Artist known for his work in many different media
Born: August 3, 1930;
Died: June 19, 2018
LEONARD Mccomb, who has died aged 87, was an artist whose work covered a wide field – he was acknowledged as a teacher and sculptor but also as a gifted practitioner of portraits, landscapes, still lives, pencils drawings, inks, oils and watercolours.
He admitted he did not fit easily into any one category: “Everything I make is a portrait, whether I paint a human head or a flower.’’
He was Keeper of the Royal Academy and supported traditional figurative work rather than more idealistic conceptual art. His art was widely admired and hung in many leading collections. All Mccomb’s works, in whatever media, showed his love of colour and his minute observation of the subject.
Leonard William Joseph Mccomb was born in Glasgow, the eldest of six children, to Irish parents and brought up in Manchester. He was an enthusiastic painter and after national service in the RAF took some landscapes in 1949 to a London gallery who were impressed.
However, Mccomb had reservations. “I lined the 12 paintings up,” the artist recalled. “I looked at him and he looked at me. Then I gathered them up, put them back in the brown paper parcel I had brought them in and said, ‘I’ll come back and see you in 10 years’ time.’ And the dealer said, ‘Do, young man. How nice.’”
In fact, Mccomb was clearly unhappy with his early works as he burnt many in a fire in the garden. Luckily, one of his sisters retrieved a few.
One early work that was not destroyed was Portrait of a Young Man Standing. The magnificent gilded nude sculpture was an outstanding work of tender beauty and was first seen in Lincoln Cathedral in 1990.
Mccomb draped a loin cloth round it but the Dean of the cathedral thought it “indecent” and the artist withdrew it. London’s Tate Gallery immediately offered it a permanent home.
Significantly, 20 years later the sculpture was once more seen in a cathedral – this time Gloucester – when it caused little controversy and was much admired.
The creation of this magnificent work took Mccomb many years to complete. In 1963 he cast it in plaster and in 1977 in bronze which was then magnificently gilded by his wife. The work had huge significance for him – he described it as an attempt to create an image of a whole person.
He gave the sculpture an air of mystery through its beguiling stature – the eyes glancing slightly upwards while one hand clenched and the other relaxed. It represented the spirit, and innocence, of youth.
In 1976 an exhibition entitled Leonard Mccomb, Drawing Painting Sculptors came to the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh. The Hayward Gallery’s celebrated Human Clay exhibition came to the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh in 2004. Mccomb produced an illustrated book to accompany the show with a fine self-portrait on the cover.
Mccomb gave drawing masterclasses during the Talbot Rice exhibition which were attended by draughtsmen of all ages. It was deemed a huge success.
The pictures had a retrospective element showing work of his previous two decades with recent studies of the human body.
Those and his finely drawn portraits were much admired for Mccomb’s ability to capture the sensitive quality in the sitter’s face.
The variety of the work on view underlined his remarkably broad skills.
An unusual commission came in 2009 when Westminster Cathedral commissioned him to create ovoid domes in the cathedral using decorative mosaics. One critic wrote of The Bartlett Mosaics that they were, “garlanded with birds, teeming with life, with love of life, with love of creation, with humour and gentleness.”
In 2000 he was commissioned by the Vatican to design a Jubilee Medal featuring Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Hume to commemorate the new millennium.
Mccomb was a stalwart of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, where his most discussed work was a gigantic pen-and-ink seascape drawn on 96 sheets of A1 paper, a recreation of the view from his mother’s house in Anglesey, which dominated the show in 2005.
Mccomb was elected to the Royal Academy in 1991 and from 1995 to 1998 acted as Keeper.
He was keen to maintain standards at the RA Schools and encouraged his pupils to draw.
His works were exhibited in many important group shows, including the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1982, the Tate Gallery in 1984, the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC and the Museum of Modern Art, Brussels.
His compelling portrait of Doris Lessing (“serene in her plainness”) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Leonard Mccomb married first, in 1955 (dissolved 1963) Elizabeth Henstock; secondly, in 1966, Joan Allwork, who died the following year; and thirdly, in 1973 (dissolved 1999) Barbara Gittel.