BEFORE THE FIRE, 1974 - 78

National Australia Bank Collection
22 February 2022


(1928 - 2017)
BEFORE THE FIRE, 1974 - 78

from the FIRE AND RAIN series
synthetic polymer paint and enamel on hessian on board

122.0 x 137.0 cm

signed lower right: French
inscribed with title and date on label verso: FIRE AND RAIN SERIES 1974 – 78 / Before the Fire

$25,000 – $35,000
Sold for $24,545 (inc. BP) in Auction 67 - 22 February 2022, Melbourne

Probably: Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
The National Australia Bank Art Collection, acquired from the above in 1978 (label attached verso)


Probably: Leonard French: Fire and Rain 1974 – 1978, Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, 14 October – 8 November 1978
The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of National Australia Bank, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 15 October – 28 November 1982
The Seventies Exhibition: Selected Paintings from the National Australia Bank Collection, MacLaurin Hall, The University of Sydney, Sydney, 6 September - 1 October 1989, cat. 12
'The Seventies' Exhibition: Selected Paintings from the National Australia Bank Collection 'Modern Art of the Seventies', Caulfield Arts Complex, Melbourne, 18 January - 11 February 1990, cat. 9
The Seventies: Contemporary Australian Paintings from the National Australia Bank Collection, organised by Regional Galleries Association of New South Wales, New South Wales, cat. 12; and touring, Tamworth City Art Gallery, New South Wales, 24 May – 24 June 1990; Dubbo Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales, 11 July – 6 August 1990; Wagga Wagga City Art Gallery, New South Wales, 17 August – 10 September 1990; Moree Plains Regional Gallery, New South Wales, 3 October – 31 October 1990


Cohn, A., ‘Leonard French at 50’, The Australian Jewish Times, Sydney, 2 November 1978, p. 14
Lindsay, R., The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of National Australia Bank, The National Bank of Australasia, Melbourne, 1982, pl. 39, p. 52 (illus.)
Millar, R., 'A Confident 10 Years', The Herald, Melbourne, 21 October 1982, p. 37 (illus.)
Hart, D., William Delafield Cook, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p. 119

Catalogue text

Famously describing himself as a ‘dog among the fairies’1, Leonard French is renowned as one of the most idiosyncratic talents in Australian art. Having trained as a signwriter while pursuing part-time art classes, he was initially taken under the wing of Melbourne Technical College lecturer, Victor Greenhalgh, who identified his prodigious talent and later gave French a teaching position. French became further captivated by the Melbourne art scene when he frequented after classes the Swanston Family Hotel in Swanston Street, an establishment also patronised by numerous emerging Antipodean artists including Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh, Charles Blackman and John Olsen. The combination of his teaching and signwriting studies, together with regular debates among his artistic peers at the Swanston Family Hotel (such congregations were later known as ‘Len French’s University’2), enabled French’s burgeoning artistic vision to solidify and, from the late 1950s, French’s ascent was meteoric, winning in quick succession the Crouch, Perth, Peace Congress, Sulman and Blake prizes – the latter of which he won a second time in 1980. Arguably most significant among his achievements, however, remains the iconic stained-glass ceiling commission for the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria awarded to French in 1963 – a majestic and monumental undertaking which, inspired by his recent first-hand experience of Christian and Byzantine art abroad, secured his critical reputation as one of the most important Australian artists of his day.

Having thus forged his own path from relative obscurity to astonishing popularity through his unique modernist style that encapsulated a deep humanism and spirituality – notwithstanding the dominant abstraction aesthetic of the time – during the 1970s French would delve more fully into the figurative idioms that today define his oeuvre. Between 1974 and 1978 in particular, he completed his ‘Fire and Rain’ series which, comprising fifteen works including the present, was exhibited to widespread acclaim in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne in 1978. Counterbalancing the dark allegories of death and captivity explored in his preceding series ‘Death of a Revolution’ created following the artist’s travels to South America earlier in the decade, such ‘Fire and Rain’ works were notably lighter in feeling and tone, although still employed a similar Christian-Byzantine symbolism to evoke connotations of war and social revolution. Accordingly, in Before the Fire, 1974 – 78, fire embodies for French a spiritual force, both capable of destroying corruption and encapsulating the vitality of the human spirit; the trees further reinforce this analogy, signifying the human figure, before subsequently evolving into cruciform motifs that allude to the three crosses of Golgotha, while rain, the second element in the series, here serves as a symbol of regeneration. As French reflects, ‘I set out with just trees and end up with crucifixes. There are several stages however, between the cosy arrangement of burning logs and the final crucifixion picture… the fire is a spiritual thing.’3

1. ‘Leonard French, a man apart’, Weekend Australian, 18 – 19 April 1981
2. Heathcote, C., A Quiet Revolution: the rise of Australian art 1946 – 1968, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1995, p. 63
3. French, quoted in an interview with Sandra McGrath, ‘An Artist’s Logbook’, The Australian, 7 March 1978, n.p.