Leonard French windows at the National Library of Australia
Recording date:

*Speakers: Amelia McKenzie (Am), Nat Williams (N), Alison French (A)

*Audience: (Au)


*Date: 17/6/18 

Am:- tension bearing upon so let me start things off. Good afternoon, everyone, my name is Amelia McKenzie and I’m Assistant Director General of the Collections Management Division and it’s my pleasant duty to open the proceedings on this very cold day today so you’re all very much better off here, I think.

As we begin I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Nanbury people, past and present, for their stewardship of the land where we now live. 

This year as if you know I hope I don’t need to say it but we are just delighted to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of this fantastic building. On the 15th of August 1968 Prime Minister John Gorton opened the new National Library building designed by the architectural firm, Bunning and Madden. In the design process the chief architect, Walter Bunning, commissioned a range of artists to contribute art specifically to reflect the classical style of the building. Prime Minister Menzies said I want columns and he got columns. One of these artists was the Melbourne-born Leonard French who created the wonderful stained glass windows in the Library’s foyer.

Now I think many if not most of you I have not met before but I’ve worked in this building for more than 30 years and the Leonard French windows never fail to light up my day or evening as I pass them by. The eastern light flooding through them in the morning is something to behold as our coffee shop denizens will know only too well and they glow like jewels in the night-time if you leave and turn around and look at them in the winter’s dark. For me the artistry of those windows is what makes the Library a special place for its many citizens, uniquely modern but slightly mystical and timeless. It’s a place we come back to.

So this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome the curator, art historian and Petherick reader here in the Library, Alison French, who happens if you haven’t worked it out already to be Leonard French’s daughter. Alison is joined today by our Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, to discuss the sun, the stars and more in our stunning Leonard French stained glass windows. Please join me in welcoming Alison French and Nat Williams.


N:Thank you, Amelia, and can you hear me? Good. 

A:And we should check, can you hear me? Yeah? Great, good.

N:So today we’re going to do a number of things, we’re going to see a fabulous 1969 film, Leonard French’s Stained Glass Screens which we’ll do upfront then we’re going to do – Alison and I will do a bit of a Q and A around the windows and Alison’s father, Len’s, work more generally and some other commissions he’s undertaken or he undertook and also listen to some music which relates very specifically to our windows downstairs. So they’re the main things and then at the end feel free to come up and say hello, we’ll have some questions from the audience and then Alison has very nicely brought in a few pieces of published material about Len’s work and – including a copy of Life magazine –

A:Courtesy of Gail Newton which is fabulous, she’s preserved that very rare magazine.

N:Yeah so the first thing I want to do today is to briefly set the scene for 1965, the year the stained glass commission was awarded to Len French and the year that the family travelled across America, Len having received a Harkness Fellowship. So what might he have seen in the media and been thinking about in that year in Australia and in America? Well the first thing I thought sort of interesting is the Gemini 4 mission in 1965 in June and Ed White becomes the first person to walk in space. We’ve got this photo which is basically the surface of the planet, Mars which was taken on the 14th of July 1965 from the NASA space craft, Mariner 4. This all has a reason later you’ll see. We have the Sydney Opera House under construction which is still eight years from completion so we ran on time and on budget and got everything done, unfortunately the Opera House didn’t. We’ve got this rather shocking image of the KKK burning a cross in Trenton, North Carolina.

These are all from 1965 and we also have The Beatles at the height of their success playing a gig in Houston, Texas, arguably when they were really at the top of their game. And finally an image which will be very familiar to you all, is the fact that the Vietnam war is playing out in the background through this period and for a long time to come. And to a politically aware person like Len and a politically motivated person who brings that into his art, later particularly, it was a constantly painful reminder of what’s going on in the world. 

So we’re going to look at the movie and the purpose in showing you the film other than it’s a really interesting film is basically to answer a lot of the questions that you won’t then have to ask us about how did they do it? Because it’s quite a commission and it really – it’s a very engaging, visually engaging film and at the end we have the potential to screen it again if people want to see it. The first time I saw it I played it immediately twice ‘cause it needed that for me but –

A:It’s very dense, it’s just fascinating, you just want to –

N:It’s only eight minutes –

A:Short but incredibly dense.

N:So – and I should just say that this is – the film is Leonard French, Stained Glass Windows and it was produced by Film Australia or the Australian Commonwealth Film Board as it was at the time and we’ve got it courtesy of the NFSA. Thank you. Sorry.


“Well I was happy with this commission simply because I wasn’t given a thing that I had to work to. This would have made it impossible because I would have been forced to illustrate something that I had no feeling for. My own suggestion of the planets made it possible to do 16 windows in different ranges of colours so that a pair of windows were violet, were red, were green and orange, gold and so on and after all the purpose of these windows is to flood the place with brilliant-coloured light.

Once the sketches had been submitted to the architect and one has the go-ahead and the glass is imported in small slabs of one foot by eight inches from Belgium and France from firms that have made this from the Middle Ages. We then – and when I say we it’s a team that come together. We work – we sort out the – firstly the colours and these colours are all numbered so that a DA5 is a citron yellow green, a HA25 is a deep red violet and it’s been necessary to learn a palette of 50 colours. Now when I call a number the people bring the glass to me. I then cut this into a series of shapes and chisel the edges of these shapes so as to prismatise the glass to bring light through. We then lay this out, this glass out on panels of about 3 feet by 4 and finally cast these panels, being 64 panels all told.

Well the most important thing in the beginning with all this work, because of the scale of it was to have an area big enough to handle the job. On the different glass projects that I’ve worked on there’s been nearly 20 ton of glass cut. This requires a big space and also full-scale drawings had to be made on the floor. This was a purely physical reason for being at [Heathco] 9:41 but the other reason, this is a delightful place with very nice people, it’s a long, long way away from anything to do with art. One is left just carrying out a straightforward job undisturbed.

Probably my most important experience early in the piece as a painter was actually working as a sign painter because here I think that I gathered a sense of scale that has been very valuable afterwards and then in teaching which I didn’t like terribly much because I’m afraid I tried to make everybody paint exactly the same as me and then from there into the National Gallery as exhibitions officer – this was interesting because for the first time I was exposed continually to great works of art from the past, I was able to handle these pieces as I displayed them and I got a great affection for particularly Oriental art. Any painting that I collected would almost be accidental but in the case of Oriental scrolls or pre-Columbian art, I would collect these simply because in a way they give me something to look at outside of my own work and begin to suggest ideas when I’m at home and not working. I get a great deal from this sort of thing.

I find that firstly that my forms in painting fitted very happily into glass but whereas in painting one is working in a sense in just flat colour one’s – the moment you start with these windows you’re working in – with a luminosity with light reflected and fractured sort of light and red is no longer red, blue is no longer blue, it takes on an - entirely different dimensions and you’re working with light. I think one of the big problems with any artist that has to work with architects is that the artist is always brought in at the end of the job and not at the beginning. If he was in at the beginning of the job the work he wishes to do would be more integrated into the architecture and I'm afraid it always begins a little bit late.

End video

N:So there you have it. So really what you’re seeing there is a film with Len French narrating, he’s 40, 41 years of age, he’s the leading – probably the leading artist, the most well-known artist in Australia at that time, certainly one of them and what’s also interesting is that the unit that sort of puts the film together is actually – they all become quite eminent people in their own right so you’ve got Michael Thornhill who was the director who had an extensive career in the Australian film industry, made a lot of documentaries for the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit, now Film Australia.

Barry Cunningham did the music. I’m sure you’re all aware of Emeritus Professor Barry Cunningham who is an Australian composer and an academic and has composed many pieces of music and 30 recordings of those compositions and turned to orchestral writing under kind of the tutelage of Peter Sculthorpe in the mid-60s and Peter Sculthorpe was a great – a friend of the Library and we have his collection here. And the cinematographer interestingly is Don McAlpine whose name will probably be familiar to some of you who was the great collaborator with Bruce Beresford on the Barry McKenzie films, Don’s Party, The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant. He worked with Gillian Armstrong on My Brilliant Career and he won an Academy award more recently for Moulin Rouge so it was quite a star-studded cast so all of them, Len at the top of his game and these three young filmmakers kind of coming through working for the Commonwealth Film Unit.

So we’re here to remember Len French today and his beautiful work down in the foyer spaces and his remarkable life and work. I’m just going to show you these images which I encountered the other day. They haven’t been digitised, they’re in our collection. They were made by Bunning and Madden, the architects for the building and it shows the work in progress in about 1967, I guess, when the windows are being installed.

A:And it’s really interesting to see the image to the left. You notice when Amelia said that Menzies wanted columns. If you ever - when walking past really looked closely at those columns and see they’re actually crosses because you can see – see how the marble’s been face to it? But you see the structure is not actually a square. It’s not a circle, it’s not a square, it’s not a cylinder, it’s an actual cross. When we go back to look at the imagery later just hold that in your mind.

N:So there’s another – a view of the works being – and I love the effect of the camera obscurer you know which is fantastic. It’s not something that happens now so much because we’ve got more things in the way. And there’s another - Library as storehouse with works being installed around it. And there, more the finished job of that corner of bookplate which –

A:Yeah, with a total open view where you can get that sense of them working, talking to each other across a space. 

N:It’s interesting to observe that Walter Bunning in his design for the building had decided that those two spaces, bookplate now and the bookshop, were to be exhibition areas and the windows were created to bring in this beautiful ambient light which could be challenging in some respects for an exhibition area and we’ll come to it later but you might have noticed there was actually a screen originally in that space which was taken out. But I think Len’s brief was to create a contemplative space, something - a bit churchlike in a sense because of the association.

A:A spiritual space, a space that created – before you moved in to a working you know a working, research, mental you know getting – really confronting. You had this whole sense of inspiration. I think that you know that’s the way that functions at the point of entry.

N:So having just watched this rather memorable film we might just start with a personal remembrance and I’ll ask Alison what can you recall of the window commission as a youngster?

A:Well in 1968 I’m actually 18. In ‘65 you know I'm 15 and you mentioned the family travelling across America. Well that’s actually Mark and Dad’s middle family, experiencing oh you know the real trauma of life. I know Dad sent a letter back of talking about encountering a negro woman screaming – no, how was it described? There’s a woman, her head is turned back and the screams just issue out of her mouth and I you know there’s no account of why she’s happening, that appears as flames that emanate. So my memory of actually physically making the windows because what is happening is he gets the commission for the NGV you know the big collection in like ’62 so over this period, ’62 to ’68 you’ve got the construction of these two big major commissions happening physically at the same time and happening because Les Hawkins who’s this fantastic guy who worked with Dad at the NGV, was assistant curator in the Asian area but was like oh technical officer but brilliant. 

Anyway Les is there making and controlling a fort so the point when – I mean I remembered being up there visiting very early days and in that film do you remember you saw the section where you have the boxes, you have the glass sort of being prepared and structured within each box panel so that you see in particular the way you know if you’re inside the glass sits proud, doesn’t it? It’s – when you’re outside it’s actually level with the back – the glass and the cement is level so you saw that moment where they were preparing and paring that back. I remember a stage prior to that which would be a form of physical drawing, I think you would say so imagine a box that’s like a light box so it comes to about the knees, it’s got long, fluorescent - it then has got very thick plate glass over it so when you switch on the fluorescent tubes you know the light’s there.

Then the whole studio’s blacked out and architectural paper is lined there and then those faceted shapes are being sat down and positioned and then he’s pouring sand around the shapes to create a flexible dark boundary and holding so it could be move – or swap the you know make a refinement, move something over or change it or – and then once that’s set in place then the tracing goes ‘round that piece of glass and that glass gets given the number, its number. I mean the actual blank glass has got a number then that little very specific triangle or facet, that’s got a number and that number’s written on that architectural paper so you’re seeing something that’s got an extraordinary visionary quality actually coming into reality physically via these very creative technical ideas and ways that is initiating. And certainly Mark could tell you more about that aspect of the stage of the you know the putting the resin and all of that. So it’s a – it is a really interesting, creating – it’s not just an idea that you then call technicians in, you work collaborative with those technicians.

N:I think Len says in the film that you know he’s not from – he is interested in art as a youngster and then kind of learns how to be a sign painter after quite persistently turning up at the place and saying you know I want a job, I want a job and they take him on as an apprentice. How do you –

A:Yeah when you mean you know a sign painter we’re talking like –


A:Sign-writer you know we’re talking in Melbourne in buildings up on cranes you know painting signs way up high, high, high you know really quite physically yeah that kind of thing.

N:What do you think that actually gave him in terms of his practice?

A:I think it gave a sense of space, scale, the way imagery reads and communicates from a distance. It also gave a sense of confidence in you know directing and coping with challenges of that kind.

N:Here you can see all the – something that you never do in reality, you can see all the screens as they were referred to at once. In 1965 when Walter Bunning had the – the chief architect – he could pick any artist he wanted to work with and he picked others like – to –

A:Yeah, Tom Bass –

N:Tom Bass to do the lintel sculpture etc and [Matigo] 25:14 to do the tapestries. So what do you think it was that Bunning saw in your father? Was it the precursor example, he was aware of the NGV perhaps?

A:Well that would have to be a factor because he was you know they would have known he was working on that big commission. And I think it was – it connects with what I said before, having had a reputation for addressing big imagery. The first major exhibition that had impact with everyone was the Campion paintings and that was a series – it was a narrative which told a story but was in these very symbolic emblematic forms and it was of a Jesuit martyr and so it was taking on a whole - a human statement so you’ve got a building which is very geometric, which is very abstract in form and by taking on Dad you didn’t get just an abstractionist, you didn’t get someone who was – you got a humanist, somebody who was taking on big issues, issues about the creation of the world, suffering, all of those sort of bigger pictures. And that really is the complexity of the content that’s actually in the Library, do you know what I mean? The Library is a richness of all human experience, you know? So you’re bringing those forms into, yeah.

N:He says somewhere, I read somewhere in an article I’m a solid tradesman you know he had that kind of attitude towards his work, that he would just work and work –

A:Yeah, that’s the other side, they would know they would get the job done, you know? Yeah. And there – yeah so that’s the side of him that would get the job done. And that side there, Rudy Komon, is his dealer which later – if you ever want to – here’s Christopher Heathcote’s book, it’s got some incredibly funny, illuminating accounts of the relationship between the two men. In fact my voice isn’t so good so, Nat, you read this little thing between the two of them. All of those slides by the way, they come from the Missingham collection, Hal Missingham, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales at the time and Rudy Komon’s collection which is all here at the NLA. I was really – it was lovely to see that Nat had found them all, yeah. So where’s that bit – little bit there that describes them both.

N:They were to make an odd couple, the blue collar 32-year-old ocker artist and the sophisticated 52-year-old émigré dealer. Their body language when together spoke volumes. They projected an almost physical sense of self-belief, the swagger of a cocky boxer and his cashed-up promoter revelling in a winning streak. It was an association based on understanding, respect, loving friendship and sporadic rivalry for they were continually getting into point-scoring contests. They also both liked wine and they both owned wineries at one point so I think there were probably a lot of bottles of wine drunk in negotiating shows and sales and commissions.


N:But Komon was the leading dealer at the time based in Sydney and they had that remarkable sort of –

A:He contacted Alan McCullough, the critic at the time and you know I want to make Melbourne artists, I want to get their name in Sydney. Give me the list, give me the list, give me the list and the top of the list was Len French who was then working as the exhi – very first exhibitions curator at the NGV, Eric Westbrook had taken this initiative and said you know we don’t want dead art, we want living art so Dad was doing all of that. So he then became what Rudy would call his spotter, you know? He would find the best artists that would go up in Sydney so that’s that kind of art industry side of them that’s sort of separate from the maker, yeah.

N:Oh hang on, I’ll just go back to this again for a second. So here also you can see the major you know all the kind of themes playing out in the window so you’ve got the great turtle, crosses, comets, planets and we can go into that a bit more in detail perhaps later but it seems that the top register is the Mars sort of theme if you like if you're looking at it from an astronomical point of view and we’re going to talk about Holst’s planets in a minute, and the second register along the bottom – so the top register is bookplate and the bottom register is the shop. So basically –

A:You’re starting – you're ordering your coffee, right? You’re going to be looking almost exactly at that tall slim window just on its own, you’re going to move to the second pair then you’re going to see that pair and then you’ll have finished in bookplate with that final window there.

N:And then same thing in the shop, on the left-hand side behind the counter you work your way through.

A:Work your way ‘round and end up to that.

N:So he’s very clearly working on this as a kind of schema but that we don’t have the drawings for it, I think, at this point but we were talking about that the other day, it’d be great to see how the drawings relate to the finished work but you get that idea of the cross, the planet, comet sort of –

A:Middle top coming through, yeah.

N:Hang on.

A:That little tail there, yeah, coming to –

N:See the idea of the comet flowing through? And there’s another one in as well. So do you want to say anything more about the colouration and the kind of breakdown of the screens?

A:Well I think it’s really interesting. When you go down there you’re – at one side you’ve got – and this is where the Holst – maybe we should talk about it more when we – after we’ve listened to the music because that is also part of I think the inspiration for that. 

N:One of the things I can’t not say today because I thought it was fantastic was a newspaper article I read where he’s talking about not being a professional glass artist and you saw him chipping away with that hammer and you can imagine things could go wrong from time to time and he said I should have been made the patron saint of Band-Aids because he was obviously getting into scrapes as were the team that he referred to as well.

This gives you an idea of you know the fact that he was the name on everybody’s lips in the art world at that time, in the late ‘60s, in ’67, ’68 particularly and so we’ve got three slides here which we’ll just quickly show you but here you’ve got him twice on the cover of The Bulletin, once in actual life form saying art on a large scale. The other is the windows here, Canberra’s complex about [altura] 32:40 and I don’t know quite what that means but you know?

A:Both fascinating articles to read, by the way, yeah. No, there’s – wrong articles inside both those that relate to that, yeah.

N:Then we have the NGV commission which was opened in ’68. What’s interesting is that the Library and the National Gallery of Victoria opened within a week of one another so can you imagine? We opened on August the 15th, the NGV opened about a week or so later, I think so Len’s trying to put these two things to bed you know parallel as they’re both approaching a destination, it must have been very stressful for him. But here you see the extraordinary sort of scope of this and there’s Roy Grounds, the architect on the right-hand side who always referred to him even though he was a 40-year-old man as Laddie. Yes, Laddie. And here is the inside of the Women’s Weekly where it’s talking about the National Library. What’s it say there? It says Library takes Canberra tourists so it doesn’t make a great feature of the windows, they sort of get a little bit of a view here and you can see them obliquely in that view but you can see that the Library being a new building and a national cultural institution before the gallery, museum and other institutions was creating quite a you know a wave in the media and then the public’s awareness.

So we’re going to talk briefly and say that your father said that Gustav Holst’s The Planets was a major influence on this commission. Clearly it fitted nicely with the overall idea of the sky being referenced in the commission which Bunning had set, earth, sky and water. We will listen to some of Holst’s The Planets now in a moment but first a little on the composer. Holst was born in Cheltenham in England in 1874 and died in London 1934, major composer of many choral parts, songs, song cycles, operas and orchestral pieces and he’s probably best known for his orchestral suite composed during 1914 to 1916 by – during world war one which is The Planets. In the mid-1890s though Holst first became interested in Hindu philosophy and in Sanskrit literature. His immediate impulse was to set some hymns from the Rig Veda, the most important of the Hindu scriptures to music. It’s interesting to know that both Holst and Len French had an interest in Hindu philosophy which accounts for some of the images you see here, the ancient turtle, for example.

A:He hasn’t come, the turtle. Here he is.

N:Yeah, sorry, the turtle, yes, yes, I’m getting carried away with the turtle. The ancient turtle, the painting we’ve seen here and a lithographic from the National Gallery’s collection where you see him sort of breaking down this form from a turtle into a kind of emblematic you know motif and it sort of takes on a very abstract form but still has that naturalism sort of referenced in it. The Hindu symbolism of the turtle believed to be holding up the sky is important here because we’re talking about a sky-based sort of suite of windows downstairs. Alison, what do you think was the significance of the form to your father?

A:Well I think it’s a very generic – it creates and encapsulates – enables the artist to encapsulate all sorts of generative forces. You see how the fish appear in the you know the turtle’s – as the turtle’s legs you know come out under the shell you’ve got the fish at that point. You’ve got the birds that appear – so it’s seen as something that holds the world together, that contains – and I think that that – he had a fascination with all religions so it’s a sense of yeah that you know when people thought oh he’s a Roman Catholic or you know in fact he was interested in all of those questions such as how did the world you know begin? Now both those forms, that print has its origins, it’s a work on paper, it’s [additioned] 37:00 extensively, it has its origins in a little small actual painting where he creates like a relief with concrete so you know cement, the surface is – and then the enamel paint goes over that. That work is a drawing where the paper just runs – so you’ve got this whole textural quality so these ideas that he’s – have are not just abstract, they’re realised in these different media in this material form.

N:There’s that interest in medievalism and medieval art and heraldic imagery that you see in his work. More so in his paintings, I suppose, than here but certainly the idea of stained glass going back to the medieval era and the fact that he’s re-treating that in the 1960s.

A:But see when you’re talking about you know Holst and that I think we should remember that Holst wrote that. I mean that’s been written during world war one you know at the point where – you’re showing the Vietnam war in the ‘60s. Holst writing that in – yeah, at that point in time - Dad is getting exposed to that classical music in ’48 and ’49. In 1950 he’s in London you know just immediately post you know he’s experiencing post world war two. There’s a sense – and when he’s travelling through America he’s aware of this whole sense of how civilisation can hold together or fall apart and anybody who’s seen the journey series in the University House, that there’s – is about the imploding of a civilisation. His last great painting was chaos. Well this imagery is the holding together against chaos, do you know? This great turtle image, whether it comes from a Hindu, whether it come you know it’s – yeah. But we should listen to the Holst, shouldn’t we?

N:Well we’ll listen to the Holst, two excerpts from Holst, Planets, Mars, the bringer of war briefly and then Venus, the bringer of peace while we cycle through the two related suites of images.


N:The – Mars, the bringer of war and Venus, the bringer of peace so whilst there are these two you could argue two broad thematic structures to the windows, Alison I think has some thoughts about other things that would have resonated with Len.

A:Yeah well I think it’s interesting, whenever you go back down there – it’s hard to do at the moment because of you know all the furniture, things that interrupt but you can see the sense in which in the big picture, the macro, you have the feeling of Mars in all of those red high key colours, you have the sense of Venus in the cooler colours but if you look at Holst’s specific planets you know it’s an orchestral suite of you know you’ve got seven movements in there and that final movement that concludes is Neptune, the bringer you know the mystic experience and that’s almost paired with the two, Uranus, the magician and they’re both sort of agents, two type – forms of creativity and I’ve always seen, whether it’s you know a personal sense you know that very blue you know with the vaporous way, that is the kind of mystic one, the two that are in pair on those side walls in the bookshop are those particular figures and I often wonder whether the one that is you know is facing the you know behind the desk is Saturn, the bringer of old age, it has this real beautiful spiritual kind of quality and sense of strength and reserve and poise and culmination.

But when you actually – and when you move to that other side you’re thinking Jupiter, the bringer of jollity, you can see where that might be, you can see the coming together potentially of Venus and Mars, you can actually see that actual culmination, tiny, slim vertical window in the bookshop which almost has a Venus-type figure and a Mars-type figure. In terms of Holst it’s Mars’ war and Venus’ you know as peace but you know that starting imagery is almost like two lovers so there's the kind of detail of aspects of Holst that can be seen throughout the window in smaller components and then there’s that bigger picture of the separation of the forces. But it is essentially – like music, it’s a movement you know it’s movement, it’s agency, it’s forces, it’s creative energy.

N:I'm looking at the clock ‘cause –

A:Yeah, we’ve got –

N:- start running out of time and we would like to take some questions but one thing that Alison said to me a while ago when we were vaguely talking about doing this, she said oh you know Len was very interested in kaleidoscopes.

A:Oh I was talking about kaleidoscopes, yes. I mean kaleidoscopes are not – if you ever you know work with them they’re not only just simply that way in which light is changed and patterns are created and created through light and colour through multiple sources but I always think of them as the you know there’s two ways, there’s two senses of order in the world. There’s the filing cabinet order, system of order, right? And there's the kaleidoscope system of order and I think that these great commissions of Dad bring those two strengths of him. It’s the filing client thing that gets and creates and invents this whole system, this methodology. I mean people didn’t make art like this before he made it, he made – he created these systems, these ways and the kaleidoscope is the whole visionary aspect.

N:Very nice. I’m just going to quickly run through some images now which gives you a sense of some of the other things that Len French has done. Here we have Wolfgang Sievers’ documentation which we hold in the Library here of the NGV when it opened, the great ceiling which is 60m x 15m, it’s huge, 10,000 square you know pieces of glass in it. And you get a sense of that you know with that mustard carpet, very 1968, isn’t it? Then we have a more contemporary view looking up at one – yet another of Len’s mandalas, really, and the fact that it’s such a kind of place where people want to go and be and lie on their backs on the couches and things and look at his wonderful windows and have that experience and it’s one of the very few places in the world you can do something like that. Some more images which also show Roger Kemp who was a kind of influential on Len to an extent.

A:And incidentally his daughter worked on the drawings for the great hall, she’s you know was an architect and actually did technical work, yeah.

N:Right. So they’re his tapestries which are still -

A:One of his daughters. ‘Cause he had a lot.

N:And then we have the windows from Monash University which is a different commission in the sense that big, round, huge windows which he thought was very successful as I think I said earlier but there were some issues which we can’t go into probably for time but Phil, you can ask a question if you like but the difference being that he’d worked out a way to do polymer bonding of the glass so you don’t have what we have which I think’s rather nice, is the kind of dynamic of the dark and light.

A:Yeah, that whole issue of how do you hold glass into place and you’ve got three solutions and we don’t have time to go into it but really the NLA solution, right? The NGV solution which is Alumply you know if you’re up there high, you're working with CSIRO and you know fantastic structural engineer like you know Norman Mussen you know you’ve got to make certain it doesn’t fall so you can’t use the system you know so you’ve got sheet of aluminium, sheet of plywood, sheet of aluminium, that’s Alumply all on an angle so there’s three different kind of technical ways of making it work. Just a great pity that Dad envisaged that to be at the – like you know University House, that would be the focused image at the end of the you know you’d be all sitting there, you’d be looking at that but they decided it would be too interfering and they put it at the back and then they put that wall there so it isn’t as if you can be inside looking at it from a big distance –

N:Hence Len’s comment about architects being brought on to you know artists being brought on too late in the piece. So they’re the Alpha and Omega windows at Monash University. Here are two lovely stained glass panels at La Trobe which he did.

A:Two of the four seasons. 

N:Four seasons, that’s right. There we have some imagery which we saw from the film. I put this in just to remind people again about the fact of the display gallery, you can see the gallery upstairs here in the bookplate side and the big screen.

A:And the exhibition, yeah, was in behind that and this is this beautiful screen which Arthur James Robinson who was so significant at the time in you know having the consultant. Unfortunately big conflict between him and Dad and Dad goes over his back to Sir Grenfell Price and writes and –

N:Chairman of the Board.

A:The Chairman of the Board wants the screen removed because he wants the windows to be seen you know for you to be there and see across – he doesn’t want you to go behind the screen, hold one image in place then go behind the other screen etc so it’s a whole conflict that has to be resolved.

N:But this beautiful blackwood, very beautifully detailed and fabricated blackwood screen was ripped out and it’s presumably in somebody’s conversation pit in Canberra so if you ever spy such a thing we’d like to know about it, of course so who’s here today –

A:Yeah, we do have a researcher who’s –

N:Very keen to know more about it. There you go, there’s another view of it and how it was used as an exhibition space from the film and this is just to say if you haven’t ever been to University House and the Seven Days panels which were in Bruce Hall but were removed and are now with the huge regeneration mural they’re all there together in University House open every day pretty much and it’s worth going in to see them particularly when the light’s good. It’s rather fabulous.

A:That must be something, you read – the journey series of being – I’ve been away and they’re back in there.


A:The Seven Days are where the journey series used to be.

N:Well I think -

A:Anyway we can go and find out.

N:Go and have a look, you’ll find out.

A:‘Cause ANU has the you know seven days of creation culminating in the big vast ceiling. Used to be in Bruce Hall, Bruce Hall being pulled down and whatever and – yeah and the journey series, yeah but –

N:This is just to sort of show you basically how the windows have a contemporary currency. We’ve used them very successfully for kids’ events where they’ve made their own stained glass windows which is rather lovely and over a number of years we’ve run this program a few times so I think Len would be very pleased, having a number of children himself to think that you know that they still have this kind of ability to draw and they really do capture kids’ interest. And in closing today I just want to say if you’ve got time go and have a look in the Treasures Gallery and we’ve opened the - Hal Missingham who we referred to, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, when he retired he was given this book called Fully Bound which had 200 works of art in it from every prominent artist in Australia as a retirement farewell gift and in it on one page is Len French’s work here which he gave for this sort of rather nautically-themed image.

And strangely enough when I turn the page going through it – it wasn’t digitised when I first went through it – on the next page is Tom Bass who did the lintel so I thought it’s almost like this zeitgeist. Here these two fellows were united in their projects for the National Library and they’re united in this wonderful volume that was presented to Hal Missingham, the photographer and art museum director in 1971 which he then very promptly gave to the Library and his studio and everything in it burnt down so it would have been lost so thank God for Hal's vision to give us that.

Alison, let’s take some questions now, I think, we’ve got a little bit of time and fire away, there’s microphones with my two colleagues here if anyone wants them.

Au:Thank you. What can you tell us about the origin of the concept of coloured glass set in concrete to make big windows?

A:Well that’s something that – I'm actually not aware of that method or way of working that Dad did. I think it would be a question one could ask someone like Jenny [Zimmock you know Clouchener] 54:45 – there would be a number of glass – it is a really fascinating research topic, isn’t it? Because it’s so – it creates such a radically different aesthetic to setting in leadlight, doesn't it? Now I – I mean is anyone else in the room – I hate to say that the first, the first, you know? ‘Cause that invariably is never the case, somebody up there – do you know the answer?

Au:Yeah, I believe it’s used extensively in Europe, dalle de verre, the chunks of glass set in concrete originally and then epoxy.

A:But at what point do you think it originally just became a whole dominant –

Au:I can’t tell you that but working in stained glass in the ‘70s I was certainly very aware of it coming from the history of –

A:So do you think it’s a kind of a mid-20th century thing or early 20th century?

Au:Yeah, I think more mid. Grace might be able to expand on it. 


Au:My understanding that it comes from France, early 20th century and I think if you look at architects like Le Corbusier, not necessarily using cement but having chunks of glass and playing with colour but I think if you look early 20th century and as Kirsty said, that dalle de verre is the correct term for the technique as well and I believe that Len was influenced by Ferdinand Leger, is my understanding as well so there were some other people working in that way but perhaps he modified the technique –

A:Well that’s what I’m seeing. The aspect that I’m not so aware of you know like setting the chunk glass, yeah but the faceting of the glass within the – and then setting it in that form, that’s –

N:I think there had to be a degree of innovation in the way he was working because obviously - while there’s 16 windows there’s actually 64 panels so he has to create 64 of those panels and then have them set one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four ‘round the building so I mean it had to work for his studio you know modus operandi for him and also the –

A:Yeah and he went to France and Belgium to buy that glass, right? So he’s certainly aware of that sort of – yeah, that basic tradition but the way he did it I’m not aware of anyone else.

N:Laborious you’d have to say.

A:But that would be really interesting topic to explore, the difference between those early and mid-20th century artists and what he did.

N:So did anyone – there was a question here somewhere. Anyone else?

Au:I had a question about the I guess correlation between the composer’s work and the windows and was wondering with the NGV commission if there was a music that was inspiring or running parallel to that project as well.

A:I’m not aware of that, no.

N:I mean there’s a coherence to this project which I think the NGV kind of perhaps doesn’t quite have and he – as I said he did regard it as a disaster. I’m not quite sure why he felt that it hadn’t worked. He said something like mind you, if I had to do it again I probably couldn’t have done it any better but he did refer to it as a disaster in one of the newspaper articles that came out at the time which is the interesting sort of reflection and maybe the fact that he was working to the theme of music gave him more of a coherent structure to the way it’s – don’t know, specula –

A:I think it’s more the sense of the rigidity that working in the Alumply created you know that that – so that there’s a far more organic you know that he really liked the organic aspect of the you know which you could do if you’re working on a vertical surface but it you’re on that – if you’re covering a horizontal surface and you’ve got to work within those triangles coming down to the – you have to have that rigid, rigid thing, yeah. So –


Au:As a Canberran thank you very much for introducing me to the origins of Len French’s work which is really wonderful, it seems to surround us in Canberra. I was interested in your brief comment about the sacred turtle and the symbolism, fighting off chaos and things like that. Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney also spoke about symbols to protect a fledgling democracy and to make the capital sort of in tune with some sort of spiritual energy that rose up and I just wondered is your dad’s work in any way influenced or did he speak about the you know the planners of Canberra?

A:No you know that’s not to say that that might be you know that’s definitely not that I’m aware of and I think a lot of his interest in those things also come from the aesthetic force that they give rather than necessarily exploring you know the intellectual ideas of it. But – and it – in quite that way. It would be interesting to know. Look, he was made an Emeritus Professor at ANU and he was always really – when he was you know he’s sitting at the table with Frank Fenner and all of these major academics and –

N:Nugget Coombes.

A:Yeah and he would always talk about you know it’s more significant to him with people who were achieving in that kind of area than be sitting with artists. Do you know what I mean? So yes, he’s interested in you know and way back in the ‘50s when he’s what’s called the Swanson Family Hotels where Vin Buckley, the poet and a whole lot of Melbourne academics are getting together and they’re talking about ideas and – so all of that kind of intellectual exchange is happening in a sort of a social event, it’s like living life as a university, do you know what I mean? And it’s not studying in an academic way so – yeah. That is – yeah.

N:It shows you what a – I suppose if you look at the snapshot of the works of art at ANU and what was happening here with the building and the fact that the NGA was a work in progress at that stage you know in the late ‘60s. How dynamic and exciting it was, you know? People have often disparaged but in fact you know it was popping you know things were happening all the time and - less so now with funding but you know –

A:The other way of you know of getting into that was also the fact that he was always very, very intuitive and responsive to the specific sites for a commission you know so it being on the edge of the lake that – you can tell from those very early photos, can’t you? That there’s no way you could not have a sense of the Griffin legacy of when and where things were in the ‘60s. You know right now it’s pretty hard, isn’t it? You know we’ve had all these encrustations all over you know that completely distract us from what – you can still see the structure and the vision but I mean I think you’ve got – what you’re saying there is an ins – you know instinctively I think what you're saying’s correct but it’s not something that I can answer by saying oh yeah, Tommy read X, Y and Z, yeah.

N:I think probably you’re thirsty for your afternoon tea and a break and to look at the windows in the flesh so we’ll hand over to Amelia at this point.

Am:Thank you, Nat. As our timekeeper I must draw things to a close. I think Nat and Alison would clearly be – happily talk to each other and to you for another hour. But yes now it’s time to wind up and as we close I would like to thank our supporters for making this afternoon’s event possible, particularly the Australian Government for supporting our Treasures Curator role which Nat so ably provides through Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund. It’s a good example of government money being spent on the arts. But in particular I would like to thank Nat and Alison for such a tremendously interesting time –

A:We used to work together a long time ago, by the way. We both started –

N:Thirty years ago.

A:- you know National Gallery of Australia, we were both there at the beginning, yeah.


A:Nat’s installing and I’m doing education exhibitions and I'm hat-check girl at the opening. Yeah, you know?

N:I wasn’t allowed to go.

A:Nobody could get in there you know unless you were heavy [dude] 3:39 staff unless - at the lower level you had to have a specific role so I was hat-check girl.

Am:There you go so our doorkeepers and ticket-minders will be listening closely. So yes look, authoritative, well-informed and very personal at the same time. I think it’s been a wonderful opportunity to come here this afternoon and to listen to you both talking. So would you join me in thanking Nat and Alison very much?


Am:And I should lastly say that there are too many events to tell you about coming up this winter but I recommend you grab a copy of our brochure and find your way through it, it’s a real kaleidoscope of activity in this filing cabinet of a building. Thank you, everybody, thank you for coming.

A:You can buy that film in the bookshop if you want to. That little film.

N:The film is available in the bookshop along with the beautiful scarf crafted by the Library as a 50th anniversary celebratory gift and other material around the windows as well so thank you for coming, thank you, Amelia, thank you, Alison.


End of recording