Leonard Joel is honoured to offer the Laidlaw bedroom suite by Robert Prenzel (1866–1941) in our August Decorative Arts auction.  

The suite, made circa 1908, is one of five similar suites made by Prenzel between 1905 and 1910, all to commission for prominent Western District patrons, that, together, form one of the most important bodies of work in earlier Australian furniture design. The suite has remained within the Laidlaw family since its creation and is perhaps the last of these suites to remain intact in original ownership.

Decorative Arts. Prenzel. Leonard Joel Auctions
A Carved Australian Blackwood Dressing Table by Robert Prenzel, Circa 1908 $20,000 – 25,000

Born and trained as a carver in Germany, Prenzel arrived in Melbourne in 1888. For the next thirteen years, he worked as a designer and carver of decorative elements for use on furniture and in architectural schemes, mostly in fashionable historically-inspired styles. Around 1900, Prenzel turned to new, seemingly disparate sources of inspiration; the European Art Nouveau and Australian fauna and flora, the latter reflecting the current of national pride in Australia surrounding federation in 1901.

These interests are evident, usually separate from each other, in Prenzel’s work in the following years but came together in a more substantial and dramatic way in his 1905–1910 bedroom suites. The first of these was that commissioned by Steuart and Isabella Black as part of a major renovation of their historic Western District homestead ‘Glenormiston’. The Glenormiston suite is, however, only partly a precursor of the following suites for while it is generally similar to these in composition and design, its carved decoration is entirely in the Art Nouveau idiom with no Australian motifs at all. 

The change was to come with Prenzel’s next bedroom suite, the ‘Mathias suite’ of 1906–1907, now in the National Gallery of Victoria. This was commissioned by Isabella Black’s visiting sister May, who, despite being Canadian, requested that her suite be decorated with Australian fauna and flora. This suite attracted much attention in Prenzel’s Melbourne workshop before being shipped off and was replicated for another Western District patron (this latter suite now dispersed).

Next was the Laidlaw suite of 1908, commissioned as a gift to Thomas Haliburton Laidlaw, a prosperous auctioneer, station agent, and pastoralist, by his wife Margaret for ‘Kilora’, their fine house in Hamilton for which Prenzel also provided architectural woodwork.  

The decoration of the Laidlaw suite is the richest and most exuberant of Prenzel’s 1905–1910 suites. The design and carving of the Glenormiston suite is restrained even by comparison with some of Prenzel’s earlier work, restraint he continued in the Mathias suite even with its introduction of Australian motifs, but Prenzel seems to have cast this restraint aside for the Laidlaws, in so doing reaching for the first time the full-blown style for which he is best known. More boldly carved overall in deeper relief than its predecessors, the Laidlaw suite is also richer in faunal decoration, including, most spectacularly, near-freestanding figures perched atop three pieces in the suite that are not found on any of the other suites.  

Decorative Arts. Prenzel. Leonard Joel Auctions
A Carved Australian Blackwood Wardrobe By Robert Prenzel
Circa 1908 $50,000 – 70,000

In its freedom, Prenzel’s work for the Laidlaws marks a high point among these suites. The last of these, the ‘Davies suite’ of 1910 for another part of the Black family, retains much of the character of the Laidlaw suite but at a more subdued level.

It appears Prenzel made no further suites, turning instead to producing the smaller works – stand-alone faunal panels and occasional single pieces of furniture – that are now the most commonly seen of his work. Typically carved in deep relief, and sometimes surmounted with figures carved almost in the round, these relate most closely to the particular manner of the Laidlaw suite.  

Seen in this context, the Laidlaw suite may fairly be regarded as the fullest expression of what we now associate with Robert Prenzel.

DAVID PARSONS / Head of Decorative Arts 

Reference: Terence Lane, Robert Prenzel 1866–1941: His Life and Work (National Gallery of Victoria, 1994)

Banner Image (detail): A Carved Australian Blackwood Chest of Drawers by Robert Prenzel, Circa 1908. $20,000 – 25,000

July 2022