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John Perceval: Diamonds and Dark Clouds

It’s three-quarters the way through November, and we’ve finally got a decent day down on the Peninsula. Twenty-six degrees in Blairgowrie and Sorrento, 30 in Melbourne, and 35 in my old home-town, Benalla. So why not, I thought, go and check out the spot where my old mate John Perceval painted Ocean beach, Sorrento, 1957.

It was only yesterday during a conversation with noted freelance curator Rodney James that I discovered this work was in fact, of Diamond Bay, a kilometre away and the next inlet from the famous Sorrento Back Beach. It was hard to understand, as the painting looked like, and I always thought was, Sorrento Back Beach, probably painted during winter with the tide in.

I started my pilgrimage with a quick drive down to the two-hectare bitumen Sorrento Back Beach carpark, flanked on one side by a spiffy restaurant and on the other by Sorrento Surf Life Saving Club. Like vultures to a fresh kill, Melbournites had arrived in their thousands at the first sign of summer. The tide was out and the rock pools were full of screaming and laughing children desperately trying to dodge adventurous boys jumping, one after another, off the cliff into the crystal blue water below. Whole families, including a grandmother in a wheelchair, were picnicking and sun-baking. What a place – it’s like Luna Park, but free: Giggle Palace joy, laughter and the menacing Big Dipper and Ghost Train danger of the jagged cliffs, rocks, and the breakers that rush in as the tide turns.

Then a quick, three-minute drive got me to the tiny, only-able-to-hold-10-cars carpark of Diamond Bay. Surrounded by the dense jungle of tea-tree, the serenity and silence was gradually broken by the ever-increasing roar of the wind and smashing of waves against the rocks, as I headed up the steep path to the top of the sand dunes to look down on Perceval’s view.

My first reaction was shock and amazement at the similarity between the bays. It’s as if there were only one bay, and Doctor Who had landed me in the Tardis, 250 years back. This is the real deal: how it’s meant to be, almost devoid of any civilisation. The air was salty, even for a warm, quiet day; the wind was gusting, and the sea growling and swirling. There’s a touch of Jurassic Park about the spot. No wonder John chose this bay to glorify: he was a lover of landscape and the forces and wonder of the natural world.

Van Gogh, Fred Williams, and John Perceval are the greatest painters when it comes to interpreting landscape, absorbing it into the heart and soul, rearranging it into what’s important and exciting, then vigorously brushing, dabbing, attacking and splashing it out, as if there’s no time to waste, with nature controlling every move. ‘Don’t think too hard – let the Force be with you, Luke.’ Coincidently, Van Gogh and Perceval share a lot in common. Both had addictive natures and problems with alcohol, spent many years in and out of psychiatric care and had caring, but explosive personalities. Most importantly, they had an overwhelming passion and drive to paint nature as they felt it.

Of the three masters, John Perceval is to me the best. Look how he manages to show us the churning, dumping danger of the waves and sea as it turns and whirlpools through the rocks on its way to carving out the cliff-face. How mesmerisingly wonderful is that honey drip from a knife-flow of white paint around the rock in the left foreground. I made a particular point of watching the sea roll in and over this rock again and again just to see what really happens. Well, it’s nothing like John painted: there are just the occasional white traces of foam around the rock at different times. Magically though, his liquid white paint circling the rock gifts us the memory of continuing flow. He’s made a still image appear to move. Perceval had an amazing ability to feel part of nature, and to inject that feeling into us.

Barely noticeable, are the two children playing in the ocean-eroded cave on the lower right of the painting, the only interruption and barely an interruption to nature. Their presence displays a mood of make-do play with what nature provides without having to build or over-invade this wonderfully pleasurable place. With total respect comes the pleasure – no white shoes here.

It’s not what you’d call a great sandy beach, and at different times of the year the tide sometimes denudes the beach of all sand, leaving a terracotta clay base speckled with black rocks. Even with full sand, the continual wash of the sea leaves it pink and freckled like the soft underbelly of a blue heeler pup. There’s no doubt that John was nourished by the knowledge of nature dismantling itself over time, then rebuilding again. It’s all there: just don’t touch it.

John Perceval Gannets Diving

John Perceval
Gannets Diving, 1956
Enamel paint and gouache on
composition board
91.5 x 122.0cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by the National Gallery Society of Victoria as the winner of The John McCaughey Memorial Prize, 1957
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

Next on my bucket list will be a visit to the Williamstown dock area where Perceval painted Gannets diving, 1956. I know full well the area, with modern gentrification, is nothing like it once was, but what the heck, I’m paying homage to an old friend and great master.

In this painting John emphasises nature in total control. Dark, menacing storm clouds roll in over the sea so violently that everything must bend to their command. Wooden fishing boats twist and tumble about, crashing into each other; even the rocks on the sea wall tremble and shake. Nothing can escape the fury. Cleverly, John paints three tiny fishermen, insignificant, bewildered and hopelessly outgunned when nature sternly decides the day.

Only the gannets, with millions of years of evolution, stand out as working in harmony with nature, taking knowing advantage of the storm’s signs, diving and gorging on the bounty washed up in the giving swell. What a fitting illustration of Perceval’s belief in the volatility, surprise and wonder of the natural world. Admire it, but don’t destroy it, and we’ll always receive the thanks of new beauty.

I really suggest, almost insist, that you take a trip during summer. Take the kids, definitely a picnic with wine, and experience Diamond Bay for yourself, then finish with a splash in the rock pools at Sorrento Back Beach. You’ll thank me and understand why people make art. Happy days.

If you’d like to know more about John Perceval, see more of his paintings and other examples of great Australian art then I suggest you check the new NGV Guide mobile-friendly website: ngv.guide