Engberg on Leason

Eminent curator and writer Juliana Engberg writes a rollicking piece on CAM’s most favoured work by Percy Leason (1889 -1959). This follows an earlier reflection on the same painting by Andrew Goodman: it seems these children always elicit a strong response.

Percy Leason, (Two of the artist’s Children, Jack and Jean), c1922. Gift of Max Leason, 1990, Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Copyright Estate of the Artist. Image: Ian Hill.

Oh . . . only two of his children. That’s a strangely edited family glimpse considering Percy Leason and his wife, Isabelle, eventually had six children and more than two where already in the picture, so to speak, at the time of this painting coming into being. Perhaps the painting was made, somewhat subliminally, in response to Percy’s omission from the formal 1903 ‘family’ photograph. The Leason family, as shown in Margot Tasca’s comprehensive book, Percy Leason: An Artist’s Life, presents itself as respectable, upright, complete. Somehow balanced and triangular in group shape by virtue of the exclusion of Percy and his brother.

At any rate, when Percy decided to paint his children – owned, objectified, observed, somewhat clinically described – only two got the gong. Perhaps he was going for nonchalance. 

Given his strict adherence to showing only what could be ‘perceived’, maybe it’s that only Jean and Jack (their actual names) were in his line of vision that afternoon in the altogether between-wars-room which cast distinct shadows that allowed him to experiment with the procedures of tonalism. The whole scene is pasted in tones of brown, green, yellow and beige – a sombre, dark palette embedded in Leason’s psyche from the lessons of Bernard Hall who detested bright colour – except the cardigan, which gives it away.

Little Jean’s coral pink hand-knit tells the lie that is composition as compared to truth in found observation. It has been put there, and on her, to draw the eye, to anchor the scene. Without it the entire thing falls apart, has no pull. This is a deliberate inclusion. It doesn’t go with the light dress underneath either. It’s been buttoned over her round little torso and she is none too happy about it. Jean has the combination of facial attributes inherited from her parents, Percy and Isabelle, both inclined, as they aged, to a heavy set and obdurate countenance. Jean would rather be outside in the air her pouty look says. Fair enough.

But no, she has been required to stand up straight in a chair she would not normally be allowed to stand on, so that Percy can contrive his triangular schema. By contrast, Jack is permitted to loll about in a loose fashion to show that he is rebellious and in control of his own playtime. At any rate, Jack’s louche reclining puts another dark section in a scheme that is playing hide and seek with the geometric gridding of proto-modernist Rennie Mackintosh, and (dare we even think it) fully-fledged geometric – Mondrian.

The coral pink cardigan offsets the verdant green and cream scene above Jean’s head. One of Percy’s diligent landscape efforts, composed en-plein-air, no doubt, on an artist camp outing up near Eltham or Warrandyte. It is a landscape of tonalism made from decisive daubs and smears which demonstrates the squinting lessons of Max Meldrum, Percy’s hero and later nemesis, proving that blurred scenes come into focus under the right conditions. The condition here is created by the eye leaping from the coral pink to the restful green.

It’s such a particular coral pink shade. It amuses me to think that Clarice Beckett, one of Percy’s early artistic circle, might have knitted the cardigan as a gift, knowing perhaps that little Jean might end up in the gloom at the heavier end of tonalism, and deciding to bring a little Beaumaris seaside brightness into the child’s life. Or that she perhaps visited one afternoon for a cup of tea and said …’Oh Percy, you need some colour there, here let me lend you my coral pink tube of paint.’ Of course, this is just a flight of fancy, but the colour is distinctly hers all the same.

Percy came later to pinks and oranges and higher key colours. Once he went to America things got decidedly brash and sharper. Percy’s wife, Isabelle, for instance, is hectically colourful in vivid red in the double portrait Wife in the Artist Studio 1955–56, which also shows a number of types of paintings you might order, should you be inclined, from Percy the artist (you can tell as he holds a paint brush, always eager to prove his credentials with props, especially easels, in numerous self-portraits and photographs) – Still Lifes, Portraits, ‘Arrangements’. Percy is holding out against too much colour in his attire of green, cream and dark brown/black, in which he now acts as a stand-in for one of his landscape paintings, and Isabelle has the job of popping the eye as Jean once did.

For all its conceit as an informal scene, Two of the Artist’s Children is a highly organised composition, virtually didactic in some of its messages. There is a certain lugubriousness in the dark right-hand side where an oddly tilted bookcase seems to engulf one quarter of the picture space. (Odd because Percy was renowned for his skill in axonometric and perspectival drawing.) It peculiarly cuts off a bit of the cameo landscape’s frame, which itself seems to sit on top of another work. The problem is the architectural dado, I guess, if we are holding to the truth to perception theory, or perhaps the truncation alludes to a process of artistic cancellation. Added to these artistic insurgencies the entire picture is somehow cut off from its logical frame – again a nod to or contrivance of informality. Deliberately, the yellow slab of bookcase paint provides a strong surface upon which Jean’s shadow is cast to offer solidity to the whole event. Although things get decidedly lost in the lower right corner which becomes a darkened abyss.

For all its defects, with Two of the Artist’s Children Percy Leason affectionately strives for something and the painting announces a moment of artistic decision-making between the domestically hot-housed tonalism of the so-named Meldrumites, and the riskier leap to internationalist abstractions that are in this instance camouflaged by the interior architecture of a house that has borrowed its grid from the arts and crafts movement. In the end Percy opted for the domestic, as his picture and subject suggests.

From all accounts he was an affectionate father. A determined provider. A technically competent artist. A diligent disciple to the lessons of tonalism which he elaborated and expanded upon in exacting detail in pedantically planned charts and much writing, devotedly published by his youngest son Max, who gifted this wonderful picture of his two siblings. A painting I always enjoy viewing when at the Castlemaine Art Museum.


Juliana Engberg

July 2021

Juliana Engberg

Curator and writer Juliana Engberg is currently engaged as Senior Curator Global Contemporary at the Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand. She was the Programme Director of the European Capital of Culture Aarhus, Denmark 2017; Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire 2014 and has been visual arts curator of numerous international festivals and Biennales. She was Artistic Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Senior Curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art and Deputy Director at the Monash University Gallery. She commenced her career at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries. She is a Fellow of Goodenough College, London; Professorial Fellow at Monash University and Adjunct Professor at RMIT.

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