Page 1: Biography
Mitchell, Victor Leonard William
Artist, gallery owner
This biography, written by Mark Stocker, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Victor Leonard William Mitchell, always known as Leonard, was born in Palmerston North on 8 March 1925. He was the eldest son of Victoria Adelaide Cogswell and her husband, Leonard Cornwall Mitchell, an artist and internationally recognised stamp designer: he created 90 stamp designs, including some for New Zealand health stamps, and won United Nations stamp design competitions. Like his father, Leonard was devoted to art. He studied at the Wellington Technical College school of art from 1939 to 1942 and then returned to the school to teach life drawing, etching and painting in 1944. The art department’s head, Frederick Ellis, thought Mitchell’s work ‘outstanding’ and wanted him to continue his training at the Canterbury College School of Art. Instead Mitchell joined the New Zealand army in 1945, producing vivid drawings of Japanese internees at the Featherston prisoner-of-war camp. After a visit to Britain in 1947 he worked in his father’s commercial art office in Wellington. He also resumed teaching drawing and began teaching printmaking at Wellington Technical College.
A series of intricate etchings of circus performers, done in 1949, shows Mitchell’s technical prowess. Between 1952 and 1959 he exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and became New Zealand’s most fashionable portrait painter; his sitters included Ngaio Marsh, Walter Nash, Peter McIntyre and Warwick Braithwaite. In October 1954, with his brother Frank and the sculptor James Gawn, Mitchell opened the Lambton Art Galleries. It was the largest and most centrally located commercial gallery in Wellington and one of the first to be run by artists in residence. Initially it attracted a wide range of artists and craftspeople, including the painter Nugent Welch, the wood engraver Mervyn Taylor, the printmaker John Drawbridge and the potter Leonard Castle. In the late 1950s the gallery hosted a series of popular exhibitions.
In 1956 Mitchell executed his most ambitious commission, three canvas murals at the War Memorial Library, Lower Hutt: ‘Their sacrifice’, ‘Preserved freedom’ and ‘Human endeavour’. A potent monument to post-war civic pride, the third painting, almost nine metres wide, contains 50 life-sized figures representing different aspects of human endeavour, including education, music, farming and commerce.
Later that year Mitchell won the inaugural Kelliher Art Award (he won it again in 1958). This competition, instituted by the brewer and art patron Henry Kelliher, invited artists ‘to paint the essential character of the New Zealand scene and the ways of life of its people’. Mitchell painted in a traditional landscape style and his success created hostility within the jealous, politicised Wellington art world, some of whose members dubbed him ‘Leonardo Michelangelo’. Modernist detractors considered that his victory in the Kelliher competition promoted vulgar, chocolate-box painting. They also resented the enthusiastic praise he received from the Evening Post ’s art critic, Eric Ramsden.
In 1958 Mitchell was controversially excluded by E. H. McCormick from the government-sponsored exhibition The Land and the People, which toured the USSR. Mitchell fared little better at the conservative New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, which rejected his exhibits on several occasions. His isolation in the art community was compounded by a dispute with Kelliher over payment for commissioned paintings, which was settled out of court. Consequently, it was with relief and enthusiasm that Mitchell accepted a fellowship awarded by the Netherlands Institute for International Cultural Relations in 1959. On 29 February 1960 at Cromwell, shortly before his departure, he married Patricia Marion Nickalls. She had sat for him in 1954 while principal flautist with the National Orchestra.
Ramsden’s belief that the next decade of Mitchell’s life would be the ‘real testing time’ proved correct. The Netherlands landscape stimulated him but the modernist art establishment there was even more entrenched than in New Zealand. Mitchell did not find easy acceptance in England either, although he had settled there permanently by August 1960. His work was often sidelined because of his traditional style, although the eminent academic artist Dame Laura Knight sympathised, writing to him ‘You are the only man I know today that can draw’.
Occasionally his works received recognition from important institutions. The etching ‘Maori woman’, for example, was bought by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and in 1967 ‘Clown, elephant and dwarf’ featured at the Royal Academy of Arts. From the Salon of the Société des artistes français, Paris, where he exhibited regularly between 1961 and 1979, he received two gold medals (1968 and 1971) and one silver medal (1967) for painting and printmaking. These, however, were rare successes. Following the commercial failure of an exhibition of his work at James Smith’s gallery, Wellington, in 1963, he ceased showing in New Zealand. He maintained close ties with compatriots, however, and was cheered by the praise of eminent figures such as Lord Cobham, Keith Holyoake and Frank Kitts. None the less his limited success and his isolation and poverty adversely affected him, and his output eventually waned. He died at Coggeshall, Essex, England, on 6 January 1980, survived by his wife. There were no children of the marriage.
Patricia returned to New Zealand bringing Leonard’s papers with her. These have been deposited with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and reveal a talented but tormented expatriate artist. Born 50 years too late, he doggedly pursued what he saw as art’s timeless ideals and traditions. His paintings are rarely as convincing as his etchings and drawings, although his 1958 Kelliher-award-winning work, ‘Stormlight and snow, Ruahine mountains’, evokes a vision of power and originality. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds many of Mitchell’s works, and he is also represented in collections at Te Papa and National Archives.