Preston, Margaret Rose (c. 1875–1963)

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Preston, Margaret Rose (c. 1875–1963)

Australian painter and graphic artist. Born Margaret Rose McPherson in Adelaide, Australia, on April 29, 1875 (also seen as 1883); died in 1963; older of two daughters of David McPherson (a marine engineer) and Prudence (Lyle) McPherson; attended the Fort Street School, Sydney, Australia; studied art at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and the Adelaide School of Design; married William George Preston, in 1919; no children.

A celebrated painter and one of the first Australians to recognize the beauty and value of Aboriginal art, Margaret Rose Preston was born Margaret Rose McPherson around 1875 in Adelaide and received classical art training at the Victoria Art School and the Adelaide School of Design. Supporting herself by teaching, she was intent on becoming the finest still-life painter in the world. In 1904, Preston embarked on her first trip to Europe, and was shocked by the modernists she found there. It was not until a second extended visit abroad (1912–19) that she began to move away from her traditional training to explore alternative modes of expression. During her stay, she studied Japanese prints at the Musée Guimet and experimented with lyrical, post-impressionist still lifes. While living in England during World War I, she further developed her skills as a colorist.

In 1919, back in Australia, Margaret wed William George Preston, a well-established gentleman of some means. The marriage, a late one by the standards of the time, freed Preston financially for the first time, thus allowing her to concentrate totally on her art. Settling in Sydney with her new husband, she pursued her painting and printmaking, but also tried her hand at interior decoration, fabric design, and even flower arrangement. It was now her turn to challenge the 19th-century traditionalism of Australian art, and she did so with a series of decorative and technically adventurous still lifes. "Characteristic of these was an interest in asymmetry and patterning," explains Elizabeth Butel in 200 Australian Women, "the close-up observation of natural patterns and particular flora and an increasing austerity of design allied to colour raised to an intense pitch."

Preston was also attracted to the strong design and conceptual nature of Aboriginal art, which she viewed as the basis of a truly indigenous national art. Through her relationship with Sydney Ure Smith, publisher of the journals Art in Australia, The Home, and Australia National Journal, she advanced her theories about Aboriginal art, as well as art in general. The rhythms, colors, and symbols of Aboriginal art also strongly influenced her own later work. She abandoned the sumptuous color she had used in the 1920s, supplanting it with a more monochromatic palette, and employed simplified forms. As Butel points out, however, she was never a slave to her own style and experimented with new mediums as they attracted her attention.

In addition to her travel in Australia, Preston ventured to southeast Asia, China, India, Japan, and the Americas. Outspoken and competitive, she was always a controversial figure in the art circles she frequented. She died in 1963.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts