Exhibition Review: Sir Matthew Smith 1879-1959. A Survey of his life and work, drawn from the artist’s studio collection.

Guildhall Art Gallery, London, 4 November 2009-31 January 2010.

Matthew Smith.  Catalogue Raisonée of the Oil Paintings

by John Gledhill. Farnham, 2009, ISBN 978-0-85331-998-6.

Leafing through the details of the catalogue section of the Matthew Smith book – and one has to do this manually because there is no index – reveals that most of the great collectors of mid-20th century British art owned work by Matthew Smith.  Kenneth Clark, Colin Anderson, Wilfrid Evill, Peter Gregory, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, Hugo Pitman, Edward le Bas, Eddie Marsh, Eardley Knollys, Howard Bliss and Walter Hussey all caught my eye and this is perhaps one way to remind the modern reader how enormously successful Smith was during the middle years of the century.  Now, of course, it is a different story and we only have eyes for Bacon, Freud and Hockney.  But take a snapshot of the art world in, say, 1945 and Matthew Smith would have been one of the dominant figures, both commercially successful and artistically respected.  As I have said many times in these pages, about many different artists, the travel of artists’ reputations is often unexpected, particularly after their death, and often seems to move apart from any notion of artistic worth.

This book is an unusual combination.  A well-researched catalogue raisonée is always useful to the scholar and this will surely be an essential tool for those researching Smith’s work.  Less easy to categorize is the introductory essay.  I have no idea if there is any normal expectation for the introduction to a catalogue raisonée; whether it should try to encompass the life’s work so as to provide context for what follows, for example.  Here the author writes like a student, and a slightly out of date one at that.  Various contentions introduce the four chapters, led into by phrases like “I hope to show that” (the beginning of chapter 2, at page 22); and “I hope to demonstrate that” (the beginning of chapter 3, at page 28).  Clearly the author feels the need to right a few perceived wrongs about Smith and his reputation and maybe there is no harm in that.  The introduction must to some extent emanate from the author’s D. Phil study of Smith and its age is given away by a number of grating references to things described as “recent”.  For a book published in 2009 to refer to the work of other authors being “recent” when one item was published in 1992 (see footnote 51 on page 46) and the other in 1990 (footnote 54 on the same page) suggests a long gestation.

Another slightly grating note is struck in the Preface, where the author gets in a bit of self-praise early, by saying that he thought a “major book” on Smith was overdue and then by saying that it “needed another painter to write about his work with understanding and discernment”.  Not wishing to be too crushing of the author, I hope he means that the catalogue part of the work is the ‘major’ bit and not his slight introductory essay; I also just have to hope readers agree with him and find his painter’s analysis both ‘understanding’ and ‘discerning’, for it is for them to judge that and not the author.  (One worries when reading this sort of thing, because it reminds one of that great auto-didact painter and critic, Patrick Heron, who felt his status as an artist entitled him to develop some very strong opinions about his fellow artists, many of them negative and contentious.)

What then are we to make of Matthew Smith, already the subject of a biography by Malcolm Yorke and a book by Alice Keene, daughter of one of his apparently many lovers?  As with so many British artists of the 20th century, it is not easy to categorise him.  He worked a lot in France before the War and to some extent one needs to look at him as a rather ‘Frenchified’ English artist.  In this he resembles most sharply Roderic O’Conor who, whilst born in Ireland, worked mostly in France and whose work has nothing Irish about it.  Smith’s powerful style clearly had a major impact on the British art world and he seems always to have been able to sell his work and to be financially well off.  When one sees a mass of his work – for example at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City, where many pictures are often on display – it is perhaps the power of the landscapes which seizes the attention, rather than the seemingly endless and, dare one say it, self-indulgent nudes, for which he is so well known.  But, of course, whilst trite, it is nevertheless inevitable that it is as a colourist that Smith tends to be known.  That may not be sufficient acknowledgement of what the author wants us to regard as Smith’s great skills, but in the thrustingly crowded and competitive environment of mid 20th century British artists, to be dominant in some aspect of painterly achievement is no small feat.  The reality, it seems to me, is that a reasoned case can be made for regarding a large number of these artists as being ‘significant’ or ‘important’, depending on one’s criteria, and Smith is certainly one of them.