The carved furniture and ornaments of Robert Prenzel (1866-1941) have long been recognised as a symbol of prosperity in ‘Marvelous Melbourne’ around the time of Federation and into the first quarter of the 20th century: early evidence of his work in collaboration with fellow German émigré, Otto Waschatz, can be found in the solid plaster cast adornments of stately mansions including ‘Labassa’ in the Melbourne suburb, Caulfield North, while his commissioned suites of furniture and interior embellishments graced the homes of some of Victoria’s most prominent Western District graziers.
Initially working in the German Renaissance Revival style favoured in his homeland, from 1901 the characteristics of Prenzel’s work evolved into what was colloquially known as ‘Gum Nut Art Nouveau,’ distinguished by the combination of Australian floral and faunal motifs with the whiplash lines and stylized naturalism of Art Nouveau, which was gathering pace as the prevailing fashion in art and interior design. Prenzel’s interest in the naturalist motifs of his adopted country found further expression in a series of wall panels depicting Australian native wildlife, which were to become a commercial success and a focal point of his workshop on Toorak Road, South Yarra. Created from around 1912 up until the mid-1920s, the panels were inspired by depictions of Australian fauna in photographs, images in naturalist texts and works by Australian artists. From these sources, Prenzel interpreted his subjects in three dimensions, in naturalistic settings, presenting them within a rough-hewn frame. The use of a template allowed for different compositions and individual alterations to a subject, while the flora depicted in the panels were recalled from memory or specimens gathered from Prenzel’s garden.
The faunal panels presented here formed part of the collection of the late Theodore Fink (1855-1942) and have remained in the ownership of his family and descendants since they were acquired directly from Robert Prenzel.
A prominent solicitor, politician and long-standing shareholder and chairman of the Herald newspaper, Fink’s commercial interests were counterbalanced by a strong association with the arts – he was a long-standing member of the Victorian Artist’s Society and a familiar of some of the leading lights of the Melbourne arts community in the early 20th century. The largest of the panels, an animated tableaux dated 1926, depicts four Kookaburras perched on a leafy Eucalyptus branch and captures Prenzel’s ability to imbue his faunal subjects with personality. The panel was featured in the retrospective of Prenzel’s work staged by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1994 and is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, although incorrectly listed as dating from 1921. The second panel, dated 1925, features a solitary Koala clinging to a Eucalyptus branch, carved in high relief, simultaneously displaying Prenzel’s technical mastery and his personal interpretation of one of Australia’s faunal icons.
The Robert Prenzel faunal panels from the estate of the late Theodore Fink will be offered in the Classic Furniture & Objects auction on Saturday 30th May. Australian and European artworks from Fink collection will be offered in the June Fine Art auction.
Head of Classic Furniture & Objects
03 8825 5611 / 0407 828 137
Reference: Terence Lane, Robert Prenzel 1866-1941: His Life and Work, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1994