Michael Leonard | Conigsby Gallery

The painter Michael Leonard died last summer, around his 90th birthday. He was successful: in the 80s, Reader’s Digest magazine nominated him to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on her 65th birthday. Less publicly, he also drew and painted hunky men getting into and out of their underwear.

This latter group is well represented in this show of Leonard’s work, put together by Henry Miller, whose eponymous gallery focuses on the “male form”. Henry was at the gallery when I visited, pointing out that it was likely to be the last time these works - large portrait paintings, pages from sketchbooks, photographs of Leonard’s muscular models - would be shown together, unless a public gallery gets interested in the artist at some point in the future. “It will gradually drift away,” he added. With that in mind, the many red dots next to the works on show seemed a bit poignant.

Michael Leonard ‘Stretch (Colour Study)’ (1999)

I liked Stretch (Colour Study), painted in 1999 and shown above, best of all. I assume Leonard was a bit of a lycra queen, considering the number of men getting into and out of singlets he portrayed. This time, the model stretches the garment across his lap, bracing his arms. He looks down pensively, somehow dynamic and still at the same time.

“When I first encountered his male nudes, I remember being amazed that someone could create something so beautiful and tender, that was completely against the cultural climate of the time,” Henry adds in the show notes. (He worked with Leonard for more than 30 years.)

Such beauty and tenderness as that small study of one man and a bit of white stretchy fabric, soon to be shut away, behind closed doors, for the eyes of its lucky buyer only. I realised when I started this post that I’d visited the show on its final afternoon.

Michael Leonard was at Conigsby Gallery (London). 26 February - 02 March 2024