Leonard French, who died on 10 January at the age of 88, was the man behind the iconic stained glass ceiling in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Remarkably, this monumental undertaking, which was unveiled in 1968, was his first effort in the medium.
These days French is perhaps most well known for this work, and other creations in stained glass such as his windows for the National Library in Canberra. But in previous decades he was a highly successful painter.
In his 1969 book, Australian Art and Artists in the Making, Craig McGregor pointed out that French was “one of the most highly-priced painters in Australia”.
In his tribute to French NGV director Tony Elwood said, “During the 1960s and 1970s French was one of Australia’s most prominent artists and developed a unique modernist style through which he expressed a deep humanism and spirituality.”
French was born in Brunswick in 1928. The inner city Melbourne suburb had yet to be gentrified and French’s family were working class. His father was a leather worker. French studied at the Melbourne Technical College, 1944-1947, and he started his career as a sign-writer. He held his first solo exhibition in 1949 in Melbourne. In the 1950s, French also designed sets and costumes for ballet productions, taught painting and worked as an exhibitions officer at the NGV for four years.
During the 1950s and 1960s, French travelled extensively visiting: Ireland, Holland, Belgium, India, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Spain, France, England, Greece and the USA. He was assisted by both a Peace Congress Prize and a Harkness Scholarship.
French described himself to McGregor as “a sophisticated peasant”. He never lost his desire to work with his hands saying, “I like to have a bit of trade work to do each morning, it puts me in the right frame of mind.”
French also told McGregor that “All art is religious.” So it is fitting that he won the Blake Prize for religious art twice, first in 1963, then in 1980. He was also awarded the Sulman Prize in 1960 and an OBE (Order of British Empire) in 1968.
Leonard French’s work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia collection as well as in all of the state galleries and numerous major international collections, including MoMA in New York. As Tony Elwood said, “Throughout his long life, French made an extraordinary contribution to the arts in Australia”.