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THÉRON, Leo

Born: 1926

Artist


Leo Théron (born 1926) remains one of the leading exponents of the stained-glass medium in South Africa. He executed many commissions for churches (including, in non-representational designs, for the Dutch Reformed Church), schools and public buildings, such as Jan Smuts Airport (now Oliver Thambo International Airport) and the SABC's Tower Block in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Born in Pretoria, he took a degree in Fine Arts (1947) at Rhodes University. After a brief sally into teaching in Natal, he returned to university to take an Honours Degree in Fine Arts (achieved cum laude) and, with a deep interest in monumental art, specialised in mural painting.

A bursary from the French Government enabled him to study fresco painting in Paris for two years. It was there that he met Wendy Hughes of Cape Town who was then working in the South African Embassy, later to become his wife. A further bursary, from the Dante Alighieri Society, gave Leo Théron the opportunity of touring Italy for three months, studying the works of the great classic Italian fresco painters.

He returned to South Africa in 1953, staging his first exhibition and, soon afterwards, gained his first commission in this country: to paint a mural at an hotel in Cape Town. He then went on to teach at the Stellenbosch Art Centre, and while there had another one-man exhibition of his paintings as well as exhibiting in that same year in Cape Town with the New Group, which consisted of a number of well-known South African artists such as Gregoire Boonzaier, Lippy Lipshitz, the former war-artist, Terence McCaw, Walter Battiss, and several others.

Between further exhibitions, Théron spent four months in Rhodesia (1956, now Zimbabwe), executing a large mural for the Wankie Colliery. In that year he was commissioned to do murals in mosaic at the NG Kerk at Roodepoort, his first commission in liturgical art.

An appointment on the staff of the Art School at the Pretoria Technical College took him back to the city of his birth, where he decided to settle permanently.

Friendship with the Cape Town architect, Anthonie SMITH, led to a commission to design and execute a large mosaic for the entrance foyer of the Civic Theatre at Bellville.

As a leader in church design at that time, Anthonie Smith was instrumental in having stained glass accepted in the Dutch Reformed Church, where traditional Calvinist leanings had hitherto eschewed decoration of this sort. This collaboration between architect and artist led Théron to create seven leaded stained-glass church windows in the following few years, of which the largest is to be seen at the NG Church at Strand-North in the Cape. This set Théron firmly on the course he was destined to follow throughout his career as a specialist in stained-glass art. He is quick to acknowledge the beneficial influence which Anthonie Smith has had on his career and, indeed, upon his whole life.

Leo Théron's wish to study new trends of stained glass, dalle de verre, at first hand, to keep abreast of developments, was met by the award of a bursary from France's Ministry for Economic Affairs. A grant enabled him to travel to and through France and to work in the studios of some of the masters of this innovative craft, artists whom history will single out as pioneers of the technique. The leaders among them — the 'inventors', as it were, of this new method — were two brothers, Antoine and Jean Labouret in France, whose experiments initiated the medium that others were to follow.

South Africa is fortunate to possess an example of their work. A group of windows designed and made by Jean Labouret is to be seen in the Anglican parish church of St Cuthbert in Port Elizabeth.

Of the three French artists whose work Leo Théron then studied, Gabriel Loire undoubtedly had the greatest influence on him. Not only did he prove to be an influential mentor, but he also became a friend whose encouragement provided the stimulus which led to Théron's making a career of this form of art.

Some of Loire's glass-in-concrete works decorate St George's Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town, windows of great beauty, the most recent being the Lord Mountbatten Memorial window unveiled in 1982.

Besides spending time in the studios of leading French artists in this medium, Théron also paid a prolonged visit to a factory producing this 'slab glass': the Verrerie de Saint Just, a company which had been making coloured glass since 1865. Its experience and meticulous adherence to strict standards of colour and quality have made the company leaders in its field. Théron obtains his glass only from this source.

Soon after his return from France in 1965, Théron resigned from his teaching job and set about building a studio in Pretoria where he worked. It is here that, through the years, he had worked on the scores of commissions which have come his way and produced windows of glass in concrete which now grace many church and other buildings all over South Africa.

His first was for a church at Warmbaths (Bela-bela) (1965). This was soon followed by simple non-pictorial windows, a source of controlled light, in the Universiteitsoord NG Church at Hillcrest in Pretoria. Next, Théron completed four large windows for St Alban's Cathedral in Pretoria, a major achievement in South Africa in terms of figurative liturgical design.

His next work was one which, 20 years later, Théron still regards as one of his finest achievements. The window, two large sectors linked by an architraval-type series of smaller panels above the altar, forms almost the entire eastern wall of the Roman Catholic Church of Christ the King at Queenswood in Pretoria. Designed in 1967, it was completed the following year, measuring 102 square metres: a tour de force indeed.

This was the first 'wall of glass' to be constructed in South Africa, following examples which Théron had seen in Europe.

In the making of the panels, innumerable sketches are translated into painted designs. From these Théron produces a life-size cartoon which is then laid out on a large table and, section by section, each piece of glass, taken from slabs stored in carefully-arranged pigeon holes, is then cut to size and to shape. Sometimes the edges are deliberately chipped to create texture and visual variation in the glass.

For further variation Leo Théron sometimes combines old and new techniques in his windows by using grisaille methods to provide details — in faces, for example — on the thick coloured glass, instead of using the chunky glass alone to pick out the features of the design.

Next, section by section, the cut pieces are arranged over the cartoon inside a box-frame. Strong steel wiring is placed between the cut segments of thick glass and these pieces of ribbing are welded together to reinforce the structure of the final window. Then cement with additives is poured into the interstices and left to dry and harden before the shuttering of the frame is removed, and the various sections, after 'curing' slowly for several weeks, are finally ready to be fitted into the completed frame for which the work was designed.

As one of the leading exponents of the art of dalle de verre in South Africa, Leo Théron is assured of a lasting place in the country's art history, not merely as a pioneer who brought these 20th-century techniques to South Africa, but also because his works combine an excellence of craftsmanship with a fine sense of art and artistry born of a roundly developed intellect. Moreover, his works are not merely academic pieces to be cloistered in art galleries for the few cognoscenti who may care to visit there, but, integrated into places of worship and public usage, are readily accessible to men and women in the course of their day-to-day lives. As such, those works possess an essential functional and human quality and value.

Théron's works, made in the very durable medium of glass, will not soon fade with the passing centuries but will endure from generation to generation as memorials to their creator and to this age.

[Extracted and lightly edited from Oxley, John. 1993. In Werth, A & Harmse, F (Compilers). Our Art 4. Aukland Park: Foundation for the Creative Arts. pp 146-153.]

List of projects

With photographs
With notes


Christ the King Catholic Church: 1968. Queenswood, Pretoria, Gauteng - Artist
Church of Saint Alfons Maria de Liguori - Tuks Chapel: 1925. Pretoria, Gauteng - Artist stained glass windows
Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk: 1964. Vallei, Ceres, Western Cape - Artist
Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk - Universiteitsoord: 1966. Pretoria, Gauteng - Artist

Books citing THÉRON

Berman, Esme. 1970. Art and artists in South Africa : an illustrated biographical dictionary and historical survey of painters and graphic artists since 1875. Cape Town: AA Balkema. pp 210, 298, 299, 345, 346

Oxley, John. 1994. Stained Glass in South Africa. Johannesburg: William Waterman Publications. pp 79-85

Werth, Albert & Harmsen, Frieda. 1993. Our Art/Ons Kuns 4. Pretoria: Foundation for Education, Science and Technology. pp 146–153