John Perceval (1923-2000) Night watch 1957

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Lot 15
John Perceval
Night watch 1957

Sold for AU$ 219,600 (US$ 153,117) inc. premium
John Perceval (1923-2000)
Night watch 1957
signed and dated 'Perceval '57' lower left
oil on board
76.0 x 105.5cm (29 15/16 x 41 9/16in).


    The collection of the artist
    Australian Galleries, Melbourne
    Possibly Sold Australian Galleries 16 May 1957 to Leonard Voss Smith, Melbourne
    Possibly A unique auction of paintings from the famous Voss Smith Collection of Melbourne, Geoff K Gray, Sydney, 15 November 1962, lot 165, titled Tugboat
    Private collection, London, 15 November 1962
    Landau collection
    Private collection
    Fine Australian Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 29 May 1984, lot 136
    Andrew Ivanyi Gallery, Melbourne
    Private Collection 1984
    Private collection 1990
    Dudley Cain Collection, Melbourne
    Peter Gant Fine Art, Geelong
    The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1990

    John Perceval Exhibition, David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, 29 May – 7 June 1957, cat. no. 23
    John Perceval Canberra Exhibition, Albert Hall, Canberra, 14-24 July 1967, cat. no. 43
    John Perceval. A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Heide Park and Art Gallery, Melbourne, 10 July - 26 August 1984 (Private collection) cat. no. 51

    Margaret Plant, John Perceval, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1971/1978, pp. 56, 58 (illus.)
    Traudi Allen, John Perceval, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 100, 159

    Night watch 1957 is from John Perceval's 'Williamstown' series of paintings made in 1956-57. It was purchased by Leonard Voss-Smith an art collector and publisher on 16 May 1957 from the Australian Galleries, Melbourne, prior to Perceval's exhibition at the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney the same month. The exhibition was on display for little more than a week in May 1957. 1 The paintings were largely from the artist's second one-man exhibition at Australian Galleries, Melbourne held in November the previous year. Unlike his first exhibition of pottery and religious paintings, held in 1948 at Book Club, Melbourne, both exhibitions were financial successes.

    Margaret Plant has written that his Williamstown works 'consolidated Perceval's reputation in the 1950s.'2 Perceval told Plant that 'his discovery of Williamstown "was like finding Venice".'3 This was ironic as the artist only knew Venice from photographs, having never travelled overseas at the time.

    Williamstown Dock, on the other hand was in the 1950s nothing like picturesque water-bound Venice. Post-war Williamstown was a run down industrialised centre, but that is undoubtedly what appealed to the artist. First identified by a European survey party exploring Point Gellibrand, Hobsons Bay in 1803, and later by John Batman in 1834-35, William's Town was named by Governor Burke and Captain William Lonsdale after King William IV, the reigning English monarch. Located at the mouth of the Yarra River, it served as the main port of the Port Philip district and Melbourne until the end of the nineteenth century.4

    While Perceval is strongly identified with Williamstown, having made three series of maritime paintings since 1956-57, he is not the first artist to be enthralled by the location. Andrew McKenzie has written that the impressionists Walter Withers and Frederick McCubbin painted at Williamstown between 1910 and 1915.5 In the 1980s, Andrew Southhall and Rick Amor made regular expeditions to Williamstown to draw and paint.

    Traudi Allen, author of the second major monograph on Perceval, has examined all of the paintings from the Williamstown series and concluded:

    Paintings of the first series did not always have boats as their focal point whereas in the second series they were in almost every case the main feature of the painting.6

    Night watch 1957 is clearly in the second category. The subject is a tug boat moored at the dock, illuminated by lights on the pier and on the little boat itself. The gantry is down, but no workers can be seen. Dishevelled planks, a canister and a drinking fountain lead the viewer to the boat's smokestack painted in blue, white, red and black from which a huge puff of white smoke chuffs. The masts and safety rails are drawn alla prima in rhythmic lines of luscious white paint merging into grey arabesque swirls, leading the viewer around the entire vessel and neighbouring boat picked out by yellow and white lights and fireflies.

    It is unknown whether Perceval painted Night watch en plein air or in his studio, but the composition has the freshness of being painted outdoors in one sitting. As it was his practice to paint directly from the subject in the manner of van Gogh, he may have deliberately set out to paint the boats at night under pier lights, or he may have simply run of day light and had to finish it in the dark.

    Other important paintings of maritime Williamstown where boats are the focus of attention were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, (Tugboat in a boat 1956), the Bendigo Art Gallery (Yankee boats at dry dock 1956) and the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery (Floating dock 1959) in the period 1956-1960. In the past seven years only four major Williamstown paintings from the period 1956-59 have been sold at auction, such is the rarity of important works from this decade of the quality of Night watch 1957.

    Warwick Reeder

    1 The exhibition of 31 works from Williamstown and Gaffney's Creek was exhibited from 29 May -7 June 1957
    2 Margaret Plant, John Perceval, Lansdowne Australian Art Library, 1971, p. 1
    3 Margaret Plant, op. cit., John Perceval, Lansdowne Australian Art Library, 1971, p. 52
    6 Traudi Allen, John Perceval, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1992, pp. 103-104, cat. no. 51 in John Perceval. A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Heide Park and Art Gallery, Melbourne, 10 July - 26 August 1984 (Private collection)

Saleroom notices

  • Please note the measurements in the printed catalogue should read: 76.0 x 105.5cm
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