Obituary: John Leather

For many years a slight, emaciated figure would be seen dancing and singing at dawn on Primrose Hill, in north-west London. The same figure would sometimes be found later in the day, dressed as a stylish beggar, walking, regardless of safety, in the streets and traffic of Camden Town and Regent's Park, often talking to himself in a voice of exquisite modulation. This was John Leather, who had become a notable presence in the district since he bought a house in Chalcot Crescent in 1957.

There was more to Leather than eccentricity and madness. He exercised an intense personal influence, mostly for the good, on scores of people of diverse backgrounds and attainments and few who encountered him, even momentarily, will forget him.

He was born at Ilkley in 1916, the eldest of the four sons of Harry Leather, an accountant and businessman, and his wife, born Nancy Adams. Both sides of the family were cultivated and had roots in Quakerism. Harry was a hard, quick-tempered father who saw his first-born son as a hopeless case, yet did much to help him. Nancy became the inspiration of John's life to the point of idolisation and, though he sorely tried her, her loyalty to him was unfailing.

He was educated at Aysgarth School, Yorkshire, and Bradfield College, Berkshire. It was at Bradfield that his future life received its first stimulation. The stained glass by Burne-Jones in the dining hall opened his eyes to beauty and the Greek theatre became the scene of early dramatic performances in Greek plays, Henry V and The Gondoliers. John was a sensitive, effeminate child, quite unsuited to public-school life. He was brutally bullied but bravely founded a ballet society; he won reading prizes and he discovered Edward Gordon Craig's writings on the theatre. He wanted to paint, dance and act, wrote to Craig for advice and received an inspiring letter of encouragement in return.

These aspirations were badly received by his father, who tried to deflect him into theatrical management because it would make more money. In 1938 John entered L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, Lausanne, where he received the first prize in drawing and design and then went on to the Bartlett School of Architecture, London University, where he took a course in interior decoration. In his spare time he took ballet lessons at the Craske Ryan School while attending evening classes in life drawing and painting under Mark Gertler and Meninsky.

He then took a drama course at Everyman's Theatre, Hampstead, and Sir Lewis Casson gave him the part of Marchbanks (a role in which he excelled) in Shaw's Candida, playing opposite Sybil Thorndike at the Old Vic. Casson recognised Leather's abilities, saw that he was dissipating his talents and needed theatrical backbone. He was sent to Elsie Fogerty, the voice expert, and this brought him into the life of the actress Martita Hunt, who took him up and remained a lifelong friend.

In 1940 Leather suffered a nervous breakdown, which led to his being confined. During the Second World War (in which he was unfit for service) Hunt secured him Shakespearean parts in repertory and found work for him in Martin Browne's Pilgrim Players and Casson's Theatre Curtain Company. He played in Sir John Gielgud's last production of Hamlet and in La Folle de Chaillot, with Hunt. But it was Marchbanks that remained his principal character and in the plays of Shaw that he shone. This culminated in a season of Shaw plays produced by Ellen Pollock at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1946.

The Forties were John Leather's theatrical apogee. Many who saw him thought he was touched with genius - an opinion not necessarily shared by his fellow actors, who found him an idiosyncratic and unpredictable companion.

In 1947, he started his own "Travelling Theatre" of drama, song, music and poetry, a venture that survived for seven years. Travelling in an old military ambulance without a driving licence (for which he was eventually imprisoned in Exeter Gaol - a period in which he worked in the library and looked back on as a golden time of contemplation), he and a company of two toured the country looking for fit-ups. Patricia Brent, the BBC radio producer, who played on his first tour of Cornwall with John Maxwell, has only memories of incompetence and shambles. His programmes were too rarefied for general taste, houses were seldom good, accommodation hardly ever found.

Travelling Theatre took a turn for the better when David Ponsonby, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, and Hazel Clare joined the company. Patrons were found in Lord Duncannon, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, Martita Hunt and Esme Percy. John Minton made exquisite pen drawings for the programmes. The shows - Alive, Alive O, Skeptic Sceptres and Happy and Glorious - included translations from the lighter French and German writers, English Romantic and humorous playwrights and poets and recitals of early and contemporary keyboard music. Poems of William Plomer and John Betjeman were set to music and performed. They delighted kindred spirits.

In 1954, Harry Leather died and left John an independent income. This brought to an end his professional life in the theatre. He bought a small house and lived for a time on Ibiza, in Spain, long before it became a touristic purgatory. In 1956 he had a second nervous breakdown and was again confined. The following year he moved to Primrose Hill and thereafter led a semi-reclusive life broken by long periods in Spain, Italy and Morocco.

His house was magically appointed with Empire furniture, mercury-spotted mirrors in gilded frames, lustres, early Staffordshire and Hispano-Mooresque pottery, faded Oriental rugs, books, musical instruments, white walls and dust. It became his private world to which few were admitted.

Art came to his rescue as much in Neo-Romantic painting and drawing as in the exercise of aesthetic judgement. He was a critic of acute percipience, and had an almost supernatural affinity with art and music. His ideals were summed up in Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Blake. Florence became his spiritual home; Burckhardt and Berenson his mentors.

It was in the Seventies that he began to move more freely in the world. He chose a mendicant life, delighted in cast-off clothes, free food and accommodation in his wanderings. He let parts of his house for steep rents and could be a wearing landlord. In character he veered between an angel and a devil, inspiring and disrupting in equal measure, yet retaining a palpable quality of innocence. He let his appearance go and was overjoyed by the result.

Ten years ago there came a change. Leather overcame an intense aversion to plastic and had a plate of false teeth made. This transformed his looks and he re-emerged as a beautiful old man, with delicate features, his head crowned by soft silver hair. New vistas opened, he devoted himself to good works, and with them came personal gifts of ever-increasing sympathy.

He unsuccessfully sought theatrical parts as an actor of the old school, and secured the fleeting interest of Derek Jarman. He had an animating influence on young artists and photographers, some of whom used him as a subject. He grew calmer in spirit, less aggressive, and the final decade of his life was the happiest and, potentially, the most influential.

In conventional terms John Leather was a failure; but what he was able to give in understanding (however forthright), perception, illumination and intuition yielded fruit that would probably have surprised him; but not that much.

John Adams Leather, actor and painter: born Ilkley, Yorkshire 30 March 1916; died London 13 February 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all