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 Percy Alexander Leason  (1889 - 1959)

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Lived/Active: New York / Australia      Known for: book illustration, cartoons, portrait painting

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Percy Alexander Leason
An example of work by Percy Alexander Leason
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following was submitted by Max A. Leason, son of the artist.


Percy Leason was born in the remote wheat farm district of Kaniva, Victoria, Australia in 1889. His father was the proprietor of a saddlery shop, and his parents had expected he would carry on the family tradition of wheat farming or saddlery making. But in his adolescent years he demonstrated an early interest in drawing. He was reported to have built a studio in his back yard out of a piano case and odd bits of lumber where he spent time on his art activities. He painted landscapes, still life, studies, and portraits of himself and his mother.

His first encouragement came when he won first prize in painting at a State Fair in 1904. In his late grammar school years he attended an art school in the neighboring town of Nhill. Working odd jobs and doing sign painting in his country town seemed remote from his dream of becoming a famous artist. His father arranged for him to apprentice as a lithographer at Sands and McDougall Lithographers, in Melbourne in 1906. He soon transferred to the art department where he did illustrations for jam tin labels and department store advertisements. His first major illustration was for Carlton Brewery in Melbourne of Sam Griffis, of an itinerant miner, standing at a bar with a full pint of beer. The caption of the poster, "I allus has wan at Eleven", became a famous trademark for Foster beer.

He attended night classes at the Melbourne Gallery School under the tutelage of L. Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin, studying drawing, anatomy, form, tone and color. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he began a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle and developed camaraderie with the Melbourne artists of the time and associated himself with the Victorian Artist Society. His introduction to book illustration began in 1914 with pen and ink illustrations for "Pioneering Days in Western Victoria", followed by a book of poems by Henry Lawson in 1918.

In 1915 he painted a panoramic scene of the Australian and New Zealand Forces in Gallipoli, now in the War Memorial museum in Canberra. In 1916 he painted a series of canvases of the Sturt expedition into the interior of Australia in 1844. The largest of these, "Out of Food and Water", depicting the desperate situation of the expedition is in the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

His reputation as an illustrator secured him a position as chief designer with the commercial publishing firm of Smith and Julius Publishers in Sydney. There he worked as a lithographer, illustrated commercial advertisements, and "Home" magazine. He also served on the staff of the "Sydney Bulletin" as a political cartoonist. He became interested in etchings and joined the Sydney Society of Artists and the Painters and Etchers Society and associated himself with Sydney's contemporary artists. In 1918 his paintings and etchings were purchased by The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

In 1923, he was recruited by Keith Murdock of the "Melbourne Herald" to join as the chief staff artist. It was here that he developed the famous Wiregrass cartoon series. His illustrations also appeared in Melbourne Punch and Tabletalk magazine. At the time he was the highest paid commercial artist in Australia.

Returning to Melbourne, he settled in the town of Eltham where he built a home and one of the first art studios entirely devoted to painting. Teaching class and entertaining the society of Melbourne as well as his artist cronies, the town soon developed into an artist colony. Among its residents, who later became notable, was Justus Jorgensen of Montsalvat. In 1918 he met Max Meldrum who had just returned from France and expressed the ideas of tonal analysis. Leason who had moved to Sydney did not take his ideas too seriously. His painting still showed influences of the Melbourne Gallery School. When he moved back to Melbourne in 1924, the two men bonded their ideas and cemented the style of tonal realism they both would follow for the rest of their lives. Leason's articles in the press against contemporary art and support of Meldrum's theory helped the cause.

Participation in shows with Victorian Artist Society in Melbourne further advanced his career. In 1934 he was commissioned by Melbourne University to paint a series of portraits of Australian Aborigines. These were presented in an exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery, his first major solo exhibition. He developed a keen interest in prehistoric cave art and advanced the theory that these artist's made their drawings from sketches of dead beasts. This theory was presented at an archeology symposium in Cambridge, England in 1937.

The last notable portrait painted before his departure for the United States was a portrait of Basil Burdett. He was Australia's leading art critic, dealer and commentator. He was a strong supporter of Modernism and is credited with bringing the first European modern art exhibition to Australia in 1939.

Towards the end of the 1930's Leason became concerned, with the dwindling prospects of continued employment as a commercial artist, the rivalry in the Melbourne art scene between modern art and members of the Meldrum group, the impending World War, and faced with the responsibility of a family of six children, he decided that his chances for success would be in the United States.

He emigrated in 1938 and began his career in New York doing commercial illustration with pen and ink illustrations of murder mysteries and detective stories for the "New York Daily News", "Blue Book Magazine", and Street and Smith. His first major book illustration was "The Wizard Oz" by Frank Baum, Whitman Publishing Company, in 1939. He joined the illustrating compliment of the Gilbert Thompkins studios in New York, which led to illustrations in "Colliers", "Liberty", and the "Saturday Evening Post".

In 1942 he held his first exhibition at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, and in 1943 he became the chairman and president of the art section. He developed an interest in art on Staten Island with the first of the outdoor art shows that continues to be a Borough wide event. He also arranged the first annual Artist Carnival and increased the interest in the art section with seasonal annual exhibitions. He established his first painting school in New York City in 1941, and continued it on Staten Island until 1957. In the summer months of 1948 he taught painting and landscape at the Wayman Adams School in Elizabethtown, New York, and his own school in Westport, New York in 1949. He also served on the staff of the Westport Connecticut School of Commercial Art under the direction of Albert Dorne.

He presented lectures on the tonal analysis of painting and the dead model theory of quaternary cave art at the Staten Island Museum. In 1944 M. Grumbacher published a time chart Leason had developed outlining the historical development of tonal analysis as it applied to artists from 1200 to the present. Titled " The Rise and Decline of Painting", he placed modernism at the bottom the chart. It was distributed through the Scholastic awards program and caused some concern among educational circle's as well as kudos from supporters.

At this time the New York art world was going through great changes with the interest in Modernism and Expressionism. He vehemently opposed these ideas and contributed openly to the press in New York newspaper and the Staten Island Advance in the 50s. The only associations that were hold outs for realistic painting during this period were the Salmagundi Club, Allied Artists, and the American Artist Professional League. Leason became aligned with its members who felt the same way about the changing trends. He held lively painting demonstrations and lectures on realistic Tonalism as a defiance to the prevailing theories on art. During these years he painted many landscapes and studio studies, most of which are in the collection of the Castlemaine Gallery in Australia.

Associated with Portraits Incorporated, N.Y., he had the opportunity to paint some portraits of notoriety including Arlene Francis, TV personalities and the Honorable Dewey Short, congressman from Missouri and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which is in the collection of the House of Representatives, Washington, DC. A large portrait of Michael Engel, publicity director for M. Grumbacher art supplies won the Hollander prize in 1953 at the exhibition of Allied Artists. In 1957 he traveled with his wife Isabel to France and England. He painted several tonal studies of Paris and the countryside of the Dordogne region which he visited particularly to justify his theory of cave art. His last one man exhibition was held at the Chase Galleries NY where many of these studies were on exhibit.

In view of what was happening in the art world at this time, the exhibition received poor reviews. "Arts Magazine" stated that his paintings appeared to be nothing more than "numbered picture scenes". He tried to sue the magazine, but his failing health and lack of funds prevented this. It seemed there was no one at the time who understood anything about Tonalism, or even understood what his art works represented. Sales were very poor and Leason felt he had failed to gain recognition as an important artist.

He died on Staten Island, New York, practically penniless and very despondent at not having received adequate recognition for his labors. Two retrospective exhibitions were held at the Staten Island Institute and the Salmagundi Club. In tribute to his artistic genius, Staten Island Institute curator James Coggin, quoted from Frank Moore Coolly, "Every man ought to be inquisitive every hour of his great adventure down to the day when he shall no longer cast a shadow in the sun. For if he dies without a question in his heart what excuse is there for his continuance".

Such was the dedication and continuance of Percy Leason.


PUBLICATIONS:
Who's Who in American Art 1953,1959
Who's Who in Australian Art 1947
Australian Painting 1788-1960, Bernard Smith, Oxford 1962
The Story Australian Art, William Moore
Australian Painting 1788-1960 Bernard Smith, Oxford 1962
Making of Australian Art 1916-49 Sydney Ure Smith Patron and Publisher 1991
Nancy Undersell, Oxford
Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Alan McCulloch, 1968-Hutchison & Co.Ltd, London
The Victorian Historical Magazine, "Percy Leason: Artist,Cartoonist and Historian"
Victorian Historical Society, Vol. 39 154th issue, No.4, L.J. Blake, 1968
Small Treasures of a Lifetime, Lloyd Reuse, 1968, Rue Smith, Sydney AU
Pioneers and Painters, Alan Marshall, 1969, Thomas Nelson UST Ltd.
The Inked in Image, Vane Lindsay 1970.
On Lips of Living Men, John Thompson Lansdowne Press, Melbourne
"Wiregrass" A Mythical Australian Town; The Drawings of Percy Leason, Gary Hutchinson 1986- Lothian Pub Co.
"A Survey of Australian Comic Art" Heinemann, Melbourne AU
Max Meldrum and Associates, Peter and John Perry, 1996, Castlemaine Art Gallery,
Castlemaine, Vic. AU
Colin Colahan, A Portrait, Gary Kinnane, 1996, Melbourne University Press Vic, AU
"Recognition" Percy Leason Aboriginal Portraits, Michael Galimany, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra 1999 AU

WRITINGS:
"Some Factors in the Rise and Decline of Painting" Proceedings of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, Vol 10, parts 1-2, October 1942
"Some Aspects of Reality" ibid, Vol. 3 April 1951
New Evidence in Support of the Dead Model Theory of Prehistoric Cave Art ibid. 1951
"Obvious Facts of Quartnernary Cave Art" Medical Biological Illustration VolXII 1955
"Making Models in Three Dimensions from Quaternary Cave Pictures" VolXXI No.2 1959 ibid
"The Nude Study as an Exercise, Artist Magazine 1960
"A New View of the Western Group of Quaternary Cave Art" Proceedings London Prehistoric Society 1939.
"The Last of the Victorian Aborigines" Melbourne 1934
"Individuality an Ignorance" The Bulletin 2/15/1923
"Modern Art" The Bulletin 7/26/1923
"Truth in Art" The Bulletin 10/19/1922
"Australian Art" The Bulletin 6/28/1921
"The Artist and the Critique" The Bulletin 8/26/1920
"Clunes as Sketching Ground" Victorian Artist Society 33:4, 1914
"Experience in Painting" Unpublished test on Modern Perceptual Painting

SOLO EXHIBITIONS:
Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences 1942,1951
Salmagundi: " A Special Showing of Paintings by Percy Leason" 1960 Retrospective
Staten Island Institute of Arts Sciences, 1962 Retrospective
State Library of Victori, LaTrobe Library, Melbourne 1971
Centenary Exhibition, Catlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, Castlemaine AU 1989
"Recognition" Percy Leason Aboriginal Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra AU 1991

GROUP EXHIBITIONS:
Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences 1941-1959
Salmagundi, Allied Artist, American, Artist Professional League, National Academy of Design, NY 1942-1995

AUSTRALIAN EXHIBITIONS:
Victorian Artist Society 1916-1924
Australian Painters and Etches Society1921
Sydney Society of Artist 1919-1924

COLLECTIONS:
Staten Island Institute, NY
National Academy, NY
Butler Institute, Dayton, Ohio
Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon
Architect of Capitol, House of Representatives, Washington DC
Monash University, Vic. AU
Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, Castlemaine, Vic. AU
Latrobe Library, Melbourne Vic. AU
National Library of Australia, Canberra
State National Galleries of Australia, Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia.

MEMBERSHIPS:
United States:
Audubon Artist,Allied Artist's,American Artist Professional League,Salmagundi Club 1945-1959
New York Illustrators Society 1943
Royal Art Society, London, England 1945
Masquires Club, Hollywood CA. 1937
Australia:
Victorian Artist Society 1910-1917
Australian Painters and Etches Society Sydney AU 1921
Sydney Society of Artists Sydney AU 1919-1924
Prehistoric Society of London 1937

AWARDS:
Audubon Artists NY, 1945, Hollander Prize: Best work in any Medium
Salmagundi Club 1957, Salmagundi, Digby Chandler Prize "Best of Show"
American Artist Professional League 1956, Grand National Prize
FB Williams Prize, Salmagundi
Fellow Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences NY 1947
Fellow Royal Society for Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London England 1957

BOOK ILLUSTRATIONS:
Tales of Magic and Night, Cole, Melbourne AU 1913
Pioneering Days in Western Australia, Hamilton J.C.Exchange Press, Melbourne AU 1914
Here is Faery, Furnley Maurice, (FLT Wilmont) Robertson Melbourne AU 1915
Selected Poems, Lawson, Henry, Angus & Robertson, Sydney AU 1918
Star Dust and Sea Spray A.Littlejohn, Edwards, Dunlop Sydney AU 1918
Red Mountain, J. McLaren, Sydney AU 1918
Saints and Soldiers, Mathews, H.Floessell, Sydney AU 1918
Wizard of Oz, Grosett and Dunlop, NY 1938
The Big Book of Dogs, Grosset & Dunlap 1952

SOURCES:
Bibliography of Australian Art, 1901-1925, Hanks E.F. Melb. Lib Council 1976. Vic. AU
Royal Victorian Historical Society,Melbourne, Australia
Victorian Historical Magazine 154th issue,Vol 39 No.4. L.J. Blake 1968
Catelmaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, Castlemaine, Vic. Australia
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Vic. Australia.
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington DC
Kaniva Historical Society, Kaniva, Australia
Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, Staten Island NY







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