John Perceval was born on 1 February 1923 with the name Linwood Robert Steven South Bruce Rock in Western Australia. His father, Robert South, was a wheat farmer, a man well known for his hard work and violent temper. His parents’ marriage was short-lived. His mother, born Dorothy Dolton, left when the boy was only 18 months old, with his older sister unhappily stayed with their father until 1934 when their mother married William de Burgh Perceval in Melbourne. John Perceval took his stepfather’s name, and began to attend Trinity Grammar. At the age of 15 he suffered from polio, and spent a year in hospital. As a part of his recovery he began to paint.He came to know the artists associated with Melbourne’s newly established Contemporary Art Society, and through them joined the circle of artists and writers around John and Sunday Reed at Heide Park. Despite his withered leg John Perceval enlisted in the Army as his skills as a draughtsman could be used in the Cartographic Company. Here he met Arthur Boyd, and then the entire extended Boyd family at Murrumbeena. He married Arthur’s youngest sister, Mary Boyd, in 1944. With Arthur Boyd and Neil Douglas he worked at the Murrumbeena pottery, making decorated pots and bowls. His paintings of this period show a strong influence of Arthur Boyd’s work, with a joyeus brush stroke and an almost naive quality.
The Perceval family lived at Williamstown, at the old naval port on the mouth of the Yarra and the working harbour became a part of his subject matter. His subject matter was sometimes metaphorical, but always based in elements of his life. The city of Melbourne became the background for a nativity scene, painted in a style that quoted Breughel. His children: Matthew, Tessa, Celia and Alice all appear as reoccurring elements in his art. No more is this more evident than in his series of ceramic angels, made between 1957 and 1962. While they certainly quoted Renaissance sculptural figures and Piero della Francesca’s paintings, the joie de vivre of these (sometimes) quite naughty figures owes more to his observations of his children – although one is modelled on the satirist Barry Humphries.
In 1959, Perceval was persuaded by Bernard Smith to join with his brothers-in-law Arthur and David Boyd, John Brack, Robert Dickerson, Charles Blackman and Clifton Pugh to form the Antipodeans a celebration of the human figure, in opposition to the rise of abstract art. His own paintings however concentrated on landscapes, and increasingly he found more nourishment from Vincent Van Gogh than any other artist.
Perceval’s bad memories, alcoholism and long undiagnosed psychiatric illness meant that life was less than easy for his family and his marriage ended unhappily. In 1965 he was hospitalised for alcoholism, and in 1977 he entered the Larundal psychiatric hospital, where he stayed until 1986.
Perceval continued to paint for the rest of his life, but although he had some commercial success, these later works appear crude when placed next to his paintings of the 1940s and ’50s. (Design & Art Australia Online )