Leonard Delabere Bestall was born in Wellington on 21 November 1895, the son of Richard Bestall and his wife, Eleanor Beatrice Pidgeon. Afterwards the family moved to Napier, where Richard, a draper, established the firm Bestall and Griffin (later known as Bestalls). Leonard, usually called Leo, attended Napier Boys’ High School, where he was dux in 1912. He then studied architecture at Canterbury College, Christchurch, under Samuel Hurst Seager. It is unlikely that he completed his architectural studies, but for a time he worked in Havelock North for the architect W. J. Rush.
During the First World War he served in France in the New Zealand Medical Corps. While abroad he met Frances Mary Ambler Widdowson of Lincolnshire, England. They were married in Napier on 18 December 1920. There were no children of the marriage. That year he forsook architecture to join his father in his drapery business.
Interested in art from an early age, Leo was competent at drawing and executing wood-block prints. He was one of the founder members of the Napier Society of Arts and Crafts when it was re-established in 1924. In 1933 his creative energies found the outlet that would absorb him for the rest of his life after Lady McLean offered the society the collections of her late husband, Sir Douglas, and her father-in-law, Sir Donald McLean. A condition was that a fire-proof building be erected to house them, and Leo Bestall applied himself to raising the funds to build the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum. This was not an easy task during the depression and after the earthquake which devastated Hawke’s Bay in 1931. He succeeded, and in 1936 the first wing of the museum opened, followed by the building of the second stage in 1937.
Soon after the opening, Bestall assumed the role of director. In 1937 he received a Coronation Medal and in 1939 a Carnegie fellowship to visit museums in the United States and Britain, although the outbreak of war prevented him from completing the tour. In December 1941 he joined the Church Army and after training in New Zealand was posted as captain to Maadi Camp, near Cairo, where he arrived in May 1942. There he was responsible for the morale, spiritual welfare and recreational needs of New Zealand soldiers.
He returned to Napier in late 1944, where he enthusiastically resumed control of the art gallery and museum, which had stagnated during his absence. Frugal but imaginative, he created museum displays of a high professional standard on limited resources during the years of post-war austerity. He developed a broad programme, which included concerts, a choir, art classes, a local history group, a pottery group and a schools’ education service. He assiduously collected decorative art and ethnographic and historical items to create one of New Zealand’s finest provincial museum collections. The museum building was completed in 1954, then extended again in 1958. Bestall served as president of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand and was made a fellow of the association. In 1949 he was made an MBE.
Leo and Mary Bestall travelled to Britain every two or three years. They spent much of their time there visiting galleries and museums and purchasing paintings and artefacts for the museum’s collection with funds solicited from benefactors. Some of these purchases were inspired, such as the fine (now extremely valuable) Bernard Leach pottery, which he commissioned Edgar Mansfield to select in 1950.
During the 1950s he devoted more and more time to the museum and less to his business, which he eventually sold. Before his death on 22 March 1959 at Napier he had created an endowment fund for the museum and expanded its budget until he was paid a modest but full-time salary. Thus the means to employ his successor was ensured. He left a substantial bequest to the museum, and his wife, on her death in 1976, bequeathed her entire estate for the creation of an acquisitions fund.
Cultural institutions are often established by one obsessive individual who inspires others to join and follow. Leo Bestall was such a person – yet he was also a well-rounded man, interested and involved in the Anglican church, repertory, Rotary, and the arts and community. Described by those who knew him as caring, persuasive, discerning, artistic, practical and great fun, Leo Bestall realised his dream – the creation and enhancement of a permanent home for the arts and history in Hawke’s Bay.