Australia, 1923-2000

Matthew in a cane chair, 1946 [?]
oil on composition board
61.0 x 61.0 cm
inscribed lower right: Perceval / 46

Wagner Art Gallery, Sydney, May 1988, as Boy in a cane chair, 1944

Traudi Allen, John Perceval, Melbourne, 1992, p.155, dated as 1952.

Late in life John Perceval signed and dated many paintings which had been kept in his personal collection, some of which depicted his three eldest children Matthew, Tessa, and Celia [Winkie]. The inscription on this painting may be one of those and inaccurately remembered.

Married to Arthur Boyd’s sister, Mary, in 1944, the couple’s first child, Matthew, was born in 1945, followed by Tessa born in 1947, Celia [Winkie] born in 1949, and Alice, born in 1957. Obviously this portrait depicts a child older than Matthew would have been in 1946. Traudi Allen suggests a date of 1952 for this painting. She also suggests that the child depicted is Tessa, aged about five, not Matthew whose chubbier face does not match that of the child depicted. Supporting this suggestion is another painting, Winkie and Tessa in Blackman’s chair, 1955, in which a similar cane chair forms an aura behind the blonde children. At that time, the Perceval and Blackman families were close and Perceval had established his studio in Blackman’s Hawthorn coach-house.

In the late 1940s Perceval had begun a series of portraits of family and friends, including Arthur Boyd’s parents, Doris and Merric, and Fabian, the son of Neil Douglas a fellow artist-potter. The earliest of these continue to show the influence of the work of the William Hogarth the eighteenth century English artist and social satirist. They also show how much young artists were freed from the conventions of traditional portraiture by William Dobell’s 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait, Mr Joshua Smith. The controversy and consequent court case surrounding that portrait undoubtedly gave artists a freedom to approach portraiture in a very different way.

The earliest of these portraits depict the subjects, Merric and Doris Boyd painted in 1947-48, in a dull brown Hogarthian palette. Their worried faces convey the anxiety of life during the Cold War that followed World War 2. But by 1954 the portrait of Fabian has a lighter more charming spirit as the boy’s blond curls [their length famous in the 1960s for being the reason he was turned away from school] surround his face like a golden halo. This portrait, probably of Tessa, falls midway between these portraits. It is not painted with the same brown angst-ridden impasto of the earlier portraits, nor the lighter brighter palette and more whimsical qualities evident in the later portraits. The child is still a wide-eyed worried creature nervously clutching at a shirt collar while staring out at the viewer. The back of the cane chair once again forms a golden halo effect contrasting with the dark background. This portrait is an outstanding example of Perceval’s rare portraiture because it arrests the viewer with the idea that this child grow into anything.

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