Jun 1, 2023 | Community

The Boy from Brunswick

Author: Barry York

Leonard French - Brunswick Daily

What does the magnificent stained glass ceiling of the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria have to do with Brunswick?

The answer is that it is the creation of a ‘Brunswick boy’: Leonard French.

Leonard was born in East Brunswick in 1928 to a family of Cornish origin. The family was poor, his dad a leather worker, and Leonard would spend hours in the shed at home working on art, which his biographer in 2017 described as a form of escape for the young lad.

Leonard left school at the age of 14 and became a sign writer. He undertook a casual art course at Brunswick Technical School and studied part-time at the Melbourne Technical School. He left home at the age of 19 and set up a studio in Ascot Vale. Years later, he would set up a studio in Sydney Road, Brunswick.

The stained glass ceiling in the National Gallery of Victoria is one of the biggest in the world. Another of his notable work is found in the foyer of the National Library in Canberra.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he was one of Australia’s most prominent artists. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his work in 1968. He was also a painter and muralist.

I’m not sure how long he resided in Brunswick. He established a vineyard in the countryside in the late 1970s and lived at Heathcote.

Leonard died on 10 January, 2017, aged 88.

I have not read the biography of him written by his long-time friend, Reg MacDonald, but it is significant that the book is called ‘The boy from Brunswick’. The blurb for the book says:

‘Leonard French (1928–2017), who created the great stained-glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria, was widely regarded as the most public Australian artist of his day. By the early 1970s this outgoing working-class boy from rough and tough inner-Melbourne Brunswick had become top of the artistic heap, cock of the walk: his monumental glass commissions, murals and paintings were critically acclaimed and his commercial success was firmly established. A feisty contrarian with an eloquence that belied his humble origins, he delighted in publicly roasting the Australian art establishment, seeing its art historians, curators and cavilling newspaper critics as his natural enemies. Yet suddenly in 1974 this public figure decided to shun the spotlight and seek solitude in Central Victoria’.

Do readers have any further information? Where was his studio in Sydney Road? Did anyone meet him in person? Let us know in the comments.


This article was edited, and published on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri-woi wurrung People, whose sovereignty was never ceded


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Charlie Nancarrow
Charlie Nancarrow
05/08/2023 8:08 pm

My mum (Caroline Nancarrow) became the chaplain at St Anne’s and Gippsland Grammar School in the late 80s and one project she was involved with at the school was the construction of the School Chapel. She pushed to commission Leonard French to design a window for the small school chapel, which is still there today. She spent a lot of time in Brunswick and was the first suburb she moved to when she emigrated to Australia. On the front page of the school website you can see the stained glass window https://www.gippslandgrammar.au/

Last edited 10 months ago by Charlie Nancarrow
Pablo Gonzalez
Reply to  Charlie Nancarrow
06/08/2023 3:52 pm

This is so interesting! Thanks for sharing, Charlie!

Lynne Fitzpatrick
Lynne Fitzpatrick
12/08/2023 4:31 pm

Leonard and Elaine French resided at 48 Union St Brunswick from 2008 until December 2016