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Remembering Leonard McComb RA


Published 6 July 2018

Colleagues, friends and family pay tribute to artist and teacher Leonard McComb, who died on 19 June 2018 aged 87.

  • Leonard McComb RA studied at Manchester School of Art and subsequently at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1956 to 1959, followed by a postgraduate degree in sculpture, also at the Slade, in 1960. He went on to teach at various art schools, including Oxford Brookes University, Sir John Cass College, the Slade, Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths College, and in 1974 he founded the Sunningwell School of Art, Oxford.

    He was elected as a Royal Academician in 1987, and from 1995-98 served as Keeper of the Royal Academy, placing him in charge of the Royal Academy Schools. He was an Honorary Member of the Royal Watercolour Society, The Royal Societies of Painter Printmakers and of Portrait Painters. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford Brookes University in 2004.

    His work is represented in many major national collections including the British Museum, Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. He also completed two mosaics for Westminster Cathedral.

  • If one person smiles when they see my work it is enough, my life has had a meaning and a shape.

    Leonard McComb RA

  • Rebecca Salter RA, the current Keeper of the Royal Academy, remembers Leonard McComb as “a dedicated and popular teacher, who believed strongly in the importance of an artist passing knowledge on to the next generation.”

    “The most cursory of glances at Leonard McComb’s work would tell you a great deal about him as both a person and an artist.

    “There is a delicacy of observation, an almost obsessive attention to detail and a quiet serenity. Whether he was painting people, flowers or fruit, he felt that they were all portraits and they were all subjected to his gentle scrutiny.”

    Leonard McComb’s sister, Anne Draycott, describes him as “inspirational to me and all he met”.

    “In his last days Len was organising the space in his room. He died peacefully with images of his trees and nature and music around him, with me sitting beside him reading his poem. Leonard was and will remain a truly wonderful artist and an exceptional human being.”

  • Dan Cowap, the RA’s Head of Art Handling, has fond memories of working with Leonard McComb on the 1988 Summer Exhibition, when McComb was one of the artists on the selection and hanging committee.

    “While we were hanging the exhibition Len found the time, often over lunch, to do an etching of everyone who worked on the exhibition. When the hang was finished, he made prints for everybody and gave them to us as gifts.

    “At that time he used to talk a lot about generosity of spirit.”

    Leonard McComb’s portrait of Dan Cowap is pictured above. His diploma work in the RA Collection, Sgt. Bert Bowers (also pictured above) is currently on display outside The Collection Gallery, Burlington Gardens.

  • A tribute by Humphrey Ocean RA

    I first met Len in 1974 when he ran up my stairs in Kennington and came to the rescue by offering me a day a week teaching drawing at Oxford Polytechnic, where he ran the art foundation course. Earlier in the year I had driven round all the art schools in the south of England with a folder of drawings, suggesting I might help them. They all firmly said no, but admitted it was novel seeing actual work rather than CVs sent in the post. Anyway someone at Oxford remembered and, six months later, when I had given up hope, here was Len generously coming to look for himself. During my next 18 months there a friendship began, me picking him up from his house in Brixton at seven on a Tuesday morning and driving us both to Oxford in my yellow ex-General Post Office van, Len in the passenger seat reading aloud Cézanne’s letters or whatever surprise he had in his bag. I arrived worn out but he patiently watched me struggle through the day with my charges.

    I liked that Len chose to make portraits and that he used watercolour. It was an unusual choice at that time if you were ambitious to make a life in the art world but he was fully aware of what he was doing. When you look at Len’s women and men you can almost see through the skin, a delicate structure of bones and corpuscles. And like his paintings of plants, they quiver with life, his reflected in theirs. As well as Cézanne, he treated Turner and Morandi as if they were living beings, and though I reminded him I was more South London than South of France there was something infectious about his talk of Provence and peach trees glowing like chandeliers. Later on he would think nothing of jumping into a camper van filled with paper and canvas to head across the Channel. If he felt the light was lovelier down there, so be it.

    • Leonard McComb, Mosaic of St Francis of Assisi in Westminster Cathedral,

      Leonard McComb, Mosaic of St Francis of Assisi in Westminster Cathedral,, 2008.

      Photo Fr Lawrence Lew, OP.

      For me, one Leonard McComb work stands apart. Len was at best ambivalent about religion, feeling that here on earth there is enough to be getting on with. Even so, Westminster Cathedral – famously unfinished, the embodiment of mystery with its bare and blackened brick like heaven perching above the white and earthly marble excesses below – makes an oddly suitable setting. Just as you come in the front door, in alcoves either side of the aisle, there are his two timeless and humane mosaics of St Francis (left) and St Anthony surrounded by birds and fish. Absolutely modern without appearing to try, the colour and treatment are resolute and ethereal. I look at them again and again and will go on doing so.

    • Academicians in Focus: Leonard McComb RA

      17 August 2018 – 27 January 2019

      The RA will be celebrating Leonard’s McComb’s work later this year with an exhibition in the Belle Shenkman Room, Keeper’s House.

      Leonard McComb loved working from life and much of his subject matter was inspired by his extensive travels, particularly in Cyprus and the south of France. His work was led and informed by the close relationships he forged over time, be they with friends made while abroad or among the market traders of Billingsgate, London. The exhibition will include still lifes, landscapes and portraits, and a selection of images can be seen below. For enquiries about the exhibition, please email robin.spalding@royalacademy.org.uk

      Leonard McComb RA, Portrait of the Artist