Obituary: Keith Leonard

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The Independent Online
Keith Leonard, sculptor: born Birmingham 1921; married (one son); died Bath 26 November 1993.

KEITH LEONARD belonged to a team of talented apprentices - Denis Mitchell, Brian Wall and Roger Leigh among them - who assisted the sculptor Barbara Hepworth at the height of her success during the late 1950s. He worked on Hepworth's bronze Meridian, situated outside State House in the Strand, central London. Like the others, Leonard later branched out on his own, and emerged from under the giant shadow of Hepworth's abstracted sculpture by pursuing individual themes.

Leonard was always his own man, for in common with another of Hepworth's St Ives studio assistants, John Milne, he had explored the length and breadth of modern sculpture practice by studying in London and Paris. Under the tutelage of Professor Alfred Gerard at the Slade School, in London, he had been made aware of the all-important aspect of building form outwards into space from a central armature. The additive process of clay or plaster modelling - fundamentally different to the reductive stone or marble carving required by Hepworth at Trewyn Studios - made him alert to subtleties of surface and direction, a perennial and central feature of sculpture's inherent three-dimensional plasticity. After the Slade, but before entering Trewyn in 1955, Leonard completed a broad training by working at Ossip Zadkine's studio in Paris, where wood carving from giant blocks was favoured.

Leonard looked beyond the frontiers of academic practice, however, for sources of inspiration. Far from being a hermetic formalist, he did not produce work for the sake of it and never catered to commercial demands. He worked slowly, perhaps too slowly, pursuing ideas gained from his love of musical and architectural structure. Observations of dancers in movement inspired a deftly conceived and executed piece like Monument to Pavlova (1990) in which curvilinear fibreglass planes turn through space with the self- contained grace and versatility of a ballet dancer. It also expresses an architectural feeling for structural poise, balance and direction.

He also explored such spatial ideas on the flat surface of painting. One large picture of intersecting white lines and star-like shapes on a sky blue ground was exhibited at the World Fair in New York in 1964. The tension between surface and depth, between static and dynamic lines that so moved him in the work of Mondrian, led to some huge paintings of criss-crossing webs of colour. After a distinguished teaching career, where his natural empathy for younger artists made him a popular figure in art schools in Farnham, London and the North-east, Leonard returned to St Ives in 1984, once again joining the colony of painters and craftsmen where he felt so much at home. His part-Greek, part-Cornish wife, Charmian, is a talented painter. Together they befriended many artists, such as Winifred Nicholson, Trevor Bell and Patrick Heron, the latter an occasional visitor to their house in the traditional fishermen's quarter of St Ives.

A quiet, modest man, Keith Leonard shared with the Nicholson family an interest in Christian Science, and typically he practised rather than preached Christian values. He was particularly supportive to me in the preparation of a new book on St Ives artists.

(Photograph omitted)