Tim Ross on Leonard French

As part of the podcast series Constant, Tim Ross muses on the influence of art in our lives and his own enduring connection with the work of artist Leonard French.

We didn’t have much art in the house when I was growing up, but we certainly had books about art. One of them was Australian Painters of the 70s, edited by Mervyn Horton, which featured a selection of artists who were at the top of their game.

Our love affair with art might start with a school excursion, a gallery poster or a calendar on a grandparent’s fridge.’

The book — with John Coburn’s Valencia on the cover — loomed large when I was a kid. It was that pre-internet era when our home was our world of discovery: everything was examined and poured over, a time when we devoured whatever was written on the back of cereal packets. And Australian Painters of the 70s opened me up to a world of creativity.

Double spread of Mervyn Horton’s ‘Australian Painters of the 70s’, published 1975 by Ure Smith, Dee Why West, NSW.

A present to Mum from Dad in 1975, the book ended up in my possession and I’ve carried it from house to house over the decades, its pages dog-eared but well-read. It’s become one of my most cherished possessions, having introduced me to Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen, Syd Ball, Roger Kemp and Brett Whiteley.

I recently rediscovered the book and it got me thinking about how those names, and so many others, have been a constant in our lives over the years, inspiring us in so many ways.

On a recent return to my old study haunt — La Trobe University in Melbourne — I found myself staring at The Four Seasons, the large Leonard French stained glass sculpture under the main administration building. I thought about how it was the first thing I saw when I got off the bus on my first day all those years ago. Standing there alone in a campus full of strangers, it was like an old friend from another time, a reassurance. With older eyes, I re-examined it with a deep admiration for those who commission Australian public art as a gift to us all.

Hal Missingham, Len French, 1967, purchased 1974, © The estate of Hal Missingham

That pride hit me again when I was honoured to perform in front of John Olsen’s commanding mural My Salute to Five Bells at the Sydney Opera House. It reaffirmed my belief that what we create or design in this country defines us in the long term, as much, if not more than our achievements on the sporting field.

As the years go by, we can be surprised by how art is a silent influencer in our lives, a companion that asks for nothing and gives so much back in return.’

Leonard French, not titled [two birds], 1960, purchased 1972

Our first and enduring connections can be varied, simple and often rather humble. Our love affair with art might start with a school excursion, a gallery poster or a calendar on a grandparent’s fridge. Recurring images have formative powers, they turn receptors on and plant ideas in our subconscious. As the years go by, we can be surprised by how art is a silent influencer in our lives, a companion that asks for nothing and gives so much back in return.

When I mentioned reconnecting with the French sculpture to an old university friend, she had trouble remembering it. As the conversation continued, suddenly her eyes lit up: “Oh! That’s why Dad gave me a Leonard French print when I graduated, I either forgot or never knew.”

That print now sits on the wall of her young son’s room, ready to weave its magic.

Leonard French, The Artificer, 1957, purchased 1972 © Leonard French/Copyright Agency

Constant is a five-part podcast series presented by design enthusiast Tim Ross in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia. Listen to the series here.

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Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Australia

Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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