Obituary: Gerald Leet
Thursday 25 June 1998
As a neo-Romantic portrait painter he was an exact contemporary of Carel Weight, with whom as a young man he shared a studio. He experimented with Surrealism and in his last years produced collage. From humble beginnings he worked his way into accommodation at Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother having commissioned from him a series of portraits of her staff. He served as official war artist in New Delhi and taught at Eton. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to compartmentalise his life and friends and to tantalise dealers with offers to sell books and paintings which often failed to materialise.
Gerald Mackenzie Leet - he sometimes called himself Gerald Mackenzie - was born in London in 1913, studied at the Goldsmiths' School of Art from 1929 to 1934. From 1934 to 1937 he was a student at the Royal Academy of Art, and for a further year he enrolled at the Courtauld. His first teaching appointment was at Ealing School of Art. He seems to have spent much of the Second World War in South Africa and Egypt, and it was in 1945 that he came to the attention of Lord Wavell when he was Viceroy of India; it was Wavell who arranged his appointment as official war artist in New Delhi.
In September 1946 Leet was appointed assistant drawing master at Eton, where he worked under the legendary Wilfred Blunt, art master from 1938 to 1959. He remained at Eton until 1949, when he moved into Windsor Castle, working three days a week as a teacher at Brighton College of Art while executing a series of portraits for the Queen - now the Queen Mother. He specialised in portraits of the great and famous, claiming intimate friendship with the Mountbattens, Field Marshal Auchinleck and assorted Turkish princes and Greek princesses.
It was in 1933 that Leet met the fellow art student he came to admire but whose sometimes vitriolic pen he learnt to fear. Denton Welch was two years his junior, and in the early days of their uneasy friendship Welch spent a good deal of time and energy fending off Leet's unwelcome advances. But Leet was precisely the sort of person by whom Welch was both fascinated and repelled, and he was destined to be immortalised as Mark Lynch in Welch's most famous novel, A Voice Through a Cloud (published posthumously in 1950), and as Gerard Hope in "A Novel Fragment" (in A Last Sheaf, 1951), Welch's comprehensive account of his three years at Goldsmiths'.
It was Gerald Leet who, uninvited, decided to accompany Denton Welch to tea with Walter Sickert, a hilarious adventure which provided Welch, in 1942, with his first published prose, in Cyril Connolly's Horizon. Sickert's farewell to the two young men - "Come again when you can't stop so long!" - has often been misquoted but never improved upon.
Leet painted Welch, and amassed a small but valuable collection of Welch's work. One of Leet's paintings was sold to an American collector in 1990 for pounds 14,500, the same year that Digging for Victory, a painting executed in 1941, was sold for pounds 3,800. In 1997 it was purchased at Sotheby's by Eton College for pounds 4,500. Not surprisingly, Leet exhibited at the Eton Art Gallery; more ambitiously, at the Isobar Gallery in Hampstead and at the Halifax and Manchester City Art Galleries.
Denton Welch had the grace to admit that Leet was a better draughtsman than he, and he learnt a lot from him, but he could not resist recording in print some unattractive, or at any rate boring and snobbish, traits in Leet's complex character. And, although Leet retained fond memories of Welch, he always felt hurt by his treatment of him in print, albeit having his name disguised. He resolutely declined to co-operate over Welch's biography.
Leet had a brother who predeceased him, but no other family, depending for intermittent entertainment on a wide circle of friends, who recall him as a brilliant conversationalist and mimic but an inveterate name-dropper. He lived for many years in Brighton, in a modest flat crammed with objets d'art, rare books and fine paintings. In old age he assumed the mantle of a sparkling and amusing elderly raconteur. Yet he remained a very private person.
Whether there was ever any great secret in need of suppression may be doubted. More likely, he enjoyed subterfuge for its own sake. He would suddenly appear in a local bookshop with some precious object that might or might not be for sale, and as suddenly disappear again for months. He seemed always to be putting people to some sort of test, and not many passed. Those few who did pass muster were richly rewarded.
In his late years he suffered two strokes, and finally moved into a Brighton nursing home, where he died after returning the previous day to his flat to retrieve some of his favourite paintings.
Gerald Mackenzie Leet, painter, teacher and collector: born London 1913; died Brighton 18 June 1998.
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