Leech, William John (1881–1968), painter, was born 10 April 1881 at 49 Rutland (latterly Parnell) Square, Dublin, the third among the five sons and a daughter of Henry Brougham Leech (1843–1921), chief registrar of deeds and regius professor of law at TCD, and his wife, Annie Louise (1855?–1921), the daughter of William Garbois, a French huguenot dance teacher in Dublin. William – known as Billie by his family and Bill by others – had private tutors, but from the age of twelve was a boarder at St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, where he won a mention for classics and divinity, prizes for English and French, and repeatedly from 1895 the earl of Erne's prize for drawing and painting. In 1888 his family moved to Yew Park, Castle Avenue, Clontarf. His artistic bent was nurtured early by familiarity with the Flemish, Dutch, French, and Irish paintings in his father's collection.
Education In 1897, on turning sixteen, Leech left for Switzerland to study French, but continued to paint. His first canvas accepted by the RHA for its annual exhibition in Dublin, in 1899, was ‘Lake Brienz before a storm’. He persuaded his father to let him enrol in the autumn of 1899 at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, where in 1900 he received two prizes: a first class in perspective and another for the session's work. Despite being accepted for the art class teacher's certificate, which gave free admission to the school for another year, Leech deliberately rejected the opportunity to become an art teacher in secondary schools by moving in 1900 to the RHA Schools, whose attractions were a life studio and the teaching of painting by established artists. He later stated that Walter Osborne (qv), with his enthusiasm and loose brushwork, had taught him all that he had ‘needed to know about painting’.
The handling of light and colour by the French landscapists, realists, and especially impressionists was revealed to Leech in 1899 at a loan exhibition organised by Osborne of Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Courbet, Clausen, Degas, Manet, Monet, Steer, Whistler, and the English Pre-Raphaelites. Before setting out to Paris in 1901, Leech had assimilated Osborne's drawing directly in paint on the canvas, bold use of impasto combined with flickering light and shade, and late predilection for watercolour; also, sketching in paint on a small scale en plein air transitory light effects across meadow or water for subsequent enlargement in the studio, as practised by Nathaniel Hone (qv); and the harmonious construction of paintings in a balance of closely modulated tones and colours perfected by the American John McNeill Whistler (1834–1903).
Encouraged by Osborne and Dermod O'Brien (qv), who had just returned from the Académie Julian in Paris, Leech registered in the atelier of the Academician W.-A. Bouguereau (1825–1905), who advocated restrained brushwork, careful modelling, chiaroscuro, and ‘finish’. The history painter J.-P. Laurens (1838–1921) also taught him richness in colour. The portrait in charcoal of the husband of Leech's younger sister Kathleen, ‘The Reverend Charles Fox’, and the painting of a ‘Standing male nude’, which won him a first mention in the monthly competition (Concours), illustrate his accomplishment as a draughtsman and as an academic painter. Renouncing the comfort of a pension run by an Irish woman, Leech shared a bleak studio at 7 rue Belloni in Montparnasse with two New Zealander fellow artists, Sydney Lough Thompson, who became a lifelong friend, and Charles Bickerton. They visited the Louvre assiduously, but their visual imagination was fired by impressionist canvases in the Durand–Ruel Galleries. Tidy, fastidious in dress and retiring, but fluent in French, Leech met other artists in the Chat Blanc restaurant in rue d’Odessa, notably Roderick O'Conor (qv).
Early work After returning to Clontarf in the summer of 1902, Leech exhibited with his Metropolitan School of Art friends Beatrice Elvery (qv), Lilian Davidson (qv), and Estella Solomons (qv) among the Young Irish Artists in Dublin. In 1903 he joined Thompson in Concarneau in Brittany, which, after Pont-Aven, had attracted since the 1880s a cosmopolitan artistic colony. His time there (1903–6), staying at the Hôtel de France, interrupted by summer and Christmas visits to Dublin, followed by long stays at the Hôtel des Voyageurs (1906–10), was cardinal for his artistic development. Formal academic ‘brown studies’ in dark Dutch style with a restricted palette of earth tones (the 1908 ‘Interior of a café’, and later version, ‘Le Café des artistes – Concarneau’, which was awarded a bronze medal at the Paris Salon in 1914) gave way to landscapes in Whistlerian subdued tonalities. In ‘Still evening, Concarneau’, boats regain the harbour at dusk, while ‘Waving things, Concarneau’ depicts the creamy beige city ramparts reflected in the harbour's greeny brown waters, painted in fluid brushstrokes characteristic of John Lavery (qv), an Irish member of the Glasgow School and Whistler enthusiast whom Leech befriended in Concarneau in 1903. Visits in 1904 by Leech and Thompson to exhibitions in Dublin and London of paintings by Sargent, Augustus John, Orpen, and Sickert gave Leech the impulse towards greater assured spontaneity of brushwork and contrasting splashes of white, yellow, and crimson with greys and earth colours in Concarneau market scenes.
Leech displayed an artistic personality split between portraits and landscapes in the paintings sent to the RHA (1900–21). The portraits of his younger sister Kathleen as a ten-year-old and as a young woman, and of his artillery officer brothers Arthur and Cecil (the last being the first work he had accepted at the Royal Academy in London, in 1909) are sensitive studies that captured the physical likeness and character of the sitters. Leech's refusal to compromise on honesty of depiction resulted in failure to achieve fame or financial rewards as a society portrait painter. Nevertheless, with Taylor prizes in 1902, 1903, 1904, and 1906, Taylor scholarships in 1905 and 1906 for genre paintings, and peaceful, light-filled views of Malahide, Howth, Connemara, and Killarney, as well as snowscapes of Killiney Hill in close-ranging tones of whites, greys, and blues, Leech was set to become an established Irish artist. A member of the circle of Æ (George Russell (qv)), Constance Gore-Booth (qv), and her husband Casimir Markiewicz, he exhibited with them at the Leinster lecture hall in 1907 and 1908, attracting the admiration of Thomas Bodkin (qv), the art critic of the Irish Times and the Freeman's Journal, for his simplicity and directness of technique and delicate sense of tone. Bodkin also had a rare understanding of Leech's atmospheric impressions of nature, broadly treated and harmonious in colour, not as preliminary sketches, but as finished works.
Leech continued to exhibit with the Young Irish Artists and, despite his unionist background, joined Orpen, Æ, O'Brien, Gore-Booth, and Jack Yeats (qv) in the first ‘Aonach’ art exhibition in 1909, part of the Irish festival organized by Sinn Féin at the Rotunda in an effort to stem the tide of emigration of young prominent Irish artists. In 1908, at the young age of twenty-six, he had been proposed by O'Brien and elected an associate member of the RHA. He became a full academician in 1910, the year he left Dublin for London in the wake of his parents, whose new home at 45 Westbourne Park, Fulham, also became his studio. Despite returning only once to Dublin, in 1928 (or 1934), he considered Ireland ‘home’. Every spring until his death (except for nine years), he showed his most recent work at the RHA, and subsequently in exhibitions in England (at the RA, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the New English Art Club, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, the London Salon, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Baillie Gallery, the Goupil Gallery, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Cooling Galleries, and several provincial galleries, notably Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and from 1915 until 1921 at the National Portrait Society), as well as at the Société des Artistes Français in Paris, but he made few sales.
The winter of 1910–11 marked a turning point in Leech's painting. Following in Turner's footsteps from Venice through the Aosta valley, he elected Switzerland, in particular Lake Constance, as his base for simplified compositions based on dramatic diagonals leading the viewer into landscapes treated as large tonal areas with a limited palette, his sensations in front of snowy scenes being expressed, especially in watercolour, with an economy recalling Japanese woodcuts. Notable works from this period include ‘The Rocks at Naye’, ‘A thaw, Lanenen’, ‘The vanishing of the blue shades’, ‘Crystal morning’ and ‘Sunlight on snow-covered landscape’. His assimilation of bright colours and textured paint surfaces, characteristic of the late works of Van Gogh and O'Conor, found its most powerful expression in ‘Seaweed’ and ‘The old orchard’. In ‘Caves at Concarneau’, the contrast of the reds and orange of the rock face with the blue shadows and the dark purple-black cave chambers recall O'Conor's ‘Red rocks and sea’ (c.1898) at Le Pouldu in Brittany (Merrion Hotel Collection, Dublin), while bespeaking of the influence of Cézanne, Matisse, and the Fauves.
Marriage Leech followed the use by these painters of contrasting primary colours in ‘Plage des dames’, depicting the sandy bay on the outskirts of Concarneau, where he had rented a large house in 1910 with Saurin Elizabeth Kerlin (1879–1951), whom he had met in Concarneau in 1903. A well-off American divorcee, Elizabeth (née Lane) had recently returned from Boston with a diploma from the School of Fine Art. Besides small plein air studies of trees, she decorated some of the frames on Leech's canvases, all of which, having learnt carpentry at St Columba's College, he made himself. Leech and Elizabeth were married on 5 June 1912 at Fulham registry office. They lived with his parents at 55 Castletown Road, Kensington, then at 16 Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, at 39 Gunterstone Road, West Kensington, and finally at 19 Porchester Square, for the drawing-room of which Elizabeth painted a panel of Erté-style dancers.
Until 1919, Elizabeth held a central role in Leech's life as wife, model, and, thanks to her private income, ‘banker’. In ‘A convent garden, Brittany’, Leech achieved a harmonious blending of colour, light, and form in an unconventional composition. Elizabeth is captured in a pool of sunshine which illuminates the bright yellow and acid-green lawn of the walled garden of the hospital of the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Ghost in the old town of Concarneau, where Leech had convalesced from typhoid fever. Lost in contemplation and holding a missal, she stands just short of the right edge of the picture, counterbalanced by tall upright white lilies (the Virgin Mary's flower) in the foreground and to the left. In ‘The sunshade’, the cadmium yellows in thick impasto of Elizabeth's cardigan and the viridian green of her parasol contrast with the reds, purples, and lilacs of her cloche hat, her fine half-profile and long fingers being sunlit from the left, her left cheek, her neck, and the back of her hands in reddish shadow from the reflections of her hat. Long believed to be by Leech, though unsigned, ‘The goose girl’, its subject in an orange dress and white bonnet guiding eight waddling geese across carpets of bluebells in a copse, exhibits mosaic-like brushwork untypical of him, the strokes and layers creating a thick impasto. Its new attribution to the Sheffield painter Stanley Royle, however, also begs some questions.
By 1918, when Leech was called up to spend the last six months of the Great War in a training camp, his marriage was disintegrating. He returned from the war depressed, penniless, and with artist's block. His brother Cecil introduced him to Percy Botterell, an eminent London lawyer, who commissioned him to paint portraits of his wife, May, himself, and his three children, Jim, Guy, and Suzanne. A dramatic black-and-white portrait of May (‘Dame en noir’) in a fur coat and pill-box hat was followed by ‘Portrait bleu’, which won a bronze medal at the 1922 Paris Salon. May sits theatrically with her legs bent underneath her on a yellow-gold rug, her head turned flirtatiously backwards, her left hand and mischievous eyes beckoning the painter, her left hand extended to the right imitating Elizabeth's in ‘The tinsel scarf’.
May Botterell soon became Leech's mistress, model, and inspiration, as Elizabeth Leech discovered, when, from France, she rejoined her husband in London in 1919. Although the affair was distasteful to the Leech family, support never ceased. After his parents’ death in 1921, Leech spent annually at least a month with his sister Kathleen, her husband, and their two children, Sylvia and Cecil, at Tettenhall Wood vicarage near Wolverhampton, painting the immediate landscape of railway tracks and telegraph poles, and portraits (notably of Sylvia aged eight and thirteen) in lieu of keep. Relying on an allowance of £600 per annum from her father, Isaac Pearson, a director of the Sunlight soap company, May left Percy to live on her own at 24 Hamilton Terrace, London, sharing Leech's life in his Hamilton Mews studio nearby during the day and otherwise playing the part of wife and social hostess at the family home in Hampstead. When her children were grown up, she moved out altogether, to a flat in 20 Abbey Road, St John's Wood. Leech's liaison with May brought him stability and financial security, allowing him time for experimentation of subjects and approaches. His shunning of publicity in order to preserve his and the Botterells’ private lives deprived him, however, of exhibiting between his last one-man show in 1927 in London and the presentation of his work at the Dawson Gallery of Leo Smith in Dublin in 1945.
The south of France and London Leech and Thompson had wintered in 1915–16 in Martigues, a fishing village near Marseilles, and a year later Leech launched there a new series of exuberant paintings of aloes on a much larger scale than his other works. In ‘Aloes, Les Martigues’, the stiff forms of the aloes cacti growing upright and outwards are painted close up in broad brushstrokes of green, purple, and blue. Leech's predilection for pattern-making (expressed in ‘Seaweed’) and his photographic eye (acquired as a teenager in photographic lessons at St Columba's) concurred in ‘Un matin (waving things)’ to transform jagged cactus leaves into green, blue, and purple writhing forms toned down by zinc white. The truncated photographic format increases the feeling of snapshot spontaneity.
Between December 1919 and April 1920 in Tunisia, where he and May had travelled with Thompson, Leech began a new series of beach scenes of May walking in the sands in a long white robe, occasionally combining her and children on a Concarneau beach, allowing either the sea or the sand to fill the canvas, and experimenting with close harmonies or pointillist technique to render the gold shingle. The following winter, and for the next seven years, Leech rented a house adjacent to a cemetery in the rocky hillside town of St Jeannet, high above Nice. The natural colours of the plastered revetment of brick buildings, warm ochres and Indian reds, made Nice harbour (Port Lympia) an ideal subject for painting in the Fauve idiom. For ‘Red roofs, Nice’, Leech stood on the middle or upper terrace of the castle gardens, whose tall, dark green cypress trees in a row punctuate the foreground, looking down to the yellow-ochre back of the Hôtel de la Marine with its red-ochre roof and turquoise-blue wooden shutters. ‘The harbour, Nice’ is the title of two vastly different canvases: a black and soft blue trawler is moored along Quai de la Douane, with the row of white houses of the Quai des Deux-Emmanuel in the background; and, against blue-green waters, a bird's-eye view of terracotta roofs overlooking the Quai de Lunel in rich tones of orange, alongside which brown sailing boats are moored. Apart from a handful of ant-sized black figures on the edge of the quay, Nice harbour is devoid of humans, the last stage in paring down landscapes to their essentials begun twenty years earlier in Concarneau. From 1928 to 1939, every spring, Leech and May travelled to the south of France, spending three months in hotels at Cagnes sur Mer, Grasse, and Cassis.
In 1927 Leech had rented in Hampstead no. 4 Steele's Studios, with its private garden. Apart from Regent's Park, sunlit in summer, but whose York Bridge Leech painted in winter in subdued umber tones, arching over muddy brown and green still waters against a soft blue-grey sky, he concentrated on interior views of his studio, still lifes observed from unusual angles, and vases of flowers associated with a gardening glove or a black slipper reflected in a mirror (reviving a device used in 1904 in the ‘Barber's shop, Concarneau’). Although the subject matter had become introspectively domestic, Leech's compositions were highly structured and dynamic (views from above, dramatic lighting, strong colour contrasts), their vividness being enhanced by free brushwork. On a brief return to his Dublin roots in 1928 or 1934, the tall Georgian houses of Parnell Square are steeped in reddish afternoon glow, the turquoise-blue windows recalling Nice.
Leech's ‘closest search for beauty’ led him to paint female nudes with the fluidity of watercolour technique: May reclining diagonally on white bedclothes, her thighs, breasts, and right shoulder in soft light (‘Nude’), and a black model pensively sitting hunched forward, her chin cupped in her right hand (‘The refugee’) – this allowing him to study light on softly toned brown skin. In the late 1930s, as lack of sales and hence shortage of money (forcing him to paint on the back of unsold canvases) increasingly prevented him from travelling to the French Riviera, he captured the green lushness of English summers on his brother Cecil's farm at Ham Green in Kent and in Devon, where his brothers Arthur and Henry had retired. In ‘The gate’, the view opens out from an orchard to the distant Devon hills bathed in sunlight. During the second world war, Christchurch and the River Stour flowing down to the sea at Harwich, with yachts reminding him of ‘The Lady Nicotine’ (‘The white boat’, exhibited at the 1911 RHA show) which the Leech family sailed around the Irish coast in his youth, served as substitutes for France. May aspired to belong to the Bloomsbury Group, whose unconventional ideas she shared. Through the famous family-planning pioneer, gynaecologist, and accomplished amateur painter Dr Helena Wright and her husband, Peter, who frequented Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, and the artist Eric Gill, himself a friend of Augustus John, Leech and May became part of the ‘outer’ Bloomsbury circle. Frequent visits to exhibitions and art galleries kept him informed of artistic movements, although his taste in modern art stopped at Matisse and Picasso's ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ periods and he despised abstract art. In October 1938, he and Thompson (returning to New Zealand on his way back from ten months in France) painted the Thames at Billingsgate. In ‘London Bridge and Southwark cathedral’, the dock and boats are treated in muted umbers, the icy water being viridian blue.
Late works The bombing of Leech's studio in the blitz in 1941 compelled him and May to leave London for Reading (104 Windermere Road). He contributed paintings to RA exhibitions in aid of the Red Cross and St John's Ambulance and volunteered as a fire watcher. After the second devastating bombing of Steele's Studios, Leech and May sought shelter with his brother Cecil in Devon, though they later established a studio and common home in her fifth-floor Abbey Road flat. The retreat into quiet domesticity limited his portrait painting to close friends, notably Aldous Huxley's aunt. ‘Mrs Huxley Roller’ harmonises the earth tones of the sitter's coat and the orange of her blouse and coat cuffs with the green and turquoise-blue radiators. In 1925–6 Leech had modelled in clay May's head (her plaited hair had just been cut into a fashionable bob). Until his death, he kept in his studio a striking bronze cast of this only three-dimensional work of his known to exist. Painted with long, fluid brushstrokes, the series of portraits of May – Darning’, ‘Portrait study’, ‘Au cinquième’ – records advancing age. In November 1945 Leech returned to Billingsgate (‘St Paul's – 1945’ illustrates the damage sustained in the bombing of the City), but his expeditions were soon put to an end by the dock strike.
Leech's fading reputation (compounded by the physical impossibility during the war to send works to the RHA) was revived in 1944 by Leo Smith, who borrowed paintings already in Ireland and exhibited them at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin. He organised three one-man shows, in June 1945 and 1947, and in May 1951, which Leech, still anxious for his personal life to escape attention, did not attend. His marriage to May in Marylebone registry office on 23 April 1953 (made possible by Elizabeth's death in 1951 and that of Percy Botterell in 1952), and their move in 1958 to the Tudor-style Candy Cottage, West Clandon, Surrey, renewed his energy for painting. May's niece Margaret Wallace, who lived nearby, drove him to the River Wye to sketch en plein air. He also experimented with the reflections of the diamond-paned mullioned window trellis-patterns on the red-tiled window-ledge and table (‘Cast shadows’). The views through these trellises associate Delft blue with chrome yellow and acid green (‘The house opposite’), or with red and yellow ochres and browns (‘Still life with Chinese lanterns’). From the 1920s until his death, numerous self-portraits were set against a natural background, the Tettenhall Wood vicarage garden (c.1930), the cacti of his ‘Aloe’, ‘Les Martigues’ (early 1960s), and the garden of Candy Cottage with wheelbarrow and lawnmower in dappled sunlight (mid-1960s).
On 14 August 1965 May died of bronchial pneumonia, leaving Leech lonely, disconsolate, and deliberately confining himself in anonymity (he angrily rejected Alan Denson's tribute in the Irish Independent of 11 April 1967 and forbade the publication of his biography until after his death). His health slowly deteriorated, and in the early morning of 16 July 1968 he sat on West Clandon railway bridge and (as he explained to doctors when he was later admitted to the Royal Surrey County Hospital) let himself slip. Multiple injuries caused pulmonary oedema and cardiac respiratory failure, and he died a few hours later. He had taken to its logical conclusion his lifelong Turner-like fascination with the vertigo-inducing perpendicularity of railway tracks and speed of trains, and fulfilled his desire to ‘become one’ with the earth's revolution through movement. His body was cremated on 19 July 1968 at St John's crematorium, Woking, and his ashes were scattered. He had willed his estate to Mrs Mabel Mitchell, who had kept house for him and May for six or seven years and whom he had painted (‘The housekeeper’) in the hope that the house and its contents would remain intact if she lived there. In the event, furniture, objects, and paintings were dispersed. Leech bequeathed to Leo Smith all the paintings and drawings in his studio and in the Dawson Gallery for a posthumous retrospective which never materialised.
Before his death, Leech had come to terms with the incompatibility of worldly success and the life of a recluse. Lack of sales and hence of success made him the most neglected of Irish artists, owing a facile popularity to three paintings in the NGI (‘In a convent garden’, ‘The sunshade’, and ‘The goose girl’ (the last attributed to Stanley Royle in 1996)), but his versatility (which commands admiration) was largely unrecognised. In fact, he was one of the most important and complex Irish artists of the modern era. He epitomises Irish painting from the Edwardian period to the mid-twentieth century, combining the teachings of the old masters with the innovations of the impressionists and post-impressionists, and absorbing the influences of British painters while developing an ever-changing, dynamic, and personal art.