Michael Leonard – Biography

I was born in India in 1933 to British parents and in 1945 at the end of the war in Europe I returned to England to complete my education. In 1954, after two years of National Service in the army, I went to St Martin’s School of Art in London and studied Commercial Design and Illustration, (subjects that at the time seemed more likely than fine art to provide me with a viable future). By the time I left Art School in 1957 I was already working as a freelance illustrator and for many years was busy producing artwork for books, magazines, advertising and the press. Much of the work on offer was stimulating and enjoyable but after a time I felt the need to express a more personal vision. Lunch hour visits to the National Gallery fed a growing ambition to make pictures for the wall rather than the page — work that would be experienced in the original rather than in reproduction.

As an illustrator I worked in a small studio attached to the offices of my agents ‘Artist Partners’ in Soho. Meanwhile at home I experimented, trying to discover my voice as a painter. Some of this work eventually came to the attention of Fischer Fine Art, a distinguished London gallery of the day and in 1972 several of my paintings were included in one of their group shows. In 1974 they gave me my first One Man Show and after that I gradually left illustration behind.

I was nearly forty when my life as an exhibiting painter began. At first my pictures tended to be formal, sober and low key — an attempt perhaps to distance myself from the sensational values of the commercial world. People sat in rooms, posed with their dogs in London’s parks or went sailing on the river. By degrees my work became more animated and colourful. In Afternoon of the Kites, a crowd of people are seen flying kites under a thundery sky while in Changing, workers tug off their shirts in front of the red hoardings of a building site. Across the street from my studio men worked with unconscious grace against a grid of scaffolding and sky and this led me to paint several highly structured pictures such as Scaffolders, Passage of Arms and Up on the Roof.

The people in my pictures were usually friends who were kind enough to model for me but I also painted portraits to commission and among my subjects were Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Lucie-Smith, Adrian Ward Jackson, Sir Peter Moores and the Marquess and Marchioness of Hartington (now the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire). In 1985 Reader’s Digest commissioned me to paint a portrait of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her sixtieth birthday. (It is now in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection). Also in the 1980’s I completed two group portraits: Fischer Fine Art Ltd (my gallery at the time) and Prudence Cuming Associates (specialists in photographing works of art). Both paintings required thirteen portraits and I welcomed the challenge since I knew the organisations well and was familiar with their hierarchies.

The nude, particularly the male nude, has been a recurring theme. My figures are usually on the move or in a state of transition but even when they are at rest dynamism is provided by the design of the picture. This can be seen in Vanitas, (a sleeping man cradling a skull) Watermelons, (a torso as part of a ‘tableau’ with fruit) and in Pomegranate Man and Nectarine Man. Almost all my paintings of the nude are based on drawings which, besides being preparatory studies, are ends in themselves.

Portraits in Time is a series of more complex drawings that transpose contemporary faces to the art of the past. These drawings are in a category of their own, since they also include an element of play. Like the rest of my work however they are celebratory and designed to stimulate the imagination.

© Michael Leonard