Contemporary Art Market: Nudes inspired by past masters: The 19th century aids modern concerns

ONE OF Britain's greatest figure painters, Michael Leonard, is having his first London show for five years at Thomas Gibson Fine Art (44 Old Bond Street, W1). Since about 1980 he has combined portraits of the nobs of the art world - Lord Palumbo, Doris Saatchi, A Alfred Taubman - with exploring the visual possibilities of the nude. This show is mainly nudes.

Leonard has looked to the great draughtsmen of the 19th century for inspiration. His men and women are towelling themselves like Degas bathers; the smooth, high finish of his paint echoes Ingres; his drawings, rubbing soft pencil on paper to make smooth gradations between light and shade, use a technique pioneered by Seurat.

The point of the pictures belongs to the 1990s, however. They are abstract explorations of form and tone within the prescribed framing contour; his edges, and just how they cut across the naked figure, are very important to him.

Leonard used to exhibit at Fischer Fine Art, the very distinguished Mayfair contemporary gallery which closed last year. Always something of an 'outsider' in the contemporary scene, he tried showing with the New York Old Master dealers Rosenberg and Stiebel in 1992, and has now turned to Gibson, primarily a specialist in classic 19th- and 20th-century art.

The gallery, where works are often priced in hundreds of thousands of pounds, makes Leonard look as if he must be very expensive; so far only three paintings and two drawings have sold. In fact, the paintings are priced from pounds 6,000 to pounds 12,000 and the drawings from pounds 2,000 to pounds 2,500. The latter are particularly good value: they are very highly finished and complete, and treat the same subjects as the paintings on a smaller scale.

At the Jill George Gallery (38 Lexington Street) there is another artist who takes his cue from Degas. Crawfurd Adamson, 40 this year, is 20 years younger than Leonard and more farouche. Like Ingres and Delacroix, they represent the battle of line and colour: Leonard, the draughtsman with a magical control of line, Adamson, the colourist who builds his drawing from blazing touches of colour.

Most of Adamson's paintings represent single, naked figures; unlike Leonard, who eschews the narrative, he seeks to convey the sitter's life and anxieties from the positions they adopt. He uses no preparatory drawing but starts to splash paint straight on to the canvas, then teases his images out of the gloom. Of 30 works on show, 21 have sold. The prices for full-scale paintings run from pounds 1,600 to pounds 6,000.

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