Leonard C. Mitchell and Leonard V. Mitchell – father and son – are two forgotten artistic heroes. Now, critically studied for the first time, their highlight reel runs long. No other family can likely claim such a diverse contribution to New Zealand art.
Leonard Cornwall Mitchell (1901–71) has been called the father of New Zealand graphic design; a stand-out illustrator and designer across tourism and commercial work. Some of Mitchell’s posters, including his welcoming wahine for the Centennial Exhibition, are graphic masterpieces; the epitome of great design. Key paintings loom large, including cinematic versions of the Treaty signing and New Zealand’s first sermon; and Governor William Hobson (1957), one of New Zealand’s great portrait works. Mitchell also remains one of New Zealand’s most prodigious stamp designers; an art-form that earned him global awards.
For Mitchell’s first son, Leonard Victor Mitchell (1925-80), art was a natural family fix. At age 31, he won the first Kelliher Art Award and painted one of New Zealand’s most ambitious murals (Human Endeavour, installed in Lower Hutt’s War Memorial Library). But within four years, despite another Kelliher win and multiple big-name portrait commissions, Mitchell moved to Europe, pushed out by Modernism never to return again. Only now, through privileged access to his own repatriated collection, can Mitchell’s art – and success as a New Zealander abroad – be fully understood. It’s a knock-out body of work and, like his father’s legacy, worthy of elevated standing in the story of New Zealand art.