39. JOHN PERCEVAL
John Perceval’s Williamstown series of paintings form a coveted collection of works. Most of the thirty or so paintings that he produced around Williamstown and the mouth of the Yarra River during 1956 to 1959 are held either in major public collections or were acquired early on by astute private collectors. It is a rarity to find these privately owned works of the highest rank coming into public view. The Williamstown paintings are rightly regarded as quintessentially Perceval. They figure among his best and most accomplished works and the current painting on offer proves no exception to the rule.
The Moored Shark Boat, 1959, is a distinguished painting with impeccable provenance and an exciting exhibition history. The work was acquired directly from the artist in November 1960 along with another major Williamstown work – one of the Old Hulk paintings – and a ceramic sculpture. While The Hulk, c1959, was sold following the death of the original owner in the late 1960s, The Moored Shark Boat has remained in the possession of his family to the present day.1
The Moored Shark Boat had a busy eighteen month period before it went out of public view. It was listed as one of the six Williamstown paintings and a selection of ceramic Angels that Perceval included in the famous Antipodeans exhibition held at the Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, in August 1959. Inscriptions on the back of the frame indicate that this work was also included in John Perceval’s first solo exhibition in Brisbane held in the following year. This was at the Bowen Hills Gallery co-owned by Brian and Marjorie Johnstone. The two week exhibition (30 August – 16 September 1960) included a selection of at least 13 major paintings: an early masterpiece, Xmas Eve 1948, recent works such as Swans at Williamstown 1956, and paintings completed in the same year as the exhibition including Spiky Moses Heath and Honey Eaters 1960.
The Johnstone Gallery was developed from humble beginnings to become Brisbane’s most adventurous showcase for modern art. There was a strong connection with Melbourne artists and Perceval was one of a number, including Arthur Boyd (1920-1999)and Clifton Pugh (1924-1990), who were offered solo exhibitions from the mid to late-1950s. John Perceval went to Brisbane in July 1959 and stayed with fellow artist Jon Molvig (1923-1970)2 and prepared works for the show. This included works painted in Queensland such as Brisbane Creek (Homage to Doris Boyd, 1960. The exhibition received favourable commentary in the Brisbane press and heralded Perceval as a painter rich in quality capable of capturing “dancing light” but also as someone who had ‘a deeper appreciation of mood and feeling’.3 The Moored Shark Boat was presumably taken to Brisbane by Perceval but was snapped up by an eager Melbourne collector straight after its return south.4
The first group of Williamstown paintings date from 1956. Perceval’s early biographer Margaret Plant noted in her 1971 monograph that these works represented a major change in his oeuvre: ‘Pure colour and swinging line place them amongst the most jubilant landscapes to be painted in Australia’, she remarked, ‘bearing the marks of the post-impressionist, expressionist and fauvist landscapes of Europe’.5 The 1959 series continued with the optimism of the 1956 pictures and their vigour, spontaneity and alla prima (wet on wet) method. These later works also featured even stronger contrasts of colour and some more adventurous compositions.
The Moored Shark Boat shares much in common with Ship in the River, 1959. The latter work was acquired by Dunlop Rubber Australia Ltd and featured on the front cover of Perceval’s 1966 retrospective exhibition catalogue at the Australian National University, Canberra.6 In both works we see a close-up view of a large vessel moored to a wharf. To the rear is the familiar industrial skyline of Melbourne including factories, warehouses and chimneys assembled in a row under a Constable-like sky. Each work features the rust-covered stern of the boat and Perceval simulates the surrounding ebb and flow of water by creating heavily impastoed swirling lines and using white paint squeezed directly from the tube.
The Moored Shark Boat is clearly distinguishable in the way that it incorporates the broad orthogonal mass of the jetty and a cacophony of bright Fauvist-inspired colours: bright yellow balls, an orange buoy, mauve boxes and an unusual multi-coloured anchor drawn in the shape of a heart. Combined with these intense colour combinations were Perceval’s familiar maritime metal chains, ropes and rigging. They add tactility to the picture and a greater physical presence to the overall scene.
In the catalogue introduction to Perceval’s 1966 retrospective exhibition influential art historian and critic Bernard Smith noted that Perceval had developed ‘a kind of action painting controlled by visual intuitions rather than by the subconscious processes of the mind.’ This ‘joyous celebration of the visible’ world that Smith detected in Perceval’s Williamstown paintings refers back to the essay he wrote previously for the Antipodeans exhibition in 1959.7
John Perceval and his six co-exhibitors had come together with Smith to defend the image in art and to reject some of the tenets of contemporary abstraction that were taking hold throughout Australia and the western world. In his catalogue essay for the Antipodeans Manifesto Smith boldly proposed that the art of ‘Tachistes, Action Painters, Geometric Abstractionists, [and] Abstract Expressionists’ was ‘not an art sufficient for our time ... not an art for living men’. Ironically, however, Perceval was closer to the latter in his own methodology than most of the painters in the Antipodeans show. Perceval disavowed the action painter tag for his work, preferring to couch himself as an artist who responded directly and immediately to the visible world. However the rapidity of execution and dynamism that characterised his work firmly placed him, if not in their camp, as a fellow traveller.
Looking back at the controversy that surrounded the 1959 Antipodeans exhibition it is easy to forget the ferocity of convictions that fuelled Australian art debate in the late 1950s and early 60s. Vilified by conservative critics for being too modern and by some abstract artists for being too traditional, artists like Perceval occupied the middle ground. Perceval was a painter who responded to his immediate surroundings in the most direct and emotionally charged way. The Moored Shark Boat shows how he embraced new methods to respond to familiar things. It is a testament to his skills as a colourist, his vivacious application of paint and records a heightened emotional response to a place he had come to love.
1. The Moored Shark Boat was known by this title in family circles however it is now unclear which version of The Hulk they once owned
2. Churcher, B., John Molvig: The Lost Antipodean, Penguin, Ringwood, 1984
3. Hayson, M., ‘Painter rich in quality’; Langer, G., ‘Perceval’s landscapes’; and Rogers, F., ‘He startles with colour’. Undated newspaper clippings, The Johnstone Gallery Archive, RBHARC 7/1/4, p.50, State Library of Queensland. See also Martin-Chew, L., Like Topsy: The Johnstone Gallery 1950-1972, Master of Arts thesis, James Cook University, Queensland, 2001
4. Family records indicate that the painting came into their possession around 6 November 1960. The following information was inscribed on cards: ‘“Old Hulk”
125 pounds’ and ‘“Shark Boat 75 pounds ... 200 pounds for both”’. The figure for Shark Boat tarries with the listed price (150gns) for The Moored Shark Boat during the Antipodeans exhibition in 1959
5. Plant, M., John Perceval, Landsdowne, East Melbourne, 1971, p.52
6. Ship in the River, 1959, oil on composition board, 91.5 x 122 cm, illus. Cover ANU
and Department of Interior, Canberra, 1966
7. Smith, B., John Perceval, Cover ANU and Department of Interior, Canberra, 1966, unpaginated
BA (Hons), MA
The author wishes to thank Joan Bruce, Queensland Literature Coordinator, Queensland Memory, State Library of Queensland and Louise Martin-Chew, Director, Arthouse, for their assistance with the research of this essay.