Leonard Bennetts

Painter of the changing Thames docklands
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The Independent Online

Leonard Kenneth Hammond Bennetts, painter and teacher: born Dunedin, New Zealand 11 March 1933; married 1962 Olivia Stembridge (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980); died London 24 September 2004.

Leonard Bennetts was one of a trickle of Old Commonwealth painters who settled in London after the Second World War, enlivening the arts scene. The largest contingent was probably Australian, but there were notable representatives from Canada and New Zealand.

Many returned to their home countries, but Bennetts stayed on, making an important contribution as a teacher. Although the landscape of Europe was at the heart of his work, he retained a strong affection for New Zealand and had a string of exhibitions at New Zealand House in London.

The reason these incoming artists stayed on after war service or made the trek to Europe especially was not only to undertake the grand tour of museums and galleries or to study but to be close to where they considered the action was: Paris and, later, London.

Leonard Kenneth Hammond Bennetts was born in 1933 in Dunedin, South Island, the middle of three sons of Douglas Bennetts, a motor engineer, and his wife, Evelyn. This was a sheep-farming, rugby-playing environment in which wanting to be an artist was considered rather precious. Bennetts was encouraged by his mother and his maternal grandfather, Henry Blanchard Hammond, a creator of decorative ceilings in the UK and New Zealand.

He studied at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, and then, in 1954, moved to Australia, working for nine months as a gardener in a mental hospital, making a drawing tour of the interior and Northern Territory, then spending a year under Lyndon Dadswell at East Sydney Technical College. He worked nights in a telephone exchange while participating in group shows as "Benno", afterwards resorting to his own name.

Bennetts reached Britain working as a kitchen porter on a cruise ship. His dream of living the Bohemian life in Paris would never to be realised, but soon after a first London show in a pub in Hampstead he hitch-hiked around Western Europe "drawing everything I laid my eyes on, arriving back in London gaunt and penniless". With the pictures he had painted he had a show at Walker's Galleries, Bond Street, in 1959, with another in 1960.

He met the owner of a factory in the Old Kent Road, who let him live in a studio above it rent-free in return for keeping an eye on the place. After 18 months there, he began to establish himself as a professional artist. He married in 1962, and at first the Bennettses lived at Totteridge. A local pig farm, neighbours' homes and a series of autumnal landscapes provided subjects. Later he settled in Muswell Hill, north London inspired by nearby markets, railway stations and even rubbish tips.

Joining the Chelsea Arts Club and the Hampstead Artists' Council, he exhibited in mixed shows at such venues as the Mall Galleries, Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and with the Contemporary Art Society. The Hesketh Hubbard Art Society awarded him a first prize. In 1964, he initiated the first show of New Zealand artists in London, 26 of them showing at the Qantas Airways Gallery, in Piccadilly.

Bennetts continued to travel widely. When he had a solo exhibition at New Zealand House in 1976 the more than 60 oils included impressions of France, Wales, Devon, London and the River Thames. He was one of the first to realise that the Thames docklands were set for a big makeover. "He was on a mission to record what was there before it changed forever," says his former wife Olivia Bennetts. It was appropriate that in 1997 he became a member of the Wapping Group of Artists, devoted to the river.

For a time Bennetts was a night-time Post Office telephones supervisor, enabling him to paint during the day. He also taught at Hendon College, 1968-92, Barnet College, 1977-82, and at the Working Men's College, 1995-96.

"Leonard was a driven artist, never satisfied, always pushing his work on," says Olivia. This prompted him to enrol for further part- and full-time study at Sir John Cass College, 1975-82, taught by that fine draughtsman and etcher Paul Drury, also learning for a year, 1984-85, with the visionary painter Cecil Collins.

Although now middle-aged, Bennetts found being a student again invaluable. Sir John Cass steered him towards portrait and figure painting, which formed the bulk of his 1979 New Zealand High Commission show.

Bennetts, this time as Ken Bennetts, was included in the important 1983 Hayward Gallery touring exhibition "Landscape in Britain 1850-1950". He still had a hankering to see the rugged, landscape of New Zealand again, but it was 1987, after almost 40 years, before he returned, the first of several trips. The Timaru Herald commented that he was "a bit of a picture himself, in straw hat, striking crimson shirt, shorts and iridescent green socks".

He took the opportunity to paint the landscape and buildings of Temuka, where he once went to school, as in London docklands capturing views before they disappeared. Writing a year ago at the time of his last major show, at New Zealand House, Bennetts described himself as "the original retrogressionist (the way forwards is backwards)".

David Buckman