May 2019

Arts & Letters

Leonard French’s Balzacian life

By Patrick McCaughey

Leonard French underneath his stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria, 1968. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia, NAA: A1200, L71149

Reg MacDonald’s biography may return this Australian artist to the national imagination

Leonard French’s life is like a novel by Balzac. From obscurity and poverty, he became the pre-eminent artist in Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s, with multiple prestigious public commissions. The Sydney Morning Herald declared that 1968 was “the year of Leonard French”. French knew the patronage and friendship of the good and the great, from Kenneth Myer to H.C. “Nugget” Coombs. Yet from the mid 1980s to his death in 2017 aged 88, his reputation, even his fame, was slowly but inexorably eclipsed.

Reg MacDonald has written The Boy from Brunswick: Leonard French (Australian Scholarly Publishing; $69.95) in a suitably colloquial manner – Balzacian, one might say. Few biographies of Australian painters record that the “artist had given the finger to the art establishment”, or that “he jammed his paintbrush up the nose of the establishment”. MacDonald, a former managing editor of the Bendigo Advertiser, keeps his long and engrossing story moving and doesn’t mind sliding into clichés along the way. Zelman Cowen “gets the ball rolling”, women are “the fair sex”, Ireland becomes “the Emerald Isle” and, Heaven forfend, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

MacDonald got to know French after the latter moved to Heathcote, central Victoria, in the 1970s. The biography, 10 years in the making, grew out of 30 hours of taped conversations. There are losses and gains in such a method. It bends the arc of favourability towards French; equally, we hear his voice – clear, insistent and acute – throughout the book. In life, French’s preferred mode in conversation was the soliloquy.

His beginnings were tough even by the standards of East Brunswick in the 1930s. The “bloody misery of it all” was hard to escape. The workingman’s weatherboard cottage made for a claustrophobic home. French escaped to a garden shed where he started painting. And there was literature: Les Misérables was an early favourite; he was caught reading it in a maths class. He quickly found his way to the Homeric epics, a lasting source of inspiration.

Beyond primary school there was no education; you had to learn a trade. French started as a plumber, something he loathed, calling it “a shit-house trade”. By a happy chance he found his way to A.C. Mence, sign-writers, and was apprenticed there at the age of 14 in 1942. It was a hard slog but it gave him a disciplined work ethic, the capacity to mix colours, a sense of scale and, importantly for later work, the skill of gilding.

Instead of French undertaking a formal art education, two kindly artists took an interest in him. Ailsa Donaldson, later the wife of the accomplished social realist painter Vic O’Connor, had him for casual classes at Brunswick Tech. Later, attending the compulsory course in sign-writing at the Melbourne Technical College, he literally bumped into Victor Greenhalgh, the sculptor and head of the school. Impressed by French’s juvenile watercolours he invited him to attend his classes gratis.

It wasn’t much but it gave French his start as an artist. At 19, now a qualified sign-writer, he chucked his job, left home and set up in a minute studio in Ascot Vale. It was hardly the Left Bank but it was a brave, even cocky, assertion that French was determined to become an artist, privations notwithstanding.

At first the gamble paid off. French produced a substantial group of paintings and held his first one-man show at Tye’s Gallery at the end of 1949. It was, in MacDonald’s words, “a stunning success”. Sales amounted to 160 guineas. Sidney Nolan had shown his first and finest Ned Kelly series in the same gallery the previous year and sold nothing. But French’s exhibition was a false dawn. It would be more than a decade before he enjoyed a similar commercial success, unfairly and unkindly, for he produced some of his best work in the 1950s.

In the late ’40s French fell in love with Joy McDonald, who had her own artistic aspirations. She had attended art classes in the Melbourne Technical College in the late 1930s and had danced in the Borovansky Ballet company. She was 11 years older than French, more sophisticated, more socially accomplished, coming from staunchly middle-class Hawthorn. When the lovers discovered she was pregnant, “surprise and shame convulsed them”. Hastily, they were married. Both had dreamed of travelling to London; Joy had been steadily saving and in fact had already booked a ticket. Breathtakingly, it was French who used the ticket. He sailed to England; Joy would wait until the baby was born and then join him in London. This episode exposes a ruthlessness in French where women and his career intersected. He landed in London with “exactly eight quid in my kick”.

French’s nine months in London were hard going, but with moments of excitement and illumination. Shortly after his arrival he saw a large retrospective of Fernand Léger at the Tate, which proved a lasting and beneficial influence. Other epiphanies came by chance. One evening walking by the Royal Albert Hall, he got a standing-room ticket and heard an all-Beethoven concert with Erich Kleiber as conductor and Alfred Cortot as soloist. He went to the first production of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Although French got a job at the Ebury Court Hotel, London was tough financially. He found a cheap room at the Abbey, a strange collective run by the well-connected William Ohly, who had a soft spot for Australians. French met and befriended the Irish artist Gerard Dillon, who was equally poor. Boiled cabbage was the menu for their first dinner. Dillon instilled in French a desire to see Connemara and the west coast of Ireland. French slogged it round Ireland, sleeping in the bogs at night, forever at the mercy of Ireland’s wet and cold. MacDonald quotes from his letters back to Joy, which confessed “a great loneliness in this strange place”.

Back in Melbourne, Joy had given birth to twin girls, Anna and Alison. French, “stone, motherless broke”, worked his passage back as a steward, originally in first class but speedily demoted to tourist class. He jumped ship in Sydney and hitchhiked back to Melbourne. French was broke and had nowhere to live with his new family. They were delivered to a shared house in Coburg through the agency of his stalwart mother, Myrtle. French acquired a studio down Sydney Road in Brunswick and secured a sign-writing job. It was tenuous but workable. In early 1952, however, at a dinner party in his old studio in Ascot Vale, French met the dashing, voluble and markedly pretty Helen Bald. “The attraction was instantaneous and consuming,” MacDonald records. Within weeks, French had left Joy and the twins. He and Helen moved into his tatty Brunswick studio.

Nearly 70 years after the event, it still makes for painful reading. It caused deprivation all round. French was earning 12 pounds a week as a sign-writer. Divided in two, it barely supported either family. Helen French, as she later became, was a gifted designer and dressmaker. She started her own business, which rescued their end of the story.

Melbourne in the 1950s was a bleak place for contemporary artists. In 1952, French exhibited his Iliad series at the Peter Bray Gallery and sold three small paintings. Three years later, his exhibition on the Odyssey produced only two sales totalling 6o pounds. (MacDonald is excellent on these telling financial details.) French’s circle of friends and admirers, however, was growing apace. The poet Vincent Buckley opened his Odyssey series and became a lifelong friend. Alan McCulloch, the increasingly influential art critic at the Melbourne Herald, proved a vigorous and articulate supporter. Friendships with artists extended to Fred Williams, George Johnston, Bob Dickerson, Roger Kemp and Arthur Boyd. French was the coming man.

Clement Meadmore, then known as much for his industrial design skills as his sculpture, invited French to paint a mural for a new cafe he was designing for Ion Nicolaides in Bourke Street, next to the Tivoli Theatre. French produced a seven-part series on Sinbad the Sailor. Exhibited earlier this year at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, the paintings have an electric force and presence, with French’s expressive Cubism derived from Léger and Robert Delaunay in full flight.

The architect Rod Macdonald commissioned French to produce a huge and heroic mural in the new Beaurepaire sports centre at the University of Melbourne in time for the 1956 Olympic Games. With this impetus, French abandoned sign-writing and got a job teaching art and design at the Melbourne College of Printing and Graphic Arts, and a part-time job at the Richmond Tech, where he met and mentored Jan Senbergs.

At the close of the 1950s, Melbourne showed signs of waking up from its cultural stupor. Eric Westbrook had become director of the National Gallery of Victoria and was determined to introduce contemporary art into the gallery’s offerings. He made the inspired choice of French as the first exhibitions officer. Some memorable exhibitions followed. I can still remember The Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki: visual epics on the destruction of Hiroshima, harrowing and tragic. It attracted a huge public to the gallery in the pre-blockbuster era. French also mounted some important contemporary Australian exhibitions, including a retrospective of the prickly Godfrey Miller.

The 1960s and ’70s were French’s apogee. The ascent was rapid, from 1958, when he exhibited at John and Sunday Reed’s Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia, and sold only one painting, to winning in quick succession the Crouch, the Perth and the Sulman prizes, along with the more dubious Peace Prize from the International Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament – a communist front. From 1959 onwards Rudy Komon became French’s dealer and launched the new dispensation by buying five paintings from French’s Genesis series for 900 pounds. Overnight, Komon changed the dealer–artist relationship. He adopted an open-handed munificence towards his artists, normally taking the form of wads of cash. It brought intense loyalty from those he represented.

Reg MacDonald, clearly fascinated by Komon’s roguish character, treats him obsessively and repetitiously throughout the book. Komon liked to play the ringmaster, flying from Sydney to Melbourne to host marathon lunches and bibulous dinners. He was ubiquitous at openings of prize exhibitions, where he campaigned shamelessly for his artists. But there were downsides to the bear’s embrace. Komon rarely wooed the directors or curators of major public galleries. Indeed, he held them in open contempt (with the exception of Edmund Capon, who gave as good as he got). Komon cared little about placing works in public collections. His preferred strategy was to corner an artist’s work, hold it and then sell it to selected collectors as though bestowing an immense favour on them.

Sometimes Komon was too clever by half. When French produced the magnum opus of his mid career, on the life and martyrdom of the English Jesuit Edmund Campion, Komon bought nine works from the series. The dazzled crowd at the opening found there was little left to buy. Consequently, the Campion series all but disappeared from public view even as it accelerated French’s fame. The elaborately worked surfaces – rich enamels on gesso grounds with much gilding – were a departure for French. The hieratic symmetry imposed on them increased the decorative effect. The artisan with a conscious desire to enrich the work took over from the expressive painter. Campion’s martyrdom became a gorgeous display of materiel. I recall Albert Tucker, freshly landed from 13 years exile, cruelly jibing that French was painting “religious ashtrays”.

French’s creative tension – between artist and artisan – would be steadily exacerbated through the 1960s when he worked on three major glass commissions: the Great Hall ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria, 16 windows at the National Library of Australia, and the Lindesay Clark window in Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall. Collectively, they represent an act of immense labour, fortitude and courage. The works may have won French national recognition but they came at a cost personally and artistically.

When NGV architect Roy Grounds airily commissioned the Great Hall ceiling, French had neither a workshop nor assistants to manufacture such an immense piece. French purchased an old flour mill in Heathcote, which gave him the space to lay out his design, section by section. He employed Les Hawkins, his old assistant at the NGV, who moved his family into the mill and took charge of production. The two men produced the entire work. For the five years’ hard labour it involved, French received about $80,000 out of which he had to pay Hawkins’ wages. Where Grounds made close to a $1 million in fees and was knighted for the ineptly designed gallery, French received a paltry OBE.

French’s work schedule was a killer for all concerned. He caught the bus to Heathcote – he never learnt to drive – on Sunday afternoon, worked an arduous week and returned to his family on Friday afternoon. He was an absent husband and father to his second family. The marriage to Helen came apart in 1974 and they divorced two years later.

What do we make of French’s major glass projects today? Sasha Grishin, a French loyalist, observed shrewdly that by devoting “the lion’s share of his time … to monumental glass public projects [he] was marginalising himself in the context of the Australian art hierarchy”. The Great Hall ceiling was initially admired as a feat of arms on French’s part. But the composition, then and now, remains stubbornly hard to read. The suggestions of a serpent or French’s trademark turtles can only be seen fleetingly through the dominating black armatures holding the work together. The National Library windows are more easily understood. You are painfully aware of the chunky, primitive effect of the self-taught glassmaker. A comparison with Jean Bazaine’s contemporaneous windows at the church of Saint-Séverin in Paris, with their luminous cascades of colour, is salutary.

Reg MacDonald suggests that French was aware of the artistic cost of these commissions: it was time away from painting. His American series, The Journey, comprised the first paintings to emerge after the big glass works. They grew out of French’s unhappy stay in the United States as a Harkness Fellow in 1966. According to Helen French, he “hated America”. It was not an easy time. The police riot at Selma was only a year old when the Frenches arrived at Yale. The New York art scene was incredibly lively, with pop, minimalism and colour field all staking their claims; none of them interested French. The city itself was falling into disarray, divided, dirty and often dangerous.

The Journey was partly inspired by William Faulkner’s early novel, As I Lay Dying. The paintings had French’s familiar declamatory imagery: the ship, the covered wagon, the cannon and so on. But the mood in Australian art had altered. A new generation of critics, such as The Australian’s Margaret Plant, found them wanting: “the decorative gloss of these paintings … will completely mask the empty rhetoric of this epic”. Yet, French’s contemporaries – James Gleeson, Laurie Thomas and Alan McCulloch – continued to trumpet his achievement. In McCulloch’s words, they were nothing less than a celebration of “the heroic pilgrimage of man”.

There was one notable exception among the later French works: The Bridge, a mural-scale painting commissioned by the South African mining and industrial magnate Harry Oppenheimer, for his Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. Stupendously wealthy, an opponent of apartheid, a man who knew everyone, Oppenheimer was the perfect patron for French. Although variations on The Bridge’s theme were shown in Melbourne in 1985, the actual work has never been exhibited in Australia. The Bridge depicts the struggle between anonymous armed figures to command a wooden bridge. Flames lick the timbers. More figures press forward from beneath. It is an image of unending conflict and, from the reproduction in MacDonald’s biography, a marvellous painting.

One of the peculiar ironies of contemporary art is that an artist’s reputation is held in the mouths and minds of the succeeding generation. Fred Williams, Roger Kemp, John Brack and John Olsen, among others, were lauded by their immediate successors. In turn, the older showed interest in what the younger were doing; not always approvingly, but there was a conversation. From the 1970s onwards, French largely shunned the upcoming generation, with the exceptions of Jan Senbergs and George Baldessin, already part of the Komon stable. For the rest French showed indifference bordering on contempt. Younger artists returned his indifference in kind. Over the years French had developed a reputation as a kingmaker in the Melbourne art world. Whether real or imagined, it further antagonised the younger generation. French’s removal to Heathcote hastened the decline of his reputation and his influence in the art world.

Divorced from Helen, French fell deeply in love with Elaine Newcomb, 18 years younger than him, an American of Quaker origins, and an art historian who was working as an assistant in Rudy Komon’s gallery. His marriage to Elaine was his happiest. French was then diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1985. Worse was to follow: his hands were crippled by Dupuytren’s contracture. At the turn of the millennium, French struggled to sell from his gallery shows. He was yesterday’s man.

In Australian art a single article such as Daniel Thomas’s essay on Grace Cossington Smith in Art and Australia in 1967, let alone a book, can revive an artist’s career from obscurity. The measure of quality in Reg MacDonald’s biography is that it may well do so for Leonard French. One may regret the fugitive relationship between text and image, but The Boy from Brunswick belongs with other seminal biographies of major Australian artists: Humphrey McQueen on Tom Roberts, Janine Burke on Albert Tucker, Darleen Bungey on Arthur Boyd.

In a measured, affectionate and perceptive foreword, Jan Senbergs sums up the matter perfectly: “It’s time for a major arts institution to present a Len French retrospective exhibition to bring his body of work out into the light of day and provide an opportunity for re-valuation. He’s been off stage for too long.”

Patrick McCaughey

Patrick McCaughey is a former director of the National Gallery of Victoria and has published widely on Australian art.

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