The talented artist and illustrator Michael Leonard has died in London aged 90. Best known for his classical style and “homoerotic” subject matter, Leonard was at the forefront of ‘LGBTQ+ art in the UK from the 1960s when homosexuality was illegal, through the Aids pandemic and beyond.
His friend, the art critic Edward Lucie Smith, told Artlyst, “He was an excellent observer. His portraits captured a good likeness of the subject. He never had the support of a scene or entourage like David Hockney or even Patrick Proctor and only began to succeed later in life. I suspect he was jealous of the success of other painters. He never received the glamour of someone like Hockney. He never had a Kasmin or an international gallery. He was too early to be collected by Saatchi, and unlike Tracey Emin, Leonard was interested in producing convincing likenesses. Leonard was an old-fashioned, good, quality portraitist stranded in a society that wasn’t always supportive of that type of painting. Leonard could be compared to a Reynolds or Romney, but he didn’t have the modernistic edge necessary to be successful in his lifetime.”
Leonard’s breakthrough moment came in 1985 with a commission to paint a portrait from life of Queen Elizabeth II, now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. It depicts the Queen with her corgi Spark set in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. It was commissioned by Reader’s Digest and presented to the Gallery to celebrate the Queen’s 60th Birthday. Leonard later commented that his aim was a straightforward, informal picture that would tend to play down the remoteness of Her Majesty’s special position. Speaking about the painting, Edward Lucie Smith said, “It’s a good painting with several virtues. It gives you an idea of what being in her presence was like. It is convincingly realistic and has a human quality to it”.
Born in India in 1933 to British parents, Leonard returned to England to complete his education at the war’s end in Europe. In 1954, after two years of National Service in the army, he went to St. Martin’s School of Art in London to study Commercial Design and Illustration (subjects that at the time seemed more likely than fine art to provide a viable income). By the time he left Art School in 1957, he was working as a freelance illustrator and, for many years, was busy producing artwork for books, magazines, advertising and the press. Much of the work was stimulating and enjoyable, but he needed to express more personal visions. Lunch hour visits to the National Gallery fed a growing ambition to make pictures for the wall rather than the page — work that would be experienced in the original rather than reproduction.
As an illustrator, Leonard worked in a small studio attached to his agents’ Artist Partners’ Partners’ offices in Soho. Meanwhile, at home, he experimented, trying to discover his voice as a painter. Some of this work eventually came to the attention of Fischer Fine Art, a distinguished London gallery of the day and in 1972, several of his paintings were included in one of their group shows. In 1974, they gave him his first One Man Show, and he gradually left illustration behind.
He was nearly forty when his life as an exhibiting painter began. The nude, mainly the male nude, was a recurring theme. Whether up on scaffolding or stripping off in a changing room, the subjects were often homoerotic. In 1977, he was commissioned to produce illustrations for The Joy of Gay Sex. This is one of his best-known legacies.
“My figures are usually on the move or in a state of transition, but even when they are at rest, dynamism is provided by the design of the picture. Almost all my paintings of the nude are based on drawings which, besides being preparatory studies, are ends in themselves.”