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Percy Alexander Leason was an Australian political cartoonist and artist who was a major figure in the Australian tonalist movement. As a painter and commercial artist his works span two continents.
Percy Alexander Leason (1889-1959), artist, was born on 23 February 1889 at Kaniva, Victoria. He was the second of six children of James Leason, farmer, and his wife Mary Campbell, née Crothers. His father was a farmer and his uncle, the proprietor of a saddlery shop. His parents had expected he would carry on the family tradition of wheat farming or saddlery making. In his adolescent years he demonstrated an early interest in drawing. His earliest works of 1900 were landscapes, still life studies, and portraits of himself and his mother and father. As a boy he practised drawing in a cubby-house studio and with a mate from Kaniva State School, Desmond Harris, he printed and illustrated a threepenny weekly sheet.
He weathered an art school at Nhill, and in 1906 was apprenticed to Sands & McDougall in Melbourne as a lithographic artist. He soon transferred to the art department where he did illustrations for jam tin labels and department store advertisements. His first major illustration was a poster for Carlton Brewery in Melbourne of Sam Griffin, an itinerant miner, standing at a bar with a full pint. The caption of the poster "I allus has wan at Eleven", became a famous trademark for Foster beer.
During these years he studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School under the tutelage of Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. Upon completing his apprenticeship he began a somewhat bohemian lifestyle.
Leason's introduction to book illustration began in 1914 with illustrations for James.C. Hamilton, Pioneering Days in Western Victoria, followed by Here is Faery by Frank Wilmont in 1915. In 1916 he illustrated a booklet for the tercentenary celebrating William Shakespeare. The same year he painted a panoramic scene of the Australian & New Zealand Forces at 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. 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.
In 1918 he illustrated for a book of poems by Henry Lawson, notable Australian poet. With additional book illustration his reputation as an illustrator secured him a position as chief designer with the commercial publishing firm of Smith and Julius.
He served on the staff of the Sydney Bulletin as 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. Leason achieved moderate recognition as a painter with 'On the Beach', 'Morning' and 'Morning Glow', purchased by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales;
He returned to Melbourne and it was here that he developed the famous Wiregrass cartoon series. His illustrations also appeared in Melbourne Punch and Tabletalk magazines. At that time he was the highest paid commercial artist in Australia.
Returning to Melbourne he settled in the town of Eltham and built a home and one of the first art studios in Eltham entirely devoted to painting. In 1916 he had met Max Meldrum who had returned from France and expressed his ideas of tonal analysis. When Leason moved back to Melbourne from Sydney in 1924, the two men bonded their ideas and cemented the style of tonalism they both would follow for the rest of their lives.
In 1934 at the suggestion of Donald Thomson and Professor Wood Jones he was commissioned by Melbourne University to paint a series of portraits of Australian Aborigines. These were presented in an exhibition 'Victoria's Last Aborigines' at the Athenaeum Gallery, and were his first one man major exhibition. These portraits demonstrated his understanding and control of the tonal technique. A great critical row developed and the portraits were questioned as to whether they were art or ethnographic studies, but eventually the paintings were included in the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
Towards the end of the 1930s 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, and the impending World War. Faced with the responsibility of a family of six children, he decided that his chances for continued success were better in the United States. He emigrated in 1938 and began his career in New York doing commercial illustration with pen and ink illustration of murder mysteries and detective stories, for the New York Daily News, and Blue Book Magazine. His first major book illustration in 1938 was "The Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum.
In 1939 his family emigrated from Australia and settled on Staten Island, New York. Recognizing the opportunity to spread the word about tonal painting, 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, NY in the Adirondack Mountains and at his own school in Westport NY in 1949. He held lively painting demonstrations and lectures on realistic tonalism in defiance against the prevailing theories on art. During these years he painted many landscapes and studios studies, most of which are in the collection of the Castlemaine Art Gallery and the State Library.
In 1957 he travelled 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 in particular to justify his theory of cave art. Percy Leason's last one man exhibition was held at the Chase Galleries, NY where many of these European 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.
In 1959 he died on Staten Island New York, practically penniless and very despondent at not having received adequate recognition for his labours. Two retrospective exhibitions were held at the Staten Island Institute and at the Salmagundi Club New York. In tribute to his artistic genius, Staten Island Institute curator James Cogin, quoted in the exhibition catalogue from Frank Moore Coolby: "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."
Percy Leason's constant questioning of tonal technique as an ideal and his works he left are his legacy and his continuance.