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Percy Alexander Leason (1889–1959)

by L. J. Blake

This article was published:

Percy Alexander Leason (1889-1959), self-portrait, 1956-59

Percy Alexander Leason (1889-1959), self-portrait, 1956-59

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H32098

Percy Alexander Leason (1889-1959), artist, was born on 23 February 1889 at Kaniva, Victoria, second of six children of James Leason, farmer, and his wife Mary Campbell, née Crothers. Both parents were Australian born. As a boy he practised drawing in a cubby-house studio and with a mate from Kaniva State School, Desmond Harris, printed and illustrated a threepenny weekly sheet. He weathered an art school at Nhill—'The town's name represents what I learnt'—and in 1906 was apprenticed to Sands & McDougall in Melbourne as a lithographic artist.

At work Leason became friendly with fellow apprentice Dick McCann. The pair collaborated on a number of posters ('I allus has one at eleven', commissioned by the Carlton Brewery, became famous), bolstered meagre incomes by the sale of surreptitiously executed drawings and attended evening classes at the National Gallery of Victoria. Leason was a splendidly talented draughtsman. McCann said of him: 'He could draw anything at all in perspective or at any angle'.

His apprenticeship served, Leason joined the Lithographic Artists' Union and tried to earn a living with 'odds and ends of illustrations', renting a studio with William Frater, McCann and others. He experimented briefly with spiritualism. Several years of Bohemian existence ended with his marriage to his cousin Isabella Cargill Chapman at Terang, with Presbyterian forms, on 15 April 1916, by which time he had achieved some success as a book-illustrator.

Next year Leason moved to Sydney as chief designer for (Sydney Ure) Smith & Julius; he illustrated Harley Matthews's Saints and Soldiers and, for Angus & Robertson, Selected Poems of Henry Lawson before succeeding David Low as political cartoonist for the Bulletin in May 1919. Leason's special talent was for depicting the acquaintances of his Wimmera childhood and his full-page 'After the Show' published on 2 March 1922 was the first of many bucolic comedies. He continued to contribute to the Bulletin after 1924 when he returned to Melbourne as cartoonist for Punch at £1750 a year. His famous 'Wiregrass' cartoons, based on a Kaniva-like hamlet, were begun in Table Talk (which had incorporated Punch) in January 1926. He lived at Eltham.

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; his first Melbourne exhibition in 1927 enhanced his reputation. But contentment eluded him. Shy, but fierce in controversy, he was disturbed by the modernist movement; he became a firm disciple of the realist Max Meldrum and joined the Twenty Melbourne Painters group. His antipathy to 'decadent' art was lifelong.

Leason's anthropological interests also got him into hot water. In 1928 after making copies of rock paintings in caves near Glenisla for the National Museum of Victoria he contended that some figures described by the ethnologist John Mathew in 1897 were nothing but natural stains in the rock. Further studies of the Cave of the Serpent at Mount Langi Ghiran and of rock paintings in the Mootwingee range, New South Wales, led him to another tenet, still maintained after a visit to Europe in 1957, that cave-art animals were painted from dead subjects. The first of several publications outlining his ideas, 'A new view of Western European cave art', appeared in the Journal of the Prehistoric Society of Great Britain in 1939. Inspired by Frederick Wood Jones, Leason also collected biographical notes on Victorian full-blood Aborigines and in 1934 painted twenty-eight portraits, ascribing his work to 'a deep affection for the Australian scene and much concern for the vanishing aborigines'.

In 1937 Leason visited the United States of America and next year settled permanently in New York. After working as an illustrator, mainly for Collier's Magazine, he established an art colony on Staten Island. He exhibited widely and opened an art school where he taught a modified form of Meldrumism and formulated a 'diagrammatic pyramid' to explain his theories on the history of art. In 1945 he won the Audubon Artists' Hollander Prize and in the 1950s was elected a fellow of the London Royal Society of Arts and of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences; he had been president of the institute in 1945-51. The self-portrait displayed at his last one-man exhibition at the Chase Gallery, New York, in November 1958 showed a man of stocky build with a bald, well-shaped head, wide mouth and the dancing eyes of the humorist.

Leason died of heart disease on 11 September 1959 at Staten Island, survived by his wife, four daughters and two sons. His early works are represented in Australian State galleries and at Castlemaine, Victoria, but most of his paintings are held privately in the U.S.A.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Blake, ‘Percy Leason’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 39 (1968), p 158
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 Sept 1925, 9 June 1934
  • People (Sydney), 3 Jan 1951
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 16 June 1967
  • Leason papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. J. Blake, 'Leason, Percy Alexander (1889–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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