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de Maistre, LeRoy Leveson (Roy) (1894–1968)

by Daniel Thomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

LeRoy Leveson Laurent Joseph (Roy) de Maistre (1894-1968), painter, was born LeRoi Levistan de Mestre on 27 March 1894 at Maryvale, Bowral, New South Wales, son of Etienne Livingstone de Mestre, gentleman, and his wife Clara Eliza, née Rowe, and grandson of Prosper de Mestre. From 1898 the family lived at Mount Valdemar, Sutton Forest, where he was educated by tutors and governesses. In 1913 Roi went to Sydney to study the violin and viola at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, and painting at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, under Norman Carter and Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, who encouraged interest in Post-Impressionism. He also studied at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School.

In 1916, as Roi Livingstone de Mestre, he tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force; he was accepted for home service, as his chest measurement was not up to standard. Discharged in 1917 with general debility, he became interested in the treatment of shell-shock patients by putting them in rooms painted in soothing colour combinations. In November 1916, as Roi de Mestre, he had first exhibited. That year's paintings were Impressionist interiors and landscapes, impasted and concerned with the effects of light. With the Conservatorium director's son, Adrien Verbrugghen, he theorized about the relationship between painting, music and colour.

Influenced by recent American books, de Mestre and Roland Wakelin in August 1919 shared an exhibition of vivid flat-pattern landscape paintings: titles like 'Synchromy in Orange Red' were used, and interior decoration schemes by de Mestre showed a room in 'Blue Green Major' leading into another in 'Yellow Green Minor'. This 'colour-music' exhibition became part of Australia's art-folklore as 'pictures you could whistle'. Later in 1919 they painted, but did not publicly exhibit, some of Australia's first abstract paintings. After 1919 de Mestre virtually abandoned colour-music and abstraction, though in London in 1934 he reworked some ideas. Instead his paintings of 1921-22 are experiments in Max Meldrum's opposite theory of impersonal, unemotional tonalism.

In 1923 de Mestre was awarded a travelling scholarship by the Society of Artists, Sydney. He spent three years abroad, first in London, then in France in Paris and St Jean de Luz. On returning to Sydney he held one-man shows in 1926 and 1928; contributed to annual exhibitions including the new Contemporary Group formed in 1926 by George Lambert and Thea Proctor; conducted classes in modern art in his studio in Burdekin House, Macquarie Street; and in 1929 organized the Burdekin House Exhibition of interior design, mostly antiques—but de Mestre designed one of six sensational modern rooms. From his family's position in society he helped to make modern art fashionable in Sydney in the late 1920s, even in Government House circles, but his paintings became tame exercises in Fauvism and Post-Impressionism.

In March 1930 he left Australia permanently. Henceforth he called himself Roy de Maistre, believing the modern spelling suited a modern painter. By the 1950s he had added the name Laurent, mistakenly believing in his own royal blood via Madame de St Laurent, mistress of Edward, Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria's father; eventually he also added the name Joseph, in acknowledgment of a connexion with the philosopher, Joseph de Maistre, and changed the spelling of Levistan to Leveson.

From 1930 de Maistre is best considered a British artist. He held one-man shows at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, (1930), in the studio of his colleague Francis Bacon later that year; at Bernheim Jeune, Paris, (1932), Mayor Gallery, London, (1934) and at Calmann Gallery, London, (1938). His work was illustrated in several editions of Herbert Read's influential book Art Now. In 1934 he conducted a painting school with Martin Block. From 1936 his home and studio was at 13 Eccleston Street, Westminster. Patrick White, who for ten years rented a flat upstairs, collected his paintings, dedicated his first novel to de Maistre and acknowledged his influence on his writing.

De Maistre's paintings from the 1930s onwards are generally Cubist in style. Academic society portraits occur at all times. Occasionally biomorphic, Surrealist forms occur in 1930s paintings, and ambiguous content; so do variations on other masters, Mantegna, Piero, Courbet, or on newspaper photographs of royalty. Religious subjects begin later with his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Systematic variations on his own compositions became numerous. His webs of angled Cubist interlace and pattern are perfect forms for his obsessive ideas about the web of ancestry, family, friendship.

While working for the British Red Cross Society in 1938-43 de Maistre scarcely painted, but thenceforth he was an establishment artist. In 1962 he was appointed C.B.E. He exhibited with the Royal Academy of Arts from 1951 and was represented in Arts Council of Great Britain exhibitions; his work was bought for the Tate Gallery and other art museums, and was frequently discussed in the writings of Sir John Rothenstein. His modern religious pictures were sought for public collections and exhibitions; he painted a series of Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral and two triptychs for St Aidan's Church, East Acton. Besides religion his late painting often dwelt on interior intimacies of his studio home and its artfully cluttered bric-à-brac. These included his finest works.

De Maistre died at his Eccleston Street home on 1 March 1968 and was cremated after a service at the Brompton Oratory. In 1974 Patrick White gave all his paintings by de Maistre to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which in 1976 exhibited its complete holding of his works.

Select Bibliography

  • J. K. M. Rothenstein, Modern English Painters (Lond, 1956)
  • Roy de Maistre: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings from 1917-1960 held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, May-June 1960, (Lond, 1960)
  • M. Gillen, The Prince and his Lady (Lond, 1970)
  • Roy de Maistre, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales (Syd, 1976)
  • Roy de Maistre papers (Art Gallery of New South Wales Library).

Citation details

Daniel Thomas, 'de Maistre, LeRoy Leveson (Roy) (1894–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-maistre-leroy-leveson-roy-5949/text10147, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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