fbpx

LEONARD VICTOR MITCHELL, 1925-1980

Born Victor Leonard William Mitchell on 8 March 1925 in Palmerston North, Len was the first child of Leonard Cornwall Mitchell, a well-renowned stamp designer and illustrator, and Victoria Adelaide Cogswell who came to New Zealand from London when she was only 19 years old. Len was brought up in Ngaio, Wellington, alongside two younger brothers, Allan and Frank. His preference for the name Leonard still causes much professional confusion with the work of his father.

Len was a natural artist and, from his early years, loved to draw. In 1939 he began his formal training at the Wellington Technical College School of Art (now Wellington High School), eventually joined by his two younger brothers. They were tutored by Frederick Ellis, Head of the Art School (painting and etching), Alex Fraser (sculpture) and Nugent Welch (watercolours). On leaving the college Len painted a remarkable group scene depicting The Raising of Lazarus which hung over the stairwell to the library. After being held in storage at the College for years, the painting was kindly returned to the Mitchell family in 2015.

Although encouraged by his father and Frederick Ellis, Len decided against attending the Canterbury School of Art and enlisted in the army. He was bound for Okinawa as a war artist but, after the American invasion in 1945, was employed at home guarding Japanese Prisoners of War at Featherston. During his time there, Len produced a number of drawings of the prisoners, some of which are held by the Alexander Turnbull Library of New Zealand.

LEONARD VICTOR MITCHELL, 1925-1980

Born Victor Leonard William Mitchell on 8 March 1925 in Palmerston North, Len was the first child of Leonard Cornwall Mitchell, a well-renowned stamp designer and illustrator, and Victoria Adelaide Cogswell who came to New Zealand from London when she was only 19 years old. Len was brought up in Ngaio, Wellington, alongside two younger brothers, Allan and Frank. His preference for the name Leonard still causes much professional confusion with the work of his father.

Len was a natural artist and, from his early years, loved to draw. In 1939 he began his formal training at the Wellington Technical College School of Art (now Wellington High School), eventually joined by his two younger brothers. They were tutored by Frederick Ellis, Head of the Art School (painting and etching), Alex Fraser (sculpture) and Nugent Welch (watercolours). On leaving the college Len painted a remarkable group scene depicting The Raising of Lazarus which hung over the stairwell to the library. After being held in storage at the College for years, the painting was kindly returned to the Mitchell family in 2015.

Although encouraged by his father and Frederick Ellis, Len decided against attending the Canterbury School of Art and enlisted in the army. He was bound for Okinawa as a war artist but, after the American invasion in 1945, was employed at home guarding Japanese Prisoners of War at Featherston. During his time there, Len produced a number of drawings of the prisoners, some of which are held by the Alexander Turnbull Library of New Zealand.

Victoria Mitchell with her three boys - Leonard, Allan and Frank - at the Mount Victoria lookout, Wellington c1933
Leonard, pictured with his parents Leonard and Victoria, before leaving for England, 1947
Victoria Mitchell with her three boys - Leonard, Allan and Frank - at the Mount Victoria lookout, Wellington c1933
Leonard, pictured with his parents Leonard and Victoria, before leaving for England, 1947

After the war, Len returned to the Wellington Technical College to teach life drawing, etching and painting, before travelling to England for a year. On his return to New Zealand Len worked in his father’s commercial art studio in Wellington (Mitchell Studios) and resumed teaching at the Technical College, this time focusing on drawing and printmaking. He produced a series of etchings of circus performers.

1950s

During this period Len exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, becoming a well sought after portrait painter, undertaking portraits of many prominent New Zealanders, including Ngaio Marsh, Walter Nash, Peter McIntyre and Warwick Braithwaite.

In 1954, along with brother Frank and the sculptor Jim Gawn, Len established the Lambton Galleries, an exhibition and studio space at 244 Lambton Quay, Wellington. The Lambton Galleries was the largest commercial gallery in Wellington. The painter Nugent Welch, wood engraver E. Mervyn Taylor, printmaker John Drawbridge and potter Leonard Castle were all drawn to the gallery.

In 1956 Len completed a major public commission – three large canvas murals for the newly built Lower Hutt War Memorial Library, entitled Their Sacrifice, Preserved Freedom, and Human Endeavour, the third containing 50 life-sized figures which represent different aspects of human endeavour, including education, farming, commerce and the arts. The murals are still displayed in the Library today… Read more

Leonard & brother Frank installing the Human Endeavour mural

After the war, Len returned to the Wellington Technical College to teach life drawing, etching and painting, before travelling to England for a year. On his return to New Zealand Len worked in his father’s commercial art studio in Wellington (Mitchell Studios) and resumed teaching at the Technical College, this time focusing on drawing and printmaking. He produced a series of etchings of circus performers.

1950s

During this period Len exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, becoming a well sought after portrait painter, undertaking portraits of many prominent New Zealanders, including Ngaio Marsh, Walter Nash, Peter McIntyre and Warwick Braithwaite.

In 1954, along with brother Frank and the sculptor Jim Gawn, Len established the Lambton Galleries, an exhibition and studio space at 244 Lambton Quay, Wellington. The Lambton Galleries was the largest commercial gallery in Wellington. The painter Nugent Welch, wood engraver E. Mervyn Taylor, printmaker John Drawbridge and potter Leonard Castle were all drawn to the gallery.

In 1956 Len completed a major public commission – three large canvas murals for the newly built Lower Hutt War Memorial Library, entitled Their Sacrifice, Preserved Freedom, and Human Endeavour, the third containing 50 life-sized figures which represent different aspects of human endeavour, including education, farming, commerce and the arts. The murals are still displayed in the Library today.

Leonard & brother Frank installing the Human Endeavour mural
Human Endeavour, Leonard Victor Mitchell, 1956, on display, Lower Hutt War Memorial Library.

KELLIHER PRIZE FOR LANDSCAPE

1956 was a busy year for Len. Alongside the completion of the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library murals, Len won the inaugural Kelliher Prize with his oil painting Summer in the Mokauiti Valley.

"In 1956 H. J. Kelliher offered a prize of £500 for the best oil painting by a New Zealand artist depicting the visual aspects of a typical New Zealand landscape or coastal scene, executed in a realistic and traditional manner. He invited the New Zealand Fellowship of Artists (Inc.), Auckland, to organise the competition, and Mrs A. Pearse, Director of Dunedin Gallery, P. A. Tomory, Director of Auckland Gallery, and the visiting Australian artist Ernest Buckmaster, to act as judges. The competition attracted 201 entries."

Len’s entry for the second year of the competition was The Road to Ngawi, Cape Palliser, Wairarapa (1957). In the third year of the competition Len was again awarded the Kelliher Prize for Stormlight & Snow, Ruahine Mountains (1958). This painting is now in the national collection, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Len was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London and in 1959 was awarded the Netherlands Government Art Fellowship by the Netherlands Institute for International Cultural Relations. He held his final New Zealand exhibition at the New Lambton Gallery in September the same year.

Summer in the Mokauiti Valley, oil on canvas, Leonard Victor Mitchell, 1956, Kelliher Art Trust
The Road to Ngawi, Cape Palliser, Wairarapa, Leonard Victor Mitchell, oil on canvas, 1957

KELLIHER PRIZE FOR LANDSCAPE

1956 was a busy year for Len. Alongside the completion of the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library murals, Len won the inaugural Kelliher Prize with his oil painting Summer in the Mokauiti Valley.

Summer in the Mokauiti Valley, oil on canvas, Leonard Victor Mitchell, 1956, Kelliher Art Trust

"In 1956 H. J. Kelliher offered a prize of £500 for the best oil painting by a New Zealand artist depicting the visual aspects of a typical New Zealand landscape or coastal scene, executed in a realistic and traditional manner. He invited the New Zealand Fellowship of Artists (Inc.), Auckland, to organise the competition, and Mrs A. Pearse, Director of Dunedin Gallery, P. A. Tomory, Director of Auckland Gallery, and the visiting Australian artist Ernest Buckmaster, to act as judges. The competition attracted 201 entries."

Len’s entry for the second year of the competition was The Road to Ngawi, Cape Palliser, Wairarapa (1957). In the third year of the competition Len was again awarded the Kelliher Prize for Stormlight & Snow, Ruahine Mountains (1958). This painting is now in the national collection, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Len was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London and in 1959 was awarded the Netherlands Government Art Fellowship by the Netherlands Institute for International Cultural Relations. He held his final New Zealand exhibition at the New Lambton Gallery in September the same year.

The Road to Ngawi, Cape Palliser, Wairarapa, Leonard Victor Mitchell, oil on canvas, 1957
Len and wife Patricia Marian Mitchell (nee Nickalls)
Patricia Nickalls with Flute (NZ National Orchestra) 1954
Len and wife Patricia Marian Mitchell (nee Nickalls)
Patricia Nickalls with Flute (NZ National Orchestra) 1954

1960s & 70s

Len married long-time fiancé Patricia Marian Nickalls on 29 February 1960 at Cromwell. Patricia had sat for Len in 1954 as principal flautist with the National Orchestra. Len, Pat and Frank left for Europe in March to take up Len’s Fellowship. The journey to the Holland ferry took the Mitchells via London and Harwich, and they stopped in the village of Kelvedon when they spotted a bookshop selling art prints. They told the woman in the shop that they were on their way to Holland but intended to return to Coggeshall and would need a place to lease. She was the owner of the Rood House. The trio continued on to Holland, with Pat returning to England ahead of Len and Frank and taking on the lease sight unseen.

Coggeshall is a small town near Colchester which sits on an old Roman road. It is recorded in the Doomsday Book and has over 300 listed buildings, including The Rood House, 33 Bridge Street – now split into two houses and known as Riverside Maltings (see listing here). The original house is thought to date back to the late 1500s and features a poppy frieze anecdotally credited to local monks, c.1600. Originally referred to as The Rood House, it was thought to be the site of a cross (rood) marking the entrance to the Abbey grounds, a guest house for the Abbey. The Abbey itself was established in 1140 and eventually replaced by a church in the 1500s.

The following photographs of the Rood House were taken in 1980.

During the 1960s and 70s Len sold most of his work on the Continent and survived largely on commissions from exhibitions at the Paris Salon (1961–1979). He did send work back to New Zealand for various exhibitions.

In 1969 Len was sponsored into the Société des Artistes Francais by the painters Georges Cheyssial and Augustin Mémin. On the 19th of June 1971 he was awarded the Gold Medal (Médaille d’Or) at the Paris Salon. On the 3rd of September 1971 Len was awarded the Gold Medal (Médaille d’Or) from the Royal Society of Watercolour Painters, London. It was presented by the Cultural Attaché a l’Ambassade de France, Madame Bridgette Marger. The ceremony was presided over by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Robert Bellinger (G.B.E, D.S.C).

Len receiving the Gold Medal from the President of the Paris Salon at the Grand Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1971
Len receiving the Gold Medal from Madame Bridgette Marger at the Royal Society of Watercolour Painters, London, 1971
Len receiving the Gold Medal from the President of the Paris Salon at the Grand Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1971
Len receiving the Gold Medal from Madame Bridgette Marger at the Royal Society of Watercolour Painters, London, 1971

Len passed away suddenly on the 6th of January 1980 at Coggeshall, Essex, England. His brother Frank (who had returned to New Zealand 10 years earlier) travelled to England with his family to bring back Len’s widow Pat and his remaining catalogue – numbering over 500 works on canvas, board and paper – many of which still remain in the care of the Mitchell family today. Packing up the Rood House, the place Len and Pat had lived for the past 20 years, and preparing over 500 artworks for travel was a daunting task.

Leonard Victor Mitchell at his easel in the Rood House, Coggeshall, c1979

CAREER

Before emigrating to England in 1960, Len was a major player in the New Zealand art scene of the 1950s. The following is a basic outline of his artistic career, including known exhibitions and major commissions.

PUBLIC COMMISSIONS & AWARDS

Lower Hutt War Memorial Library Murals, 1955
Kelliher Prize for Landscape, 1956 & 1958
ANZ Bank Mural, Manners Street, Wellington, ‘Jacky Box’ 1957
‘The Musterer’ Dominion Breweries Mural, 1958
National Bank Art Awards, mural award, ‘The Bargain’ 1960

SOLO EXHIBITIONS

LAMBTON GALLERIES, 1954 & 1955

NEW LAMBTON GALLERY, 1956-1958
Farewell Exhibition of Paintings by Leonard Mitchell F.R.S.A. 1959

KOOS HOYKAAS STUDIO, Blaricum, Amsterdam, 1960

FISHER GALLERY, Christchurch, 1962

JAMES SMITH’S GALLERY, Wellington, 1963

ART SOCIETY & GROUP EXHIBITIONS

NEW ZEALAND ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS, Wellington
Exhibited regularly between 1952 and 1959
Wellington Annual Exhibition, October to November 1956

PARIS SALON, Paris, France
Known to have exhibited between 1961 and 1979 – records of works included in the Annual Exhibitions of 1963, 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1979

THE ROYAL INSTITUTE GALLERIES, London
East Anglian Art Today, January to February 1969

GUILDHALL ART GALLERY, London
Exhibited regularly from late 1960s to mid 1970s.

Auckland Society of Arts
Royal Academy, London
National Gallery of New South Wales
Royal Society of Painter Etchers and Engravers, London
New English Art Club, London (1968)
Lord Mayor’s Art Exhibition, London
East Anglian Art Society, London
Beaux Arts, Monte Carlo
Grand Salon International de Cherleroi, Belgium
Contemporary British Art, New York
Salon de la Marine, Musée de la Marine, Paris
British Artists, Town Hall, Place de Louvre, Paris

POSTHUMOUS EXHIBITIONS

CHRISTOPHER MOORE GALLERY, WELLINGTON
Leonard Victor Mitchell (1925-1980), October 1989
Japanese Prisoners of War at Featherston, 1945 and Portraits of Artists: Drawings by Leonard Mitchell, 1990
Leonard V. Mitchell: Paintings from the 1950s and 1960s, November to December 1990
Leonard Mitchell and the Lambton Galleries, June to July 1991
Leonard Mitchell: Portraits of Women, October 1991
Journey into Immortality: Leonard Mitchell and the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library Murals, 1992
Leonard Mitchell and the Laura Knight Collection: Circus and Gypsy Themes, September 1993

A Land of Milk and Honey: The Hutt Valley Centennial Show, Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 1991
Inheritance: Art Heritage and the Past, Wellington City Art Gallery, March to May 1991
The Visionary Landscape, National Art Gallery Wellington, 1991
Capital Characters: Wellington Portraits from Then to Now, New Zealand Portrait Gallery, 11 June to 23 August 2015, curated by David Colquhoun

MITCHELL STUDIOS, KHANDALLAH
Leonard Victor Mitchell: A Fine Art Exhibition, 16 March to 5 May 2018
Leonard’s Fifties: 50 Artworks from Mid-Century New Zealand, 2 November to 22 December 2018
Leonard Victor Mitchell: A Romantic Abroad, 1 to 29 February 2020

MEMBER

New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts
Société des Artistes Française, Paris

FELLOW

Royal Society of Arts, London 1957
Netherlands Institute for International Cultural Relations

Scroll to Top