Percy Alexander Leason

Born Kaniva, Victoria 1889
Died Staten Island, New York 1959

By Lindsay Foyle

Percy Leason was born in Kaniva, Victoria and started his working life as an apprenticed lithographer in Melbourne while studying art at the Melbourne National Gallery. He moved to Sydney in 1917 to work in the office of Smith and Julius. In 1922 when Norman Lindsay decided to take a few months off from The Bulletin the only person who was thought able to fill the gap was Leason. It was said he did not have the power of Lindsay but did have an engaging style, an eye for character and a gift for comedy. He continued to contribute to The Bulletin after 1924 when he returned to Victoria as cartoonist for Melbourne Punch. His famous ‘Wiregrass’ cartoons, based on a Kaniva-like hamlet, were begun in Table Talk (which had incorporated Melbourne Punch) in January 1926. In 1937 Leason visited the USA and next year settled permanently in New York. After working as an illustrator, mainly for Collier's Magazine, he established an art colony on Staten Island. A self-portrait displayed at his last one-man exhibition at the Chase Gallery, New York, in November 1958 showed a man of stocky build with a bald, well-shaped head, wide mouth and the dancing eyes of the humorist. Leason died of heart disease on Staten Island. His early works are represented in Australian State galleries and at Castlemaine, Victoria, but most of his paintings are held privately.

Percy Alexander Leason, cartoonist, illustrator, printmaker, painter and teacher was born on 25 February 1889 on a wheat farm at Kaniva in northwestern Victoria. Leason was the second of six children born to James Leason and Mary Campbell. As a teenager, he attended art school twice-weekly at the nearby town of Nhill. About 1906 he moved Melbourne where took up an apprenticeship as a lithographer with Sands & McDougall. Although trained as a commercial artist, Leason aspired to become a painter and he studied at the National Gallery School (1907-10) and Victorian Artists Society in Melbourne and shared a studio with artists McInnes, Crozier and Frater.

In 1916 Leason married his cousin Isabel Chapman and the following year moved to Sydney where he joined the advertising firm of Smith and Julius. From 1919-1924 Leason worked on The Bulletin and as an illustrator. Leason left Sydney to work in Melbourne on Punch - at the time he was Australia's highest paid black and white illustrator. With its demise he transferred to Table Talk where he developed the popular Wiregrass series based on country town life. In 1927 Leason returned to Sydney as a political cartoonist for The Bulletin.

Alongside his success as a cartoonist, Leason gained growing recognition as a painter (six paintings in AGNSW) affiliated to the NSW Society of Artists and from 1924 onwards Leason began studying with the Melbourne-based artist and teacher Max Meldrum. In 1929 Leason was involved in two projects associated with the seminal 1929 exhibition Australian Aboriginal Art at the National Museum of Victoria. Leason was commissioned to provide drawings of the Glen Isla rock art shelter at Gariwerd (the Grampians) in western Victoria (intended as a backdrop for Jack Noorywanka and Stanley Loycurrie, visiting Wangkangurru men from Central Australia) and he was commissioned to produce a cover design for the catalogue. Leason's evolutionism came to the fore in the process (Signatures, Vol 5, no 3 1999, Believing Australian Aborigines to be 'true primitives' incapable of such drawings (Table Talk, 18 July 1929; MS 8636 Percy Leason papers, LaTrobe Collection, State Library of Victoria), Leason questioned the authenticity of the rock art site claiming that the drawings were a hoax perpetrated by the Reverend John Mathew in 1897. Leason's cover design (Australian Aboriginal Art, National Museum of Victoria, July 1929; Morphy, Aboriginal Art, 1998 illustrated) depicts an Aboriginal artist drawing the simple outline of a kangaroo using a tree as a makeshift easel - a fanciful image which bore little connection to the realities of Indigenous art production in northern Australia.

Such was the interest generated by the Central Australian visitors, Jack Noorywanka and Stanley Loycurrie, that the painter and illustrator Dyson proposed an exhibition of their portraits for purchase as part of a national collection (Letter to the editor, Herald, 13 July 1929). Almost a dozen artists including Dyson, McCubbin, McInnes, Herbert, Wheeler and Leason participated in the exhibition at the Fine Art Society Galleries (Australasian, 10 August 1929; Argus, 1 August 1929). Stanley Loycurrie, the younger of the two men agreed to pose for the artists. In Leason's portrait (Recognition, NPG Canberra, 2000, illustrated; sold Bonhams & Goodman, April 2007, Lot 614) his appearance suggests that he carefully prepared for the occasion: his hair is well brushed, even oiled, and he wears a suit with a long-sleeved white shirt and tie. He appears sombre and reserved - perhaps an outcome of the formal relationship that prevailed between the artists and their Aboriginal subject and Leason's adherence to the scientific objectivity advocated by Meldrum.

These experiences contributed to Leason's growing fascination with the representation of Aborigines. In 1934 he joined Professor Wood Jones, Donald Thomson and Dr Ford of Melbourne University in a scientific expedition to Lake Tyers Aboriginal Reserve in Victoria to measure and photographically document the remaining 'full blood' Victorian Aborigines. Following the success of several trial portraits, Leason embarked on a major project to paint a group of life-size portraits of 'the last of the Victorian Aborigines.' To complete his project Leason moved temporarily with his wife Isabella and his son Max to Toorloo, a guest house situated opposite Lake Tyers converting the ballroom into a temporary studio.

For Leason the portraits were 'labours of love' (MS8636 Percy Leason papers, LaTrobe Library of Victoria); privately funded from his income as a cartoonist, Leason viewed the project as an opportunity to refine his painting technique and a means of enhancing his artistic reputation. But the portrait series involved Leason in a complicated process of cross-cultural exchange: in order to produce the portraits Leason found that he had to establish amicable relations with Kurnai at Lake Tyers, modifying his approach to accord with the wishes of his subjects (Herald, 11 September 1934; Recognition, 2000). As a result it is possible to read the scientific series as portraits of individuals. Leason depicted his subjects semi-nude - an assertion of pride for men but distasteful to women who desired to be seen from within European conventions of respectability. While the majority of women withdrew from the project, one older woman, Clara Hunt, participated on her own terms: wearing her everyday clothes she appears dignified and proud (Burn, National Life and Landscape, illustrated).

Under the explicitly scientific title The Last of the Victorian Aborigines the portraits were exhibited at the Athaneum Gallery, Melbourne in September 1934 to coincide the Victorian Centenary. The accompanying catalogue included Leason's observations on the Victorian Aborigines together with biographies of his subjects. Leason hoped that the portrait series would be purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria but the exhibition met with a mixed response. While Arthur Streeton (Argus, 11 September 1934, p.5) responded appreciatively, Blamire Young (Herald 10 September 1934 p. 8) questioned the 'suitability' of the exhibition as an ethnographic record. Leason subsequently abandoned his commitment to Aboriginal portraiture and the portrait series drifted into obscurity (23 of the 28 completed in State Library of Victoria). The exhibition 'Recognition' (2000) at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra went some way toward retrieving value and significance for the portraits both as an historical record and for their relevance to contemporary descendants for whom 'their faces live on in our families' (Recognition 2000).

In 1939 Leason moved with his family to the United States taking six of the portraits with him. Leason continued to work as an illustrator, he taught at several art schools and he opened the Staten Island School of Art. Leason died in New York at the age of 70 on 11 September 1959.

Sylvia Kleinert.

Percy Leason entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2009.

Further reading

The Story of Australian Art, Angus & Robertson 1934 A Fine Line, Hale & Iremoner 1983 You Might as Well Laugh, Mate, Macmillan Australia 1984 Wiregrass, Lothian Publishing Company 1986 The Insiders cartoon Exhibition, ABC 2009 Percy Leason: An artist’s life, Thames & Hudson 2016 2018 Cartoon Exhibition, Australian Cartoonists’ Association 2018