Leonard Victor Mitchell
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. Read more about the incredibly talented Leonard Cornwall Mitchell here.
A young Len photographed on holiday in Patea, Taranaki, with his parents Leonard and Victoria.
Victoria Mitchell with her three boys - Len, Allan and Frank - in the family car, overlooking Wellington Harbour c.1933.
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.
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 and resumed teaching at the Technical College, this time focusing on drawing and printmaking. He produced a series of etchings of circus performers.
Len, pictured with his parents Leonard and Victoria, before leaving for England, 1947.
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. Read more about the Galleries here.
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.
In 1956 Len won the inaugural Kelliher Prize with 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." Taken from 'KELLIHER ART PRIZE COMPETITION', from An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, edited by A.H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 22 Apr 2009 (read more).
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).
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.
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. View her portrait here. Len, Pat and Frank left for Holland in March to take up Len's Fellowship and later settled in Coggeshall, Essex, England.
Len and wife Patricia Marian Mitchell (nee Nickalls).
During this time Len sold most of his work on the Continent and survived largely on commissions from exhibitions at the Paris Salon (1961–1979).
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.
Len receiving the Gold Medal from the President of the Paris Salon at the Grand Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1971.
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 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 Frank's care today.
Len at his easel in the Rood House, Coggeshall, c1979.