Menzies Art Brands



John Percevals maritime scenes, which capture the chaos and joy of the docks at Williamstown, are considered the pinnacle of his eminent career. They are among the most jubilant depictions of the Australian landscape, which is more often portrayed as vast and desolate. Instead of endless deserts or expansive hills, Perceval depicts a bustling scene of industry.

Tugboats were a particular favourite of Perceval, and it is easy to see why. Used to tow larger ships within harbours, their small size paired with immense strength gives them a charming anthropomorphic quality. Often adorned with hanging tyres to cushion the impact of the hull against ships or docks, their decorated forms are instantly appealing to any painter. They are a motif which Perceval returned to repeatedly, as shown by the two vibrant examples offered in this auction: Tug Boat 1990 (Lot 83), and the major example Tug Boat Smoke (Lot 32). The National Gallery of Victoria collection also holds an early example, Tug Boat in a Boat 1956, demonstrating that Percevals Williamstown scenes are an essential element of any comprehensive collection of Australian art.

Perceval discovered Williamstown after acquiring a car in 1955 at age thirty-two. Located at the mouth of Melbournes Yarra River, Williamstown is a rambling port with shipyards, docks, piers, and a rocky shoreline punctuated by buoys and ship masts. Perceval is quoted as having said that finding Williamston, was like finding Venice.1 The original Williamstown landscapes formed Percevals first solo exhibition in 1956 at Australian Galleries. This exhibition also marked the opening of Australian Galleries by Tam and Anne Purves, a significant moment in the Australian art markets history.2 Following this moment of creative inception, Perceval would revisit the subject of Williamstown at various points throughout the ensuing decades (in the late 1950s, late 1960s, 1980s, and early 1990s), solidifying it as the subject with which he is most frequently associated.

Art historian Margaret Plants description of Percevals Williamstown works reads as a fitting analysis of the present painting, Tug Boat Smoke: It is clear that the painter intends his audience to enjoy his painting, to respond to the warmth and blueness of the scene, to want to mess around in boats, to enjoy the vigour and spontaneity of the alla prima way of painting.'3 Indeed, the pier jutting into the composition from the lower right seems to invite the viewer to walk into the sunny scene. The movement of the air and sea is palpable in the soaring seagulls, the lapping waves, and the swirling smoke.

Percevals Williamstown paintings show a distinct admiration for Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). His use of thick impasto and strong colours emanate from van Goghs style, resulting in similarly vibrant, kaleidoscopic scenes. The rich blues and warm yellows of Tug Boat Smoke are particularly reminiscent of similar colour palettes in van Goghs Wheatfield with Crows 1890 and even The Starry Night 1889. Percevals biographer, Traudi Allen commends his exuberant landscapes for their individualistic interpretation of impressionist colour techniques, fauve patterning, and vigorous and seemingly careless brushstrokes, which together produce the often quoted sense of joie de vivre.4 Tug Boat Smoke epitomises this joyful, dynamic style for which Perceval is most admired.

1. John Perceval, quoted in Plant, M., John Perceval, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971, p.52
2. Allen, T., John Perceval: Art and Life, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015, p.125
3. Plant, M., op. cit., p.52
4. Allen, T., John Perceval Painting and Poetry, in John Perceval: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1984, p.4

Asta Cameron

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