Leonard Brooks, RCA, 1911-2011

Leonard Brooks led a long and rich artistic life,
but felt he was underappreciated in Canada


Leonard Brooks occupies a strange place in Canadian art history.

Despite living to 100 and being an artist for most of those years, he has not received the recognition of other long-lived major Canadian artists, probably because he lived most of his artistic life in Mexico.

Leonard Brooks certainly felt underappreciated in Canada, upset for example that a Toronto art dealer who had represented him when he painted Canadian landscapes, wasn’t interested in his Mexico works.

Yet, Leonard Brooks was a fine painter of the Canadian landscape, a War artist, an adventurous experimenter in abstractism, a writer of books for artists, a musician, and a teacher.

Had Early Success as an Artist

Frank Leonard Brooks was born in 1911 in London, England, and moved with his parents as a child to Toronto.

Leonard Brooks took evening night classes at the Toronto Central Technical School and at the Ontario College of Art, under Frank (Franz) Johnston, but was otherwise self taught.

In the early 1930s, Leonard Brooks travelled and painted in England, France, Spain and in Woodstock, N.Y. before returning to Toronto, where he married Reva Silverman in 1935.

Leonard Brooks taught art in Toronto, was active in artistic circles and exhibited in major exhibitions in Canada and in the United States. He was a member of Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, Canadian Society of Graphic Artists, the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy.

Official War Artist

During the Second World War, Leonard Brooks left his teaching post in 1943 and enlisted in the Canadian navy. He became an Official War Artist in 1944, going aboard Canadian warships to paint, often focusing on sailors in daily activities, rather than naval battles. His most well-known paintings of the war was an egg tempera called Potato Peelers; it showed two sailors sitting and peeling potatoes topside with a convoy battling waves in the distance.

More than 100 of his artworks, mainly done in watercolour, from this time are part of the Canadian War Collection.

After the war, Leonard Brooks moved to Mexico, to San Miguel de Allende, where he studied under Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros while his wife, Riva Brooks, studied photography. This began a long love affair with Mexico for the couple.

Writer, Teacher and Experimenter

Leonard Brooks painted colourful watercolours of Mexico and its people in everyday life, but also moved into abstract art, collages and other art forms. He worked in a variety of media, including oils, acrylics, watercolours, casein, duco, polymer and wax.

The artist, who was a fearless experimenter, also wrote a number of well-regarded books on art techniques for artists: Watercolor A Challenge (1957); Oil Painting Traditional and New (1959); Wash Drawing and Casein (1961); Painting and Understanding Abstract Art (1964); Painter’s Workshop (1969); Oil Painting, Basic and New Techniques (1971).

Leonard Brooks was also a musician, playing the violin and giving free lessons to his neighbours’ children. He was encouraged to head the music department at the Bellas Artes art school in San Miguel, and he was later instrumental in creating an annual festival of chamber music that attracts musicians from around the globe.

Leonard Brooks’ artworks are held in numerous public galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian War Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City.

Leonard Brooks died at his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 1911, 13 days after he turned 100.

Sources:  A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker. National Gallery of Canada, Artists in Canada database. Obituary published Jan. 11, 2012, The Globe and Mail, retrieved online. Article by Laura Brandon, Canadian Military History, Volume 20, Number 4, Autumn 2011, retrieved online.

Suggested Viewing:

Video: Leonard Brooks, 2006. Time: 8:52. San Miguel Archive Project, retrieved from YouTube