The late Leonard French’s greatest gift to his beloved home-town of Melbourne is the magnificent ceiling of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall – the world's largest stained-glass ceiling.
When visiting the NGV, you’ll often find children and adults alike lying on the floor of the Great Hall looking up to admire the thousands of geometric pieces of coloured and clear glass that bounce and refract coloured light throughout the day.
It took five long years for the RMIT alumnus to complete the stained-glass ceiling. It was hand-chiselled by the award-winning artist and is a timeless reminder of both his tradesmanship and artistry.
While the kaleidoscopic ceiling at the NGV became French’s most celebrated piece – painting was his true passion. And, according to his daughter Lisa, what he hoped to be remembered for.
French won multiple awards for his paintings including two Blake prizes for religious art, in 1963 and 1980; the Sulman Prize in 1960. His paintings include a seven-panel mural, The Legend of Sinbad the Sailor, which hung in the Legend Café in Melbourne.
French’s connection with RMIT began in 1946 when he enrolled in a sign-writing apprenticeship at the then Melbourne Technical College. This is arguably where he acquired the key skills needed to complete large scale artworks such as his famous piece in the Great Hall. He then moved on to study art, under the guidance of sculptor Victor E Greenhalgh.
He also taught art for a time in 1950s at Richmond Technical College, where he became a mentor for renowned Melbourne artist Jan Senbergs.
French was commissioned to create the great circular window in Blackwood Hall at Melbourne’s Monash University. He also made 16 stained glass windows for the National Library in Canberra.
Leonard French passed away in early January, and a memorial service is being held on 31 January at the National Gallery of Victoria.
You can find out more about the artist and his work by visiting Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA’s blog.
Story: Ally Forward