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Australian art

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Death and transfiguration



Leonard French


08 Oct 1928 -


Metamorphosis from life to death - from the sea ascend-
ing - flesh-image wrapped in the already breaking
winding-sheets. Campion is dead - fish alive swim
in a dark sea - in a soft sky the other regal fish
disintegrates without pain.

Leonard French, work-notes for 'Death and transfiguration'

'Death and transfiguration' is one of a series of twelve paintings based on the life of the sixteenth century Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion, the first and most famous of the British Jesuit martyrs who was hanged, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered on December 1, 1581.

French's work was influenced by the massive forms of Romanesque architecture and the structure of mosaic, as well as with the work of Belgian painter Constant Permeke, Robert Delauney's circle and Leger's candid juxtapositions of colour. His sources were often literary, and the theme of the heroic voyage, both as a physical and spiritual journey, is one which continually emerged in French's work, presenting a rich insight into the psychology of heroism.

French left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice sign-writer, where he gained invaluable knowledge of materials and techniques. His distinctive built-up enamel and gilded surfaces are exquisitely crafted with the utmost precision, and utilise a repertoire of geometric devices: circle and hemisphere, square and rectangle, plant and fish-form within a controlled, web-like schema.

Australian Art Department, AGNSW, 2001




Media category


Materials used

synthetic polymer paint, collage and gold leaf on jute canvas on hardboard


122.6 x 137.9 cm board; 124.8 x 140.2 x 3.8 cm frame

Signature & date

Signed c. verso on board, black oil ".../.../ LEONARD FRENCH/.../". Not dated.


Purchased with assistance from the Sir Charles Lloyd Jones Bequest Fund 1962


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Leonard French

Works in the collection


Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 12 publications


Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales picturebook, Sydney, 1972, 115 (colour illus.).

John Baily, Adelaide Festival of Arts 1970: Special exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia, 'Leonard French OBE', pg. 21-22, Unknown, 1970, 26, 29 (colour illus.). cat. no. 39

Brian Buckley, Bulletin, 'Leonard French: Everything on a large scale', pg. 24-26, Sydney, 10 Jun 1967, 26.

Sasha Grishin AM, Leonard French, 'The Campion paintings', pg. 30-32, Sydney, 1995, 30.

Christopher Heathcote, Encounters with Australian modern art, 'Reconstruction culture 1945-1962', pg. 9-56, South Yarra, 2008, 42. General reference

Alan McCulloch, Leonard French. The Campion paintings, 'Foreword', pg. 9-11, Melbourne, 1962, 17, 19, 24, 80, 81 (colour illus.), 102. plate no. 28

Alan McCulloch., Leonard French: Australia, 'Appreciation', London, 1967, not paginated. catalogue entry, no numbers given

Terry Smith, Other voices: critical journal [vol. 1, no. 1], 'Leonard French Retrospective Adelaide Arts Festival, March 1970', pg. 39, Sydney, Jun 1970-Jul 1970, 39 (illus.). dated 1961, image Couresty Art Gallery of N.S.W.

William Splatt and Barbara Burton, 100 masterpieces of Australian painting, Adelaide, 1973, 198, 199 (colour illus.). plate no. 96

Daniel Thomas, Meanjin, 'French's Campion paintings', pg. 437-439, Carlton, Dec 1963, 437-439.

Donald Williams, In our own image: the story of Australian art, Sydney, 1995, 148 (colour illus.).

Donald Williams, In our own image: the story of Australian art, Sydney, 2002, 154 (colour illus.).