A WINDING ROAD-CORNISH LANDSCAPE1920 Sir Matthew Smith (1879 − 1959)
Matthew Smith’s road to being an artist had been rather a slow one, and his series of Cornish landscapes mark progress after a hard few years. At the outbreak of World War I he was deemed unfit to fight because of poor eyesight, something that had troubled him since childhood, but by 1916 the need for new men saw entrance requirements lowered. Smith served as an officer on the front, and spent the last year of the war suffering from severe shellshock. A Winding Road shows a country lane with a couple of cottages bobbing into view above treetops and the hillside – a peaceful scene except for the colouring. The contrast of indigo-blue against pink and orange is vivid to the point of violence; it is ‘a direct assault upon the nervous system’, star ascendant Francis Bacon later wrote, in the catalogue for Smith’s 1953 exhibition at the Tate Gallery.
Smith worked from observation, drawing the main outline of the subject directly onto the canvas with paint. Here the paint has been so thinned with oil that reworking remains visible and the white ground shows through, illuminating the pigment as if it were backlit. The scene is constituted of different segments of colour, and in each one the stubby brushstrokes follow a united rhythm, digging in and creating contours that guide the eye into the dips and winding curves of the land. Smith achieves ‘a complete interlocking of image and paint’, as Bacon said.
It was not until he was approaching thirty that Smith travelled to Pont-Aven in Brittany, on the east coast of France; he was in the milieu of Gaugin’s Pont-Aven school, and felt like he had come of age. 'Here my life began', he declared. His life had officially begun in the industrial town of Halifax, Yorkshire, where he was born to a hard working, well-to-do wire manufacturer, Frederick Smith. A shy boy with bad eyes, his development as an artist was long-drawn-out like one of his father’s wires. At seventeen he was sent to work at the Bradford wool mill, but did not take to the work; at eighteen he joined the family factory for several years. His reticence slowly pushed him through the stages that took him closer to life as an artist. First he made a small geographical leap, from Halifax to Manchester School of Art, to study design, the most practical course. From there he went to the Slade School of Art in London (1905–07), where his unremarkable time was above all a stepping-stone to France.
A Winding Road is a view of the British landscape as seen through someone whose eyes were opened in France. The colouring echoes Smith’s pre-war experiences in Paris, where he briefly attended Matisse’s art school, and by 1920 he had seen and admired Roderic O’Conor’s expressionist views of Pont-Aven from the turn of the century, with their dramatic, flattened colours. But he had also experienced the trenches. Smith is rewiring the expressive pleasure of the Fauvists and the Post-Impressionists for a post-war, shellshocked world.
Text by Dorothy Feaver
- Accession Number P38
- Dimensions 53.6 X 65 CM
- Media OIL ON CANVAS
A piece of cloth woven from flax, hemp or cotton fibres. The word has generally come to refer to any piece of firm, loosely woven fabric used to paint on. Its surface is typically prepared for painting by priming with a ground.
The arrangement of elements or details in an artefact or a work of art.
The depiction of shapes and forms on a flat surface chiefly by means of lines although colour and shading may also be included. Materials most commonly used are pencil, ink, crayon, charcoal, chalk and pastel, although other materials, including paint, can be used in combination.
Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection (www.tate.org.uk). There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.
A medium in which ground pigments are mixed to produce a paste or liquid that can be applied to a surface by a brush or other tool; the most common oil used by artists is linseed, this can be thinned with turpentine spirit to produce a thinner and more fluid paint. The oil dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colour is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally used on canvas.
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