38. JOHN PERCEVAL
A member of the Angry Penguins and the Antipodeans, John Perceval’s place in Australian art history is significant. His career is littered with accolades; most notably, winning the Wynne Prize in 1960 and being made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1991 for service to the arts. Despite this success, Perceval’s life was bookended by unhappiness; a protracted period of artistic success lay between a turbulent childhood and a descent into alcoholism and mental illness in later life.
Perhaps the most fateful moment of Perceval’s young life was when he befriended Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) in the Citizen Military Forces at age 18, and subsequently moved into the Boyd family home in Murrumbeena. Here he gained artistic and intellectual stimulation, connections to John and Sunday Reed and their inspired milieu, and even a wife in Boyd’s sister Mary, whom he married in 1944. Boyd and Perceval established the Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery in Murrumbeena and throughout the late 1940s produced earthenware ceramics together.1 Both artists worked in distinctly inspired series, such as religious subjects or particular landscapes. For example, Boyd consistently returned to painting the Wimmera and Shoalhaven, while Perceval made Williamstown his own.
Perceval first discovered Williamstown after acquiring a car in 1955 at age thirty-two. Located at the mouth of Melbourne’s Yarra River, Williamstown is a rambling and endearing port with shipyards, docks, piers and a rocky shoreline punctuated by buoys and triangular maritime markers, as depicted in the present work. Perceval is quoted as having said that finding Williamston ‘was like finding Venice.’2 The original Williamstown landscapes formed Perceval’s first solo exhibition in 1956 at Australian Galleries. This exhibition also marked the opening of Australian Galleries by Tom and Anne Purves, a significant moment in the Australian art market’s history.3 His second lot of Williamstown paintings were exhibited in 1959. After a period in London then in Canberra, Perceval returned to painting Williamstown in the mid to late 1960s, then again in the 1980s, solidifying it as the subject with which he is most frequently associated.
Perceval’s Williamstown paintings, including the effervescent Fishermen and their Catch, Williamstown, show a distinct admiration for Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Perceval’s use of thick impasto and strong colours plainly emanate from van Gogh’s style, resulting in similarly vibrant, kaleidoscopic landscapes. They are among the most jubilant depictions of the Australian landscape, which is undoubtedly why so many have found their way into the most important collections of Australian art. In this particular example, Perceval has further added to the light-hearted joy of the scene by utilising real seashells at various points on the canvas (left centre, lower centre, and lower right). The third dimension of the shells almost goes unnoticed amongst the thick impasto paint and the already teeming composition. Author and art critic, Margaret Plant, said of Perceval’s Williamstown works, ‘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.'4Fishermen and their Catch, Williamstown perfectly exemplifies this description, a painting clearly from an artist at his best.
1. Allen, T., John Perceval: Art and Life, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015, p.3
2. John Perceval as cited in Plant, M., John Perceval, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971, p.52
3. Allen, T., John Perceval: Art and Life, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2015, p.125
4. Plant, M., John Perceval, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971, p.52
Asta Cameron BA, MA (Art Curatorship)