There is a covenant scripted into the collection walls of the Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) basement which stipulates that one cannot truly claim to have fulfilled their role as SAM Director until they have successfully ushered one of John Perceval’s angel sculptures into the collection. Such is the importance of this series to modern art in Australia, the emergence of the studio potter and SAM’s collection of Australian ceramics. The Angel series seems to valorise the relevance of ceramics within modern art in Australia. While in recent years great historical moments in modernism like Perceval made when he embarked upon these ceramic sculptures, can be thought to have inspired contemporary artists to a rediscovery of the medium and the form of figurative sculpture. Perceval’s angels are free spirited, alive with radicalism, humour and at times a defiance of their very name, but more over they are raw and real in their emotions, and bring us closer to their maker and a time of rampant expressionism.
With respect to collection building, for many years the angels eluded me – slipping through the gaps of unsuccessful bids to rest on someone else’s shoulders. The patience and dedication of two passionate ceramic enthusiasts, Andrew Fairley and Carrillo Gantner, are to be thanked for the most recent work acquired by SAM in 2013, the classic upward looking Angel, 1958. I think if in Andrews’ words I had failed to ‘Just buy the bloody thing’, I might well be looking heaven-ward myself. Needless to say it is an exhibition which has been some years coming to fruition, and is the fruit of many people’s collective effort and determination to make possible.
Joining the Shepparton Art Gallery in 2005 I was forwarded a research folder for the exhibition by then Director Leanne Willis. A year later I took receipt of the gallery’s second angel, a rather oedipal work, Angel with Arms Upraised, 1961 and continued research into the whereabouts of its fellow tribe. The exhibition had been in the imagination of successive curators for some years culminating in extensive research undertaken by previous curator, Damian Smith and author of the wonderful essay here within. The project was born from the work of two earlier Directors; Peter Timms, who created local outcry when in 1976 he purchased the first angel, Delinquent Angel 1961, and Joe Pascoe who defiantly celebrated the purchase with his own exhibition of Australian ceramics named after the work at the International Ceramic Museum in Faenza, Italy in 1995. This project so embedded the angels in the fabric of the Art Museum that the gallery’s logo was based on the outline of the sculpture Delinquent Angel until 2012 when SAM became our new name. In the years since 2005, the current exhibition has passed from my hands to those of successive curators. In June 2014, I find with ominous delight the exhibition back with me to usher forward with support of the SAM team, to conclusion. In full circle, the project is joined again, in its critical moment of delivery by Joe Pascoe.
Delinquent Angel: John Perceval’s Ceramic Angels brings together John Perceval’s angel sculptures produced during the 1950s and 1960s in admiration of their technical and conceptual sophistication, humour and beguiling charm. The exhibition at SAM is the largest collection of works from the series ever brought together in a single showing and marks 40 years since they were last exhibited as a series at Realities in Toorak, 1974. While it has long been believed that Perceval created up to 50 ceramic angels, research has led us to believe that the number is closer to double that. The volume of works lending weight to the claim his children make, that these are the works which Perceval prized above all others. The angels range from self-portraits, to figures that illustrate allegorical stories and comment on the threat of nuclear weaponry. This historically significant exhibition draws together ceramic angels from major public and private collections across Australia and to the lenders I extend my sincere gratitude. The Angels are widely dispersed, well prized by their owners, fragile by the nature of their making, and close to many hearts; bringing them together is nothing short of magic.
Taken from the Delinquent Angel: John Perceval’s Ceramic Angels Exhibition Catalogue