Alun Leach-Jones: Painter, Printmaker, Sculptor - Art Collector

Issue 37, July - September 2006

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Recognised as one of Australia’s leading abstract colour painters and included in the famous 1968 the field exhibition, Alun Leach-Jones started his art life as an illuminator in Liverpool, England. Five decades later, living and working in Sydney, his canvasses still carry many of the formal and fanciful characteristics of those early illuminations. Story by Peter Pinson.

Alun Leach-Jones was born in Lancashire in 1937. His father, a Welsh country schoolmaster, had little sympathy for art, although a favourite uncle encouraged the nine year-old boy to draw. He passed his childhood in a village in Northern Wales until 1949, when his family moved to Liverpool.

In 1951, aged only 14 and a half, Leach-Jones began a three year apprenticeship as a painter of illuminated manuscripts with the Solicitors Law Stationery Society Limited in Liverpool. Here, he worked in the midst of a row of fellow illuminators, perched on a stool, leaning over a Dickensian sloping desk. It was exacting work, requiring an immaculate painting technique, but it was a discipline that required considerable invention and could accommodate soaring flights of fantasy.

Typically an illumination would begin with a capital letter, put down as a shape. Then the elaborations would commence. A letter D might be accompanied by images of devils or demons, or by shapes that echoed or contested the curves of the D. Decorative elements would be squeezed into the interstices. Three-dimensional forms would play against flat shapes. Flamboyant arabesques would contrast with neatly ruled columns. The palette tended to be of sumptuous colours, pitted brightly against one another. Leach-Jones patiently mastered the precision required for illumination, and excelled at the opportunities for invention and elaboration. In 1958, his work at the Solicitors Law Stationery Society Limited was interrupted by National Service obligations which took him to West Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine. He returned to his desk in 1959 but was dismayed to find that his craft was being increasingly supplanted by technology. The allure of illuminating had for him become hopelessly compromised. He recognised that it was a discipline whose days were numbered. It was time for a fresh start.

In 1960 he migrated to Australia and began to study art part-time at the South Australian School of Art. He soon came to the view that his work with illumination had been a “wonderful training” for a fine artist, especially for an artist whose interests lay in colour and in abstract composition. The characteristics of his illuminations – clean edges, intense colours, carefully considered arrangements of shape, and the play between flatness and three-dimensional forms – became the characteristics of his paintings.

By the mid 1960s, aged about 30, he was working on his Noumenon series which swiftly established and sealed his reputation as one of Australia’s leading abstract colour painters. He participated in The Field exhibition which opened the newly built National Gallery of Victoria in 1968. This exhibition, which included the work of Sydney Ball, Col Jordan, David Aspen and Peter Booth, focused on those artists who had emerged over the previous few years with work that was precisely calculated, abstract, and overwhelmingly concerned with flat, aggressive colour relationships. These were the characteristics that would underpin and nourish Leach-Jones’s work for the next four decades.

Leach-Jones also established a formidable reputation as a printmaker, working with master printmakers including Larry Rawling, Diana Davidson and Michelle Perry. Silk screen printing was the perfect medium for dealing with his interest in flat areas of colour, but he has also worked in lithography, etching and lino cuts. He has completed well in excess of 150 editions of prints in his career. One of his notable silk screen prints employed 73 different colours, which was considered to be a world record for a silk screen print by a major artist.

While Leach-Jones is best known for his paintings, drawings and prints, he has also been making small bronze sculptures over the last 18 years. In the early 1970s, prominent Melbourne sculptor Lenton Parr had foreseen how well Leach-Jones’s capacity to invent and arrange shapes could be expressed in sculpture, but at that time Leach-Jones was unconvinced. Years later, in 1988, Robert Klippel visited Leach-Jones’s studio. He noticed a small three-dimensional arrangement made from thin sheets of balsa wood. Leach-Jones had constructed it to explore and clarify some compositional issues he was contending with in a painting.

“Let me have a cast of this made,” Klippel requested. Leach-Jones dubiously consented. When Klippel returned with the balsa cast in bronze, Leach-Jones was astonished. To his surprise, it successfully retained the same skirmishing of contending shapes that was at the heart of his paintings. Moreover, the abstract arrangements unfurled unpredictably as one walked around the piece, like the unravelling narrative of some picaresque novel. Lenton Parr had been right.

Unlike Klippel, whose assemblages were made from components that had been found or acquired, Leach-Jones has pieces of timber cut and shaped to his precise instructions, and he then sets about positioning them together with the same fastidious precision he employs in his paintings. There is nothing two-dimensional or bas-relief-like about these sculptures; they are not “painter’s sculptures”. They are domestic in size – typically only about 35 cms high – yet they possess a sense of scale; there is something epic about them.

Alun Leach-Jones’s work may be viewed in all the State Galleries, which have collected many of his largest paintings. He is represented by Rex Irwin Art Dealer in Sydney, by BMGART in Adelaide, and by the Bruce Heiser Gallery in Brisbane. Although he has commanded a firm following among private collectors since the mid-1960s, his paintings appear at auctions only infrequently. Leach-Jones is himself at a loss to explain this phenomenon (other than taking the obvious and flattering inference that owners are reluctant to trade away his work). Collectors wishing to acquire one of his works at auction would need to be particularly patient. On the other hand, Leach-Jones’s paintings are remarkably consistent in quality (unlike, say, the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman), and a work being offered in an auction is not likely to be inferior to works available through dealers.

Flawless and immaculate surfaces are an important dimension of Leach-Jones’s paintings. Initial purchasers are generally required to contract to return to him any painting which has sustained damage, to allow him to undertake the restoration. He would normally undertake such reparation without charge.

Alun Leach-Jones has been the subject of an impressively extensive bibliography. The major book is the Craftsman House monograph published in 1988, written by his poet friend Robert Gray, Graeme Sturgeon (who had been the initial Director of Artbank) and Christopher Gentle (the inaugural Director of Sydney’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery). This monograph was republished in an expanded edition in 1995. An unusually large number of substantial and detailed catalogues have accompanied his solo exhibitions, generally with serious and penetrating essays. His paintings and prints have been the subject of six mid-career Survey exhibitions in Australian institutional galleries, and at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum in Swansea, Wales.

Leach-Jones’s coming exhibition in Brisbane is titled The Plain Sense of Things after a poem by Wallace Stevens (1878-1955). Stevens was an American poet whose work Leach-Jones admires. Something of Stevens’s melancholy is echoed in the sombre blacks of Leach-Jones’s paintings, in the passages of claustrophobically compressed forms, and in the motifs which obliquely hint at their sources: a pair of spectacles on a surgeon’s operating dish, or an amputation saw, or a labourer’s cripplingly heavy tool of trade. However, Leach-Jones’s allusions to life’s miseries are more than offset by his glorious colours which bustle and pulsate with the resounding exaltation of a Chartres window.

Alun Leach-Jones owns an extensive collection of volumes of poetry. Geoffrey Dutton described it as one of the best private collections of books of poetry in Australia. It is not surprising that he admired the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose work has been described as “enigmatic, elegant, intelligent” with “occasionally startling meditations on order and the imagination, on reality, appearance and art”. After all, that description applies equally aptly to his own work. Nor is it surprising that he was delighted when Peter Goldsworthy said, when opening his recent exhibition in Adelaide: “You’re never more than one poet away from Alun Leach-Jones.” •

Alun Leach-Jones’s solo exhibition titled The Plain Sense of Things is at the Bruce Heiser Gallery in Brisbane from 22 August until 16 September, 2006. The largest painting in the show, 168 x 214cm, is priced at $33,000, and the smallest paintings, 71 x 97cm, at $10,000.

Rex Irwin Art Dealer is exhibiting Leach-Jones’s recent sculptures at the Melbourne Art Fair which runs from 2 to 6 August, 2006. These domestic-sized bronze sculptures will be priced at $8,000.

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