old wooden tub and covered with water. The next day it was stirred by hands that needed such gentle treatment as the pressing together of some such substance as liquid mud. Memory goes back to one poor “Tommy” who had decided that his hands could not move. When they were gently “pushed” into this mud, he quickly decided to pull them out and use them on the “pusher,” who was myself. The doctor rushed to the rescue and took away a soldier who had been partly cured of a difficult complex.
After the men had mixed the mud and water to the consistency of a very thick cream, they scrubbed it through three different meshes (sieves). This left all the stones and rubbish in the sieves to be thrown away. The clean clay was then put into bags and hung in the sun to allow the water to drip out. After some days it was brought into the pottery shed and put on a table, where it was beaten and thrashed to get all the air out, and to set the clay in a fine smooth mass for work. Then the wheel had to be made, and the wheel was as primitive as the rest of the materials. It consisted of an iron shaft with a circular flat piece of iron attached to the top. This shaft had another length of iron joined to it half-way. The iron had a handle at its free end, which turned the shaft round and so revolved the circular plate at the top. The whole was enclosed in a box, which had a shelf and ledges that held the clay ready for throwing. One soldier would turn the handle, while another threw on the wheel. It would hardly seem possible that turning a wheel would start a cure in a case of badly shaking nerves, but this happened.
Many doctors visited the pottery shed either to see their patients, or to study how the scheme worked. There were also different visitors. Amongst these was John Galsworthy, who edited a kind of shell-shock paper. When Galsworthy’s visit was expected, the most shaking patient was put on to turn the wheel. This man had been for two years a martyr to the most convulsive shaking. It was discovered that he had one decided trait —an extreme personal vanity. When Galsworthy arrived with secretary and photographer complete, this patient was asked to try and keep still, and to look at a new pair of silk laces that had been put in his shoes. He did so, exercising a tremendous will so that the photograph should not be a failure. His doctor counted the seconds that became minutes, and another patient was taken away, well on the road to a cure that later became permanent. This man’s work is now in the War Museum in London.
Many men did not like throwing on the wheel. They were shown how to make objects by winding sausages of clay together. Some of these men produced fantastic animals and grim creatures that would have turned Dali green with envy. The doctors found these efforts interesting, and would try to get the men to part with them, but none of them would do so. They are to be found in unexpected places, such as miners’ homes and policemen’s barracks, where they remind their owners of the pottery shed at Seale Hayne Hospital on the Devon moors.
The kiln was used once a week. The firing was of wood or coal, and the glaze used for the pottery was of borax. It did not take long to cook the pots. Twelve hours, or perhaps a little longer, were enough, as the clay was of a low-firing grade. The morning the bricked-up door of the kiln was opened saw a scene like a village fair. Doctors with their patients of the pottery shed, and others not associated with the shed, would turn up in full force to see the results. The bidding of the soldiers to try and get possession of the precious objects was amusing. The doctors would offer large sums to try and get some, but they could hardly ever, if at all, part the pots from their makers. The kiln was later pulled down. Alas, it seems as if it may have to be rebuilt for other “Tommies.”
Other crafts interested the men. One was simple dyeing. This meant long walks on the moors, looking for plants that would give dyes. Sorrel was found to give a yellow, and the bulbs of the white iris a good black. These were brought back to the shed, cooked in jam tins, and later fixed with a mordant of common salt, alum, or some simple chemical. Thus the dye would not come out of the cloth when it was washed.
Dyeing was used in conjunction with batik work. A piece of unbleached calico would have a simple design drawn on it. This was retraced with hot wax, which was contained in tins that had lips to them. These were kept liquid over methylated spirit stoves. When the design had been waxed, the cloth was put into the boiling dye for a few minutes; then taken out and washed with soap and water. Any wax left on was scraped off with a knife. Cushion covers were generally the greatest extent of our ambitions. Wood-cutting was another craft that helped things along. There being no money for anything, everything that could be made to do was used. Cigar-box lids, old pieces of furniture that could be cut into shapes; any wood that had a fine grain – all was gratefully accepted.
The paint would be rubbed on an old tray with a photographer’s squeegee, and then over the upstanding design of the wood. A piece of dampened paper would be put on this, and rolled over with a clean roller. The paper was taken off, and the results shown around for criticism. Monotypes were also popular, as they caused no excessive expenditure of energy. This craft was done with a small piece of plate glass, zinc or copper, a soft hair brush, a roller, a rag, and some blotting paper. The worker began by rubbing a little oil and paint on to the glass. This he tried to get fairly even. Then he drew his design on to this, wiping out the white parts to be, and the highlights with the rag. Then he quickly placed a piece of paper on this drawing, rolled it over with his roller, and pulled it off the face of the glass. Many made Christmas Cards this way. The cards were of course unique, as it is only possible to get one copy by this method.
Then there were other crafts to interest the men. Stencilling was one. All the crafts are better than that horrible work known as crewel [embroidery] work. The most pathetic thing was to see a big wounded soldier plugging away in crewels at the motto, “God Bless our Happy Home,” which was often to be seen in the war hospitals.
This is an article on “crafts that help.” It is the moment to prepare for such work. As this is a personal article, it is not out of place to give advice on such matters. The Arts and Crafts Society are the people to be consulted. In New South Wales, Miss Florence Sulman, the president of this society, is always willing to help. She is extremely competent to do so.