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The family scene

8 September 2016

Traudi Allen discovers sensitivity, humour and fine draughtsmanship in the portraiture of John Perceval.

Woman with Fair Hair and Pink Cardigan, 1949 by John Perceval.
Woman with Fair Hair and Pink Cardigan, 1949 by John Perceval.

In the 1940s, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd were locating their friends and relations in part-known, part-imagined narratives, while at the same time also working on conventional portraiture. Informing their approach was study at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in 1949.

Perceval painted approximately thirty head portraits during his six months at the school. His teacher, Alan Sumner, who worked under the directorship of the well-known portraitist and multiple Archibald Prize winner, Sir William Dargie, treated the teacher-pupil relationship as one between equals, given that his student had an established painting reputation. Nevertheless, Sumner also insisted upon what he judged to be the basic tenets of drawing, as developed during his own studies under George Bell. Bell’s experiments in technique must therefore be considered significant, since Perceval’s acquaintance with them from various sources pre-dates Tucker’s discovery of Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist, which, first published in 1934 and revised in 1949, is often mentioned as central to all their methods. This connection relies only on a letter from Boyd to the NGV’s Ursula Hoff, written in 1966. Art historian Richard Haese argues that Tucker’s use of Doerner was to find cheaper materials, and that Boyd’s emulation of an Old Master finish by means of tempera and oil occurred as a result of Tucker introducing him to Doerner.

However, in Perceval’s National Gallery head studies and the change in style they exemplify, it is clear he was substantially influenced in this same regard by the methods of his teacher, Sumner. Sumner’s emphasis was on harmonious balance and proportion, a softening of tones and the use of underpaint. An attitude of greater care in all matters was demanded: distilled water for Perceval’s egg tempera mix, for example, rather than the stale liquid in which he had stood his paintbrushes.

The Oldest Student at the National Gallery Art School 1949, by John Perceval

Upon admission, Perceval joined what was called the ‘Head School’, and one of the most successful portraits he painted there was Woman with Fair Hair and Pink Cardigan (1949). His treatment demonstrates a fine and painstaking approach to the portrait that is not seen at any other time – a modification that was no doubt a result of Sumner’s influence. 

The combination of study at the school and Perceval’s own reading gave these National Gallery portraits a fifteenth-century quality. The tempera mix was absorbed when applied over a half-chalk ground, and produced a soft, ‘old-fashioned’ finish. Contributing to this effect is a delicate brushstroke and the placement of the busts against a dark background, creating a flattening of the features.

Perceval showed he observed his subjects carefully and with a gentle sensitivity. His young subject in Woman with Fair Hair and Pink Cardigan is given a smooth softness to her cheeks that is achieved not only by colour, but also by texture. For the face of The Oldest Student at the National Gallery Art School (1949) he used a thick, scumbled egg tempera to give her skin a pitted and aged quality.

Portraits drawn or painted before his attendance at the art school are more ambitious and expressive. He revealed his perceptual orientation in a portrait of his mother-in-law, Doris Boyd (1948), here shown with clenched hands and pleading eyes. Her left eye is larger than her right, to the extent that in life it would constitute a marked abnormality – and Perceval would have failed by Head School standards – but here it adds character. Though she was known for her intensely blue eyes, he painted them the deepest black, perhaps because there was no blue left in his palette and he had either no time or no money to replace it. The brushstrokes are crude compared with those employed while he was a student, but her feelings, or at least Perceval’s understanding of them, become his subject.

In a pencil sketch of his father-in-law titled Merric Boyd (1945), contrasting moods are shown: after one drawing was completed the paper was turned to make space for another until it was filled in the Old Master manner and, given his impecunious circumstances, saved paper. Perceval’s sense of humour and his subject’s extreme eccentricity, along with periodic bouts of epilepsy, suggest there was some mischief involved in this pencil portrait. The upper Boyd persona is relatively benign; the lower version is not. In the lower portrait, the moustache is stern and the expression a little ‘Hitler-cum-Chaplin’. The hair has awkward strands that stand upright and his jacket whirls across his body. The other Merric Boyd is more relaxed, his hair falling carelessly about his balding head and the flesh around his jowls sagging amenably. His eyebrows and mouth curl with kindness and his moustache stands firm but unperturbed, as if thick with coffee or soup.

Perceval’s easy, amusing and affectionate line takes a charming turn in the quietest moments, when he draws his children. Here, with sensitivity, humour and fine draughtsmanship, they arguably take a pre-eminent place among the best in Australian drawing. In Children Eating (1949), his son and daughter, Matthew and Tessa, concentrate on the full bowls of food before them. The little girl, with her arm over her brother’s, might be about to stake her claim on his dessert, but the battle has not yet begun. Here we see the variously annoying, amusing and delightful naughtiness of children. Again, in Matthew Perceval (1950), there is the essence of the child aged five: his unruly hair, the clothes that are worn with a child’s untidiness, and the drop of saliva falling from his lips as he focuses on his food, detail that occurs again in three-dimensional form in Perceval’s ceramic Angels.

In 1947 and 1948, Perceval and Boyd integrated known places and the people who inhabited them with images from several centuries before, translated via the treatment of similar subjects in modern Europe. Perceval’s interest in the work of Hogarth also becomes most evident at this time. Indeed, an account of Hogarth’s aims and art might read as if referring to Perceval. There is an interest in literary allusion, the telling of a moral tale, plus occasional topical reference, as well as the inclusion of characters telling of the artist’s life. Certain vignettes revive the ‘conversation piece’, of which Hogarth was a major exponent. As the English variant of the Dutch genre style, the focus is on one or more family members and friends engaged in a common domestic routine, or, as was often the case, an outdoors activity. But Perceval frequently replaced a literary reference with iconographic or thematic elements from twentieth-century cinema.

In keeping with the Hogarth model, Perceval’s friends and relations are often identifiable. Tom Sanders, later to become a fellow potter at Murrumbeena, sits at the right-hand side of Christ in Christ Dining at Young and Jacksons. Perceval appoints himself as Simon Peter, who taps Saint John on the shoulder in Leonardo’s Last Supper (1494–98), and someone looking like Albert Tucker asks for more. A table is about to be turned and money spilt, as in the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ parable, in which Jesus is said to have driven out the moneychangers. Betty Burstall, married to the filmmaker Tim Burstall, and later known for her work as theatrical manager of La Mama in Melbourne, is portrayed as the serving girl. It is not surprising she gets a starring role in an all-male biblical story, as there had been an affair. Tim had worked as a ceramics decorator at the Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery, and the Percevals and Burstalls became close friends. In a milieu of constant social interaction, from the mostly male pursuit of drinking at the Swanston Family pub – on the corner of Swanston and Little Bourke streets in Melbourne – to parties at one another’s houses, Perceval developed a clandestine affair with Burstall’s wife, Betty, but, unbeknown to him and Burstall, they were both having affairs with each other’s wives.

Tintoretto’s disciples in The Last Supper (1592–94) are so dramatic in their expression of sorrow for Christ’s earthly demise that Perceval’s, by comparison, appear overly casual. They are again quite unlike the restrained men who attend the table in Leonardo’s Last Supper. Perceval’s facetiousness in setting his dinner in Australiana also involves art historical detail beyond the obvious Leonardo and Tintoretto antecedents. He built archways into the Young and Jackson dining hall, as El Greco did in Christ Cleansing the Temple (c.1570), and placed an Australian counterpart to the sculptural reliefs that El Greco included as his homage to an earlier master. Melbourne’s notorious nude Chloé, painted in 1875 by Jules Lefebvre, is seen through the far arch. The irony of her notoriety would not have escaped Perceval, since she is naked and adored, but her genitals are not included, as if ‘air-brushed out’ by the artist.

An unflattering sketch of Arthur Boyd standing beside the Dodge car he passed on to Perceval is shown at centre left of The Revellers (1947–48). In mood and general composition, the scene refers to The Peasant Wedding Dance (1607) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who based his work on a peasant wedding dance painting by his father. From the younger Brueghel comes the basic composition, including the deciduous tree trunks, the central table and the milling crowd, but the scene is also late afternoon at Melbourne’s Rosstown Hotel at 1084 Dandenong Road, Carnegie. It was the hotel’s proximity to the Murrumbeena pottery that led the potters to join its crowd in the late 1940s. Barry Humphries (lower right) and a balding man with white hair hold onto each other as they share a joke.

Flight into Egypt 1947, by John Perceval

The entire Perceval family appears in the very different atmosphere of Flight into Egypt, based on the biblical account from Saint Matthew’s Gospel.  As in other paintings, the narrative involves a dream. This time it is Joseph’s and he is warned by the Lord that he needs to flee to Egypt because Herod, on hearing his child may become a leader and threaten his throne, wishes to kill him. The painting follows many on the subject by Lorrain, Annibale Carracci, Poussin and Caravaggio, but there are details coinciding with the version by the German artist Adam Elsheimer that suggest his was the most influential to Perceval, who mentioned him again in the development of the ceramic Angels.

Elsheimer’s The Flight into Egypt (c.1609), in oil on copper, is powerfully striking. Perceval has the family fleeing at night, while the event is usually portrayed as occurring during the day. Elsheimer’s moon and its reflection are replaced by an enormously brilliant one after van Gogh. Mary Perceval performs the role of her namesake, the Israelite mother with her first born, while Joseph, who holds up a torch to light their passage, is Perceval himself – with angel wings attached. In donning wings, he foreshadows the role played by his children as models for his ceramic Angels ten years later. A comparison with Nolan’s Flight into Egypt of 1951 is interesting for its objectivity and relative lack of fluency and personal drama.

Mirka’s Studio 1961, by John Perceval

A painting of Mirka Mora hidden among the clutter of her studio, in Mirka’s Studio (1961), brings together the good-humoured chaos of both studio owner and the painter of her portrait, and is as good a likeness as a character study. Mora is lost behind her easel, among the panoply of possessions that read like a child’s spot-the-item. From the chests of drawers that heave with clutter, to Mora’s own paintings that also included angels, to the worn books, the musical instrument, one of Perceval’s own goblets featuring a face, and even the view of the street through the glass shutters, everything is on an angle and fighting for space. Mora’s studio at 9 Collins Street, Melbourne – home to herself and her husband, the gallery director Georges Mora – became the headquarters of the Contemporary Art Society, but one can only wonder where they found space to sit. As he suggests in his painting, Perceval and Mora were just as chaotically and creatively hilarious when they were together. As a friend of theirs recalls, one evening at a dinner party they both disappeared from the table without explanation, resuming their seats some time later wearing each other’s clothes.

The Kathy series of 1964, featuring Perceval’s model and occasional mistress, constitutes a further stage in the unravelling and fragmentation of the standard portrait. Although the figure is intact, two aspects of her personality are shown: the first as she appears in the flesh, and the second as her image is reflected in the mirror. The white underpainting of her skin is blotched in a wide range of pastel hues, with strokes of every possible shape. Her hair falls over her shoulders and becomes detached from its roots. The wallpaper pattern runs over her legs, and segmented flowers and swirls representing the compromised light of the chandelier clothe her like a veil. 

By the 1960s the painted portrait, as opposed to the pencil sketch, is largely abandoned but one of the most interesting is an affectionate oil sketch of the gardener at the Australian National University, painted while Perceval was Creative Fellow there in 1966. He clearly found ‘Mr Dooley the Gardener’ an appealing subject, and one might question how much he added to his character and appearance by giving him quirky features like a highly patterned jumper, a very wide brimmed hat, bulky fingers on his weeding hand and extra tines for his oversized rake. In holding his rake upended beside him, Mr Dooley mimics the all-American character in the Grant Wood painting of 1930, and in so doing creates an ‘Australian Gothic’. Although portraiture is not a major feature of the Perceval oeuvre, it occurs throughout, changing and developing in synchrony with the landscape. It reveals sweet, humorous and sensitive sides of an artist better known as a brusque enfant terrible of the ‘Angry Penguins’ modernist movement.

The above is an edited extract from John Perceval: Art and Life, MUP, 2015 by Dr Traudi Allen. All images courtesy the author, © the estate of John Perceval.