November 2008

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Thea Proctor & Margaret Preston

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Until the cakes started to fly, the two artists were something of a mutual admiration society.

Thea Proctor was elegant, tasteful and generous, while Margaret Preston was flamboyant and stubbornly single-minded. One painted ladies on fans, the other preferred bottlebrush and banksia. But temperament and subject matter aside, they had much in common. Both were in their forties; each had spent many years abroad, soaking up techniques in the cultural capitals of Europe; both were well-known exponents of modernism, albeit in feminised forms.

Australia, Proctor declared, should be grateful to Preston for having rescued its wildflowers from the "rut of disgrace". Preston rendered Proctor's teapot in oils and showed her the mysteries of Japanese-style woodblock prints.

They first met in Sydney in the early '20s, recent expatriates fired with a desire to awaken Australia to the innovations they had encountered abroad. Instrumental in founding the Contemporary Group, they collaborated on articles and illustrations for Home, a decor magazine for the nation's more modish ladies. And although Proctor urged Australian artists to seek their place in the international modernist movement, whereas Preston advocated a national approach based on native vegetation and Aboriginal motifs, both were regarded as pushing the boundaries of Australian art.

The pairing reached its apogee in 1925, when the two held joint exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. Public reaction was gratifying but the big public galleries were slow to extend their recognition. If the starchy trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales were impressed enough to buy their work, it would be a victory for modernism and a feather in their individual chapeaux.

Proctor's studio shared the same George Street building as the Grosvenor Galleries, and they invited friends to join them there for tea after the opening. Margaret arrived bearing a box of cakes, asking immediately if the trustees had been and, if so, what they bought. Somewhat abashed, Thea was forced to admit that the grand arbiters had indeed decided to acquire a picture, and it was one of hers.

At this news, Margaret spat the dummy. She flung the cakes at Thea, turned on her heels, stormed out and disappeared "like Mephistopheles in a puff of smoke".

The careers of both artists continued to flourish, if not their friendship. In 1938, Proctor did not even mention Preston in an article on Sydney's outstanding modernist artists, except to say: "Mrs Preston's work is already widely known." To this day, postcards of Preston prints are consistent sellers in the gift shop of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: November 2008

November 2008

From the front page

Media unites

Legislation is needed urgently to protect the public’s right to know

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Vanishing voices

The cultural damage of homogenising language

Illustration

At home in the Antarctic

The screenwriters living with the crew of Mawson station

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Following Menzies

‘The Slap’, By Christos Tsiolkas, Allen and Unwin, 496pp;$32.95

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ursa major

What might have been

Kate Grenville’s ‘The Lieutenant’

Read on

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

Image of Quarterly Essay 74, ‘The Prosperity Gospel’, by Erik Jensen

Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Fleabag’

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest

Image of Costume at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Costume

The Tasmanian electro-orchestral pop artist makes a beguiling debut in Hobart


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