Leonard Pendrell Bence was born in Burra in 1923, the son of Olive and Arthur Bence. The family name has been connected with the town for over 100 years. Both father and son alike became respected as public-spirited business identities and citizens through the well known fashion and drapery store simply known as “Bences”.
With his father enjoying painting as a hobby and being a skilled watercolourist and copper etcher, it is little wonder that the young Leonard soon began to try his hand at painting too.
Not long after leaving St Peters College in Adelaide St. Peter’s College in Adelaide and with WW 2 having begun in Europe, Leonard joined the RAAF and trained as a pilot. After sailing to England on a small freighter he then joined the Royal Air Force and Squadron 106 where he was a member of the Pathfinder Force, flying Lancaster Bombers on raids over Germany.
Leonard and his wife Muriel were married in London in 1945 and returned to live in Burra where they raised their sons and managed the above-mentioned business until 1975 when it was sold. The couple then opened a gallery in one of the Paxton Square Cottages. It quickly became a “must visit” location for tourists and local residents seeking Leonard’s original artworks and other items, many imported from overseas
With time now to paint far more seriously and with Muriel’s whole-hearted support, Leonard began to capture what has become an extensive historical record of the unique buildings in Burra and surrounding areas. His preference for solid stone buildings and street scenes does not espouse the cold precision of architectural drawing, but rather, his more gentle lines reveal a warmth surrounding places seemingly untouched by time. His consummate use of watercolours brings out the variable shades frequently seen in stone, created by the constantly changing nuances of natural light.
The Cornish and Welsh in particular built early in Burra. They worked with pride and with a sense of place for what they had known “at home”, solid and generally simple. Principally they built to keep their families sheltered and safe, as well as places of worship and others in which to meet. Leonard conveys that sense of place in paintings and drawings of the small cottages, the imposing churches, the friendly pubs, the Market Square and the workplace, where the Monster Mine once dominated the life of the town. The older buildings have little adornment or frivolity about them, but later successes are displayed with pride and understated enhancement. Some have become interesting ruins. These places reflect an aura of age and the artist’s eye and hand have forever preserved them. In painting terms, Leonard Bence belongs to Burra and Burra to Leonard Bence. Many have tried to emulate him, but few have succeeded.
Leonard and Muriel’s love of travel has also ensured that we have pictures lovingly painted in places such as Italy, England and Ireland. His subject range is broad enough to encompass wharves and windmills, churches and castles, vineyards and villages, gentle streams and tranquil harbours. A sense of peace pervades much of his work. He has also successfully used various artistic mediums in portraits, still life subjects and landscapes, but watercolour is his acknowledged forté.
His paintings are to be found in many collections and are treasured by the people whose homes are graced by works bearing the signature “BENCE”.
Present and future lovers of art can enjoy the proud record of Leonard Bence’s fifty years of work. We acknowledge the wonderful contribution towards the visual preservation of our history by one of our most talented, respected and beloved sons.
From article written on the occasion of the Leonard Bence retrospective exhibition “Drawn over Fifty Years” in Burra Regional Art Gallery, 1998.
Len is a strong and valued supporter of the gallery and has an exhibiting room named in his honour. A future goal of the gallery is to dedicate an upstairs room to a permanent display of his work.