A pedestal by Robert Prenzel


A recent addition to the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of Australian furniture is a carved pedestal1Purchased at auction 11 December, 1975, Leonard Joel Pty. Ltd., Lot 126 ‘ex estate of Mrs M. M. McDonald, Toorak’. (fig. 1) by Robert Prenzel (1866–1941). Born and trained in Prussia, Prenzel migrated to Australia in 18882For further biographical Information on Prenzel see ‘Gum-Nut Art Nouveau – A Suite of Furniture by Robert Prenzel’ by Terence Lane in the Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973, pp. 24–34.. During the first quarter of the current century he became the major exponent in the field of furniture and woodwork of the cult of nationalism, and was renowned for his carvings, many of them in the art nouveau style, of Australian animals, birds, trees and flowers. 

The pedestal has a tapered shaft carved with sprays of Eucalyptus ficifolia, the red-flowering gum.3Motifs drawn from Eucalyptus ficifolia and the related Eucalyptus calophylla appear frequently in Prenzel’s work during the period c.1905–40, especially upon panels, honour boards and the carved doors of wardrobes, wash stands etc. An almost identical pedestal, now in the collection of the McClelland Art Gallery, Langwarrin, Victoria,4Presented by Major and Mrs Robert Lindsay, 1972. Mrs Lindsay is the daughter of the late Sir Robert Knox. is illustrated (fig. 2) in one of the photograph albums which Prenzel kept as a record of his work. The McClelland Gallery pedestal was commissioned by Mr John Manifold5Mr John Manifold was the son of Mr W. T. Manifold of ‘Purrumbete’, Weerite, near Camperdown, Victoria. W. T. Manifold in the early years of this century commissioned from Prenzel a panelled hall for the homestead of ‘Purrumbete’. The hall, one of the most remarkable interiors created in this State during the Edwardian period, features a fine carved screen and staircase by Prenzel and a mural cycle by Walter Withers illustrating in six panels ‘the amazing history of the Manifold Brothers’. The newel post of the staircase and the columns supporting the screen must be cited as stylistic precedents for the pedestal at present under discussion. Square in section, they taper upwards to a projecting square shelf. The four corners of the shafts are masked with branches or trunks, and the tops are carved with conventionalised foliage. The exact date of their manufacture is uncertain. The mural panels are dated 1902/1903, but architectural plans in the possession of the present owner of ‘Purrumbete’, Mr W. G. Manifold, indicate that work was in progress in c.1906. The interior is illustrated in Nan Chapman’s book, Historic Homes of Western Victoria, Colac Herald, (Colac), 1965, p. 45. and presented by him to Mr Robert (later Sir Robert) Knox and Miss Ivy Clarke upon the occasion of their wedding in November, 1914. A date for the design in or around 1914 is confirmed by an undated sheet of working drawings for the pedestal (fig. 3) which appears in Prenzel’s ledger opposite a series of entries dated December, 1914. 

The drawings give a fascinating insight into Prenzel’s method of working and show the design in an advanced state. The sprays of Eucalyptus ficifolia are drawn in saltire, and Prenzel’s concern with the formal problem of accommodating a circular motif within a square format is worked out in a series of diagrams and sketches. 

In the executed design the tapering shaft, square-in-section at the base and circular-in-section at the top, is mounted on a deep, square plinth and fitted with a projecting, circular shelf. The transition between the two geometric forms is skilfully managed by the careful disposition of the botanical motifs and by the subtle texturing and punching of the surface. The trunks or branches of four sprays of eucalyptus, each of which emerges from the base and bifurcates towards the middle of the shaft, mask the four corners. The lower section of the shaft is left almost uncarved, apart from a series of scored marks or incisions which suggest the growth creases in the trunk or branch of a tree. The upper section, by contrast, is richly patterned, with the four sprays in saltire and with the intertwining and symetrically-placed leaves, twigs and nuts. The shaft culminates in a band of densely-clustered nuts and flower heads.

The botanical motifs are carved with the skill and flair for which Prenzel was renowned. The leaves are minutely textured, veined, creased and fluted; the nuts simulate the woody seed-capsules of the tree; and the tufty flower-heads are similarly realistic. The carving combines verisimilitude and a concern for botanical accuracy with a delight in pattern making, and the pedestal testifies to Prenzel’s skill at bending and coaxing the often truculent forms of the Australian flora into the shapes and patterns of the art nouveau style. 

The pedestal joins the suite of bedroom furniture, commissioned from Prenzel in 1906 by Mrs Mathias of Montreal, Canada, which was acquired for the collection in 1971. 

Terence Lane, Curator of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1976).

Notes

1          Purchased at auction 11 December, 1975, Leonard Joel Pty. Ltd., Lot 126 ‘ex estate of Mrs M. M. McDonald, Toorak’. 

2          For further biographical Information on Prenzel see ‘Gum-Nut Art Nouveau – A Suite of Furniture by Robert Prenzel’ by Terence Lane in the Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973, pp. 24–34. 

3          Motifs drawn from Eucalyptus ficifolia and the related Eucalyptus calophylla appear frequently in Prenzel’s work during the period c.1905–40, especially upon panels, honour boards and the carved doors of wardrobes, wash stands etc. 

4          Presented by Major and Mrs Robert Lindsay, 1972. Mrs Lindsay is the daughter of the late Sir Robert Knox. 

5          Mr John Manifold was the son of Mr W. T. Manifold of ‘Purrumbete’, Weerite, near Camperdown, Victoria. W. T. Manifold in the early years of this century commissioned from Prenzel a panelled hall for the homestead of ‘Purrumbete’. The hall, one of the most remarkable interiors created in this State during the Edwardian period, features a fine carved screen and staircase by Prenzel and a mural cycle by Walter Withers illustrating in six panels ‘the amazing history of the Manifold Brothers’. The newel post of the staircase and the columns supporting the screen must be cited as stylistic precedents for the pedestal at present under discussion. Square in section, they taper upwards to a projecting square shelf. The four corners of the shafts are masked with branches or trunks, and the tops are carved with conventionalised foliage. The exact date of their manufacture is uncertain. The mural panels are dated 1902/1903, but architectural plans in the possession of the present owner of ‘Purrumbete’, Mr W. G. Manifold, indicate that work was in progress in c.1906. The interior is illustrated in Nan Chapman’s book, Historic Homes of Western Victoria, Colac Herald, (Colac), 1965, p. 45.