An extract from
Art for History’s Sake by Patti Miller
Art Monthly Australia, September 2010 issue
It was a risky idea, a pastiche of homage to colonial artists and traditional portraiture of contemporary women, but it resulted in some of the most successful paintings and drawings in the exhibition as Marshall found visual echoes between contemporary portraiture and historical image.
Peter H. Marshall’s art usually explores the minutiae of the natural world. Not for him the sweep of landscape, but an almost botanical concentration on the detail of a leaf, curled bark, insect scribble. He was not interested in commemorative art, but he became attracted to Mrs. Elizabeth Macquarie, an amateur student of both botany and art. She helped found the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1816 and she was fascinated with the flora of her new country, taking her art teacher, the emancipist John Lewin, with her when she became the first white woman to cross the Blue Mountains.
Marshall studied the drawings, watercolours and engravings of convict and soldier artists such as Lewin, Joseph Lycett and Captain James Wallis. He has created his own interpretations of their work and superimposed them with portraits of descendants of Maquarie-era women. It was a risky idea, a pastiche of homage to colonial artists and traditional portraiture of contemporary women, but it resulted in some of the most successful paintings and drawings in the exhibition as Marshall found visual echoes between contemporary portraiture and historical image.
Correa Wilson with a view from Bennelong Point c1818 after an engraving by William Preston from a drawing by Captain James Wallis is a remarkable drawing in which Marshall has found visual correspondences between the portrait(s), particularly the intricate tendrils of hair, and the foliage, rocks and clouds of the engraving. Formally, the two images work together beautifully; just as significant is the narrative power of the present echoing the past.
Claire Miller with a view of Sydney from Surrey Hills c1819 from a watercolour by Joseph Lycett is a delicately detailed oil on linen rendition of both Lycett’s original and the contemporary young woman. The concrete forms and ochre colours in both portrait and landscape – hair, sky, rolling countryside – construct a successful visual and narrative experience.
In works where there is homage to an earlier style, the artist needs not only the skill to represent the original artist’s technique, but the sensitivity to not simply reproduce it. The integrity of the work depends on an interpretation consistent with the artists own approach, which paradoxically requires a profound understanding of the original artists impulse. While he might reject the term, Marshall has used a postmodern combination of 19th century dedication to detail and contemporary sensibility to thought-provoking effect.