Margaret PRESTON, Flying over the Shoalhaven River Enlarge 1 /1

Margaret PRESTON

Port Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1875 – Mosman, New South Wales, Australia 1963

  • Germany and France 1904-07
  • France, England and Ireland 1912-19

Flying over the Shoalhaven River [Flying over the Shoalhaven] 1942 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed and dated l.l., pencil "M. Preston/ 1942"
Dimensions: 50.6 h x 50.6 w framed (overall) 68.6 h x 68.6 w x 6.8 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 73.21
Image rights: © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. Licensed by Viscopy

Flying over the Shoalhaven River may have been the result of plane travel, but it is also likely to have been inspired by Preston’s understanding of Indigenous Australian and Chinese modes of representing the landscape from above. The work is a timeless depiction of space: the overcast sky is mirrored in the silvery, meandering stretch of river, and ephemeral, ever-changing clouds pass between the viewer and the landscape, casting shadows on the earth.

Flattened areas of colour and strong lines reflect Preston’s interest in design and woodblock printing. She has suggested the Australian bush with dabs and dots of paint, applying an earthy palette of browns, greys and ochres.

A leading modernist artist between the wars, Margaret Preston made many paintings and prints displaying strong design and simplified forms. During the Second World War Preston, like many others, developed a strong nationalist sentiment and in 1942 published an article titled ‘The orientation of art in the post-war Pacific’. In this article she argued for the development of a ‘national Australian culture’ through an exchange of ideas between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. She also suggested that Australians should actively exchange ideas with their Asian neighbours.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

Flying over the Shoalhaven River may have been the result of plane travel, but it is also likely to have been inspired by Margaret Preston’s understanding of Indigenous Australian and Chinese modes of representing the landscape from above. The work is a timeless depiction of space: the overcast sky is mirrored in the silvery, meandering stretch of river, and ephemeral, ever-changing clouds pass between the viewer and the landscape, casting shadows on the earth.

Flattened areas of colour and strong lines reflect Preston’s interest in design and woodblock printing. She has suggested the Australian bush with dabs and dots of paint, applying an earthy palette of browns, greys and ochres.

A leading modernist artist between the wars, Preston made many paintings and prints displaying strong design and simplified forms. During the Second World War, Preston, like many others, developed a strong nationalist sentiment and in 1942 published an article titled ‘The orientation of art in the post-war Pacific’. In this article she argued for the development of a ‘national Australian culture’ through an exchange of ideas between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. She also suggested that Australians should actively exchange ideas with their Asian neighbours.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

Margaret Preston was the leading protagonist for Modernism in Sydney between the wars. She created many still lifes that emphasised strong design and simplified forms.

In her 1942 article ‘The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific’, Preston argued that, although Australian artists could draw on the art of the country’s Indigenous peoples, ‘it is necessary that they should seek from other sources knowledge and inspiration for their craft, thereby combining to produce a National Australian culture.’1 She foresaw that, at the end of the Second World War, ‘Australia will find herself at a corner of a triangle; the East as represented by China, India and Japan, will be at one point, and the other will have the United States of America representing the West’.2 It was obvious to Preston which direction Australian artists should take after the war. If an artist went to the West to study, that would be ‘Post-War Art done in the easy way. The great danger is that of the artist becoming a copyist.’3 In the post-war era, Preston hoped that Australia would be guided, not controlled, by outside influences, and believed that the East offered artists opportunities to develop mature perceptions of their own country.

In her painting of 1942, Flying over the Shoalhaven river, the river lazily meanders between soft hills. As with the Chinese and Aboriginal Art that Preston admired, it was a timeless depiction of space. Ephemeral, ever-changing clouds pass between the viewer and the eternal landscape. This aerial view may have been the result of plane travel, but it is just as likely to have been inspired by her understanding of Aboriginal and Chinese modes of representing the landscape.

In preparing a lecture on the nature of the Australian landscape, Preston noted ‘the gay setting sun or the sweet morning mists are all accidents of time … droughts are a misfortune but like the sunrise, only temporary. It is the land itself.’4 A 17th-century Chinese painting manual describes hills and streams as embodying ‘the inner law of the universe … [but warns] One cannot attend to the appearance without regard to the inner law, or attend to the substance alone without regard to the method.’5

Roger Butler

1Margaret Preston, ‘The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific’, Sydney: Society of Artists, 1942, p.7-9

2Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1987, p.46.

3Margaret Preston, op.cit., p.9.

4Margaret Preston (notes for a lecture), inscribed in a notebook, a photocopy of which is included in the Margaret Preston Papers, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

5Lin Yutang, The Chinese Theory of Art, London: Panther Art, 1969, p.156


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002