Woman Preston, Margaret Rose (1875 - 1963)

Port Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Artist and Designer

Written by Dorothy Erickson, Independent Scholar

Margaret Preston was a leading painter, printmaker and designer. She was born Margaret Rose McPherson in Port Adelaide in 1875, the daughter of David McPherson, a Scottish marine engineer and his wife Prudence Lyle. She and her sister were sent at first to a private school, but when family circumstances changed her mother took the girls to Sydney where she attended Fort Street, High School. She also took private lessons in art and subsequently went on to the National Gallery School in Melbourne under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. When her father died in 1898 Preston returned to Adelaide and studied, and then taught under H. P. Gill at the Adelaide School of Design where students remembered her as a 'red-headed little firebrand'.

After her mother's death in 1904, Preston went to Europe where she had paintings hung in the Paris Salons of 1905 and 1906. She returned in Australia in 1907 and taught at various schools. Returning to Europe in 1912, she exhibited with the progressive Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, at the London Royal Academy and at the New English Art Club; she also worked at the Omega Workshops in London. She encountered many new styles and artists and became enamoured of the French Post Impressionists; it was, however, the art of Japan and of Cubism that had the greatest impact on her work. With the outbreak of World War I she taught at a rehabilitation unit for servicemen located in England's west country. On the boat returning to Australia she met Lt William Preston; they married in 1919. The couple travelled regularly, both overseas and within Australia, often collecting Aboriginal material.

From 1915 to 1928 Preston mainly worked on still-life paintings, which she exhibited with the Society of Artists. She attracted the patronage of Sydney Ure Smith who published her articles, including in 1927 From Eggs to Electrolux in Art in Australia, and two portfolios in 1929 and 1949. Margaret's ability to promote herself caused unease in some circles where she was referred to as 'Mad Meg'. In 1930 Preston was commissioned by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW to paint her self-portrait. In 1937 she won a Silver Medal at the Paris International Exhibition. Her popular woodblock prints became the most prominent Australian expression of Modernism; however, it was her modernist oils that were most critically admired. From 1923 she began advocating for a national style of art based on Aboriginal art. This was initially for motifs for craft items, but later for colour and technique; eventually she used Aboriginal people for the subjects of her paintings.

Preston was in her lifetime a larger-than-life character with a healthy ego, wit, and a sharp tongue who sustained a high profile; she remains the Australian woman artist most Australians know. She died in 1963 leaving an extensive ouevre of works that included paintings, prints, design work and writing. Examples are to be found in the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Art Gallery of South Australia and other Australian collections. There have been numerous retrospectives and publications devoted to her life and work.

Published Resources


  • Butel, Elizabeth, Margaret Preston: the art of constant rearrangement, Penguin Books in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Ringwood, Victoria, 1986. Details
  • North, Ian et al, The Art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, 1980. Details

Edited Books

  • Burke, Janine (ed.), Australian Women Artists, 1840 - 1940, Greenhouse Publications, Collingwood, Victoria, 1980. Details

Online Resources