John de Burgh Perceval took that name from his mother Dorothy’s second husband. Dorothy, née Dalton, was married first to farmer Robert South, John being born on 1st February 1923. They lived on an isolated 2400-hectare wheat and sheep station in Bruce Rock, 220km east of Perth in Western Australia. Robert was known to work long hours on his property but had a violent temper. Dorothy left Robert in 1925, leaving 18-month old John and his elder sister with their father. They attended the local rudimentary school, a 5km walk from the farm.
John had originally been christened Linwood Robert Steven South but when Dorothy married William de Burgh Perceval in 1934 in Melbourne, John took that Christian name and the surname of his stepfather. In 1935, both children went to live with their mother and William, where he attended the boys’ boarding school Trinity Grammar. Here, he had his first exposure to art books and continued his hobby of drawing and painting by copying the old masters.
In 1937 when John was 14, he contracted poliomyelitis, a life-threatening infection. It left him with a permanent limp as well as affecting his neck muscles which influenced his ability to swallow, and his speech. Disabled by the affliction for more than a year, he spent his recuperation by again copying art illustrations from books including Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, William Blake, William Hogarth and Tintoretto. A later rendition of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers sold for A$38 000 in May 2002. Sunflowers in a Clay Pot and Sunflowers for Vincent, 1994 sold for the same amount in August 2007 and May 2015 respectively.
Robert Menzies, who would lead Australia as Prime Minister from 1939-1941 and again from 1949-1966, opened the conservative Victorian Artists’ Society exhibition in 1937. This was countered by the establishment of the Contemporary Art Society on 13th July 1938 by George Bell in protest against traditionalist art. Fellow members included Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and John Perceval amongst other young revolutionary Australian artists. The CAS was suspended in 1947 due to internal conflict, but John Reed revived it in 1954. John Perceval was elected vice-president in 1963.
Surrealist poet Max Harris founded the magazine The Angry Penguins in 1940. The title was based on a line from one of Harris’ poems, Mithridatum of Despair. The Angry Penguins movement was a proponent of surrealism and expressionism. Wealthy art patrons John and Sunday Reed supported the movement. In 1934, they bought a 19th-century dairy farm on the Yarra River. They renamed the farmhouse Heide, which became a meeting place for young artists, including once again people such as Nolan, Boyd, Tucker, Danila Vassilieff and Jo Hester as well as John Perceval. The Reeds were known for their Bohemian lifestyle, which apparently included a ménage à trois with Sidney Nolan. This ended when the Reeds adopted three-year-old Sweeny, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester’s son, when Hester was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She died of the disease on 4th December 1960. It transpired years later that Tucker was not actually Sweeney’s father; the boy had probably been conceived when Hester had a fling with musician Billy Hyde. Sweeney committed suicide in 1979.
In 1941, Perceval’s application for active military service was denied as he was declared unfit, but he was drafted to the Army Survey Corps as a draughtsman with the Cartographic Company. Here he met fellow artists Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. Perceval and Boyd especially developed a close friendship. At the end of the war, John went to live with the Boyd family at their home at Murrumbeena, Melbourne, where he met Arthur’s younger sister Mary.
The house occupied a large piece of land called Open Country, close to the defunct Outer Circle railway line. Famous potter Merric Boyd, Arthur’s father, built a two-bedroom weatherboard house including what would become known as the Brown Room. In the Forties and Fifties, large groups of creative people would gather here to discuss ideas, art and hold Bible readings. The Boyd’s were of the Christian Scientist faith, whose followers believe that sickness can best be cured by prayer. The participants, sometimes comprising as many as fifty people, would also hold dancing and musical performances.
In 1939, the Melbourne based Herald newspaper funded The Herald Exhibition of Modern French and English Painting. Featured artists included Matisse, Dali, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Seurat and other contemporaries. In October 1940, (Sir) Lionel Lindsay wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, condemning Jews, foreigners and refugees.
In 1942, the Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition was held in Melbourne’s Athenaeum Gallery, where Perceval exhibited three paintings that had first appeared in the Angry Penguin magazine, and which were endorsed by John Reed. Perceval was joined by Yosi Bergner, a Polish Jew who had moved to Australia in 1937. Other participants included Sidney Nolan, James Wigley, Noel Counihan, Albert Tucker and the only woman to exhibit, Ailsa O’Connor.
John and Mary married in 1944 and had a son and three daughters; Matthew, Celia, Tessa and Alice. The family lived in Williamstown on the Yarra River. John, Arthur Boyd and Neil Douglas who would also become a well-known potter, were all employed at the Murrumbeena Pottery, John as a potter and sculptor.
After the war, Perceval’s paintings turned to religious subjects. He and his family were living in his father-in-law’s home and Perceval was struggling to earn an income from his pottery and sculpture. The Reeds had supported him financially for many years but when they said his paintings were too obscure, John destroyed many of the works and stopped painting for eight years.
He resumed his work in 1956 with a series of works on Williamstown and Gaffney’s Creek, producing about thirty paintings, critically acclaimed as being his best work. However, he had become a heavy drinker which affected his health and was a leading cause in the breakdown of his marriage. His Goat in a Bayswater Garden (1956) sold for A$65 000 in March 2010 and for the same price in December 2011, but the price dropped to A$48 000 when sold again in March 2013.
Merric Boyd influenced his son-in-law’s work with his religious zeal. From 1957-1962, Perceval created a series of small ceramic angel sculptures, 22-48cm high. These figures were based on his children, fellow artists’ work and readings from the scriptures. In a surprising detour from these sources of inspiration, one figure is based on the Australian comedian, actor and satirist Barry Humphries. Perceval held these sculptures to be his highest artistic achievement. Perceval’s first angel was made while he was living with the Boyd’s. Photographs of him working on the figurines show him using the end of a paintbrush and a sponge to smooth them. John and his father-in-law Merric were fascinated by the ancient Chinese red glazes, which Merric attempted to emulate. It was only when his kiln burnt down that he discovered the water sprayed on the fire caused the reduction in oxygen that was required to achieve the effect. John used a top-loading electric or gas kiln and he attained his distinctive red and copper glazes by using 2-3% copper in an earthenware glaze, fired to approximately 1080O centigrade. He also added camphor balls (mothballs) and linoleum in the kiln and he was delighted with the outcome. Acrobat Angel (c1958) sold for A$80 000 in March 2017.
In 1958, he was awarded the (John) McCaughey Prize, “awarded to an artist or artists, under which the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales acquire work by the winning artist.” The following year Perceval was awarded the Maude Vizard-Wholohan Prize and in 1960 he shared the Wynne Prize for landscape art for his piece Dairy Farm, Victoria with L Scott Pendelbury for Old Farmhouse.
His oil and tempera on composition board, Sulphur Smoke, 1959, sold for A$300 000 in November 1999 and again for a record A$510 000 in March 2002. Scudding Swans, 1959 sold for A$575 000 in March 2010, at the time the highest price paid for work of a living Australian artist. The current world sales record for art by a living artist is held by British artist David Hockney, whose Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $US90.3 million (A$123.7 million) at Christie’s auction house in New York on 15th November 2018.
In 1961, Perceval was invited to contribute to the Whitechapel Gallery’s 50 Australian Painters exhibition. In 1962, the Hargrave-Andrew Engineering and Sciences Library was opened at Monash University in Clayton, Victoria. Perceval was commissioned to create a wall sculpture, Homage to Lawrence Hargrave (1961-62) in honour of aeronautical scientist and engineer Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915).
In 1963-64, Perceval travelled to England where he exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London, and at the Museum of Modern Art for the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil. In 1964, he exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery, London. He returned to Australia in 1965 on being awarded the first two-year Creative Fellow scholarship by the Australian National University, Canberra. His success continued, and he was included in numerous exhibitions in Australia and abroad; the Mertz Collection in Washington D.C. in 1967, various galleries in Sydney and Melbourne in the Sixties and Seventies. In 1988, he was included in the Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940’s exhibition, at the Hayward Gallery, London.
In 1966, a major retrospective of his work, called John Perceval, was held in the Albert Hall, Australian National University in Canberra. His work Ship in the River (1959) featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The original was owned by Dunlop Rubber Australia Ltd and was sold in August 1994 for A$95 000.
A similar work, The Moored Shark Boat (1959) was held by the family since its original showing in the Antipodeans exhibition at the Victoria Arts Society exhibition in August 1959, where it was listed for 150 guineas. It also featured in Perceval’s first solo exhibition in Brisbane in August-September 1960 at the Bowen Hills Gallery. The piece was acquired directly from Perceval in November 1960 and only came up for sale again in September 2015, realising A$370 000.
Perceval was hospitalised in 1965 due to his increasingly serious alcohol issues. He was also suffering psychiatric problems and in 1977 he was institutionalised in Larundel Asylum in Melbourne until 1986 after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. His art comrades would visit him with materials they had bought for him and take him out, so he could work. During his incarceration, Perceval made some crayon drawings but only resumed painting in 1987. A pencil drawing Jack-in-the-Box (1987) sold for A$1500 in November 2002 while his oil on canvas An Encounter with a Jack-In-the-Box (1990) sold for A$19 000 in March 2007. A slightly later work Storm over Williamstown sold for A$30 000 in November 2010. He moved into an elderly persons’ hostel in Kew in 1988; Larundel was closed in the 1990’s.
The Heide Park and Art Gallery held the John Perceval: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings in 1984. The same year art historian Traudi Allen had her book John Perceval published by the Heide Art Gallery. An updated and revised edition was published in 2015.
In 1991, he was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for service to the visual arts.
The National Gallery of Victoria held John Perceval: A Retrospective in 1992. His final retrospective John Perceval: Retrospective Exhibition was held from August to October 2000 at the Galeria Aniela Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park and included eighty of Perceval’s works.
Perceval suffered a stroke and died on the 15th October 2000, aged 77, the last representative of the Angry Penguins.
Filmmaker David Blackall was in a relationship with Alice, John’s youngest daughter when he visited John at the mental institution in 1983. Over the next six years, Blackall made the 48-minute Delinquent Angel documentary, which not only showcased this troubled artist’s work but included intimate personal insights. The film was released after Perceval’s death, in 2001.