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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Prenzel, Robert Wilhelm (1866–1941)

by Terence Lane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Robert Wilhelm Prenzel (1866-1941), woodcarver and cabinetmaker, was born on 30 March 1866 at Kittlitztreben, Prussia, son of Robert Wilhelm Prenzel, carpenter, and his wife Johanna. After completing a four-year apprenticeship with the Elbing woodcarver Gebauer, he studied at the Düsseldorf Academy, and 'carved' his way through Europe for four years before arriving in Melbourne on 24 November 1888. On 28 November 1890 he married Mina Schelling; they had three children. He was naturalized in 1897.

In Melbourne Prenzel first worked for a shipbuilder and, as a modeller of terracotta architectural ornaments, for Otto Waschatz. During the 1890s he designed furniture for Nunan Bros and was in partnership with Johann Treede. Treede & Prenzel, architectural modellers, designers and woodcarvers, worked on such projects as the carvings of the ceiling and walls of St Patrick's Cathedral. In the early 1900s Prenzel was in business on his own as a woodcarver in South Melbourne, and, from about 1910 to 1930, as a furniture manufacturer in Toorak Road, South Yarra.

Prenzel was a craftsman of great skill and facility and, during his long working-life, produced numerous carvings and great quantities of cabinet furniture. His early work was in the Continental Gothic-Renaissance and Rococo revival styles; but, encouraged by J. A. Panton 'to carve things which would be more readily understood … the flora and fauna of Australia', he became a champion of things Australian, establishing a native garden at Black Rock and becoming an adviser to the Commonwealth government on Australian timbers. His circle of friends included the photographer J. W. Lindt and the botanists J. H. Maiden and Percy St. John. Prenzel is best remembered today for his furniture and carvings featuring Australian motifs, often in the Art Nouveau style in Australian timbers. His most ambitious works date from the early years of the twentieth century, when he was 'taken up' by Melbourne and Western District society, and include extensive suites of furniture, the carved staircase (now dismantled) of Glenormiston homestead, near Terang, for Steuart Black. He also worked for W. T. Manifold of Purrumbete, near Camperdown. Much of his work also found its way interstate and overseas. Anti-German feeling during and following World War I, and a vicious campaign mounted against him by the Graphic of Australia, led to the loss of an important part of his clientele and during the 1920s he relied to a greater extent upon church commissions.

During the 1930s Prenzel was in semi-retirement at his house at Black Rock where he died of arteriosclerotic heart disease on 15 July 1941. He was buried in Springvale cemetery. Family photographs show him to have been a man of short build, with a moustache and trimmed beard.

Prenzel was the most important member of a group of professional and amateur carvers who worked in a distinctly Australian idiom in the first quarter of this century. The largest collection of his work is in the National Gallery of Victoria, which also holds papers, including drawings, sketches, templates, trade catalogues and photograph albums of executed work. He is also represented in the National Gallery of Australia and the Art galleries of South Australia and Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • Graphic of Australia, 7, 21 July, 22 Sept 1916
  • Triad (Sydney), 10 May 1923
  • Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1931, Saturday camera supplement
  • naturalisation file A1/97/F2738 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Terence Lane, 'Prenzel, Robert Wilhelm (1866–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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