A vibrant splash on the palette

Matthew Smith

August 15, 1997

Fashion is a cruel regulator of artistic reputation. Wanting to check a date the other day, I looked up Matthew Smith in the Macmillan Dictionary of Art and found that he had but a single column and no illustration. David Smith, the American metal sculptor, on the other hand, had four columns and a picture. At least in Frances Spalding's volume in the Dictionary of British Art, Matthew has the largest of the 11 entries devoted to artists called Smith, but no picture, whereas both Elinor Bellingham Smith and Ian McKenzie Smith are illustrated.

Malcolm Yorke's book is the first full biography of Smith and, as one might expect of the author of excellent volumes on Keith Vaughan and the English neo-Romantics, it is soundly researched and gets to grips with the crux of such Matthew Smith studies as there are; namely is he simply an English Fauve, that is a slavish follower of the "wild beasts" who so shocked critical opinion in France - Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Rouault, Kees van Dongen - or is he his own man? This is largely a matter of opinion.

The other main issue is biographical and concerns Smith's father, Frederic, a monstrous, cruel and mean-spirited philistine, who so tormented his gifted son as almost to break his spirit and constantly kept him short of cash so as to control him - or so we have been led to believe.

Certainly this was the portrait disseminated by John Rothenstein in Modern English Painters. But Rothenstein was, in all innocence, simply passing on what Matthew Smith blithely told him to bolster his carefully crafted image as a helpless, frail, myopic, valetudinarian wimp who needed big robust friends like Augustus John and Jacob Epstein to get girls for him.

As Yorke reveals, Frederic Smith, a Halifax manufacturer of steel wire, who greatly expanded the business on both sides of the Pennines, was, with his compulsory chapel twice a day on Sundays for all the family, a somewhat narrow-minded puritan, but so were many such men in Victorian times.

In fact, he was the opposite of a philistine. He collected paintings and musical instruments, owning several Stradivarius and Guarneri violins along with his Rolls-Royces, and Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman and Wilhelm Backhaus all played at the musical soirees at his Salford house. There were two Bechsteins, and George Bernard Shaw and Henry Wood were among the visitors. Like all his type, Frederic felt that culture was secondary to business, and therefore should be pursued as leisure, and wanted Matthew to join his brothers in the family business.

Yet when Matthew declined and demanded to become, on very slender evidence, a painter, his father sent him to the local art school (telling the principal that Matthew was not to be exposed to nude models), and then on to the Slade. There, Matthew did not distinguish himself, became a perpetual student, went to study further in Brittany (Frederic would not permit that sink of iniquity known as Paris), and came under the influence of the recently dead Gauguin and the very much living Roderic O'Conor.

The wholly inadequate income his father allowed him was sufficient for Matthew to live in Hampstead while at the Slade and never to have any paid employment except for his service in the first world war. (When he applied for a commission, he was asked if he had any experience in the control of men, and if so, what kind of men. He replied, "Yes . . . Yorkshiremen". and was promptly gazetted second lieutenant.) He survived the front, even though invalided back to England with a substantial shrapnel wound, and rejoined his wife, his fellow Slade pupil, Gwen Salmond, and two small sons.

His father died in 1914 and Smith's inheritance was sufficient for him never to have any financial worries for the rest of his life. Both during and after the war he became a native of Fitzrovia. There, he was befriended by various neighbours such as John, Epstein and Walter Sickert and his wife. The work of this period, notably the Fitzroy Nudes, was already showing the unorthodox, violent use and juxtaposition of colour which was to become, as it had been for the Fauves, his trademark.

I tend to agree with Yorke that there was more to it than that and certainly Smith was by no means merely an English corresponding member of a French anti-Academy. If anything, I believe with John Russell and Denys Sutton that he had much in common with the Russian Alexei Jawlensky despite having enrolled in Matisse's Academie in Paris. Smith was a strange mix of extreme diffidence and passivity and an equally extreme core of Yorkshire steel. Constantly suffering from crippling bouts of depression, he had frequent spells at the same Swiss psychiatric clinic which had housed Aldous Huxley, Ottoline Morrell and T. S. Eliot.

Yet when he had his first encounter with the model/muse/mistress of his friend Bernard Meninsky, this painfully shy man simply walked her out of the studio; and Vera Cunningham, the perfect antithesis of Matthew Smith, being robust, voluptuous earthy, even coarse, became the model/muse/mistress he and his art so deeply needed.

Vera brought him into touch with his own much repressed sexuality. He abandoned his wife, avoided any contact with her other than epistolary, erratically supporting his sons, both of whom were killed as RAF pilots in the second world war.

He had various other affairs, including one long-standing relationship with Mary Keene, sometime mistress of Louis MacNeice and Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green). Her daughter, Alice, may well have been Smith's child. This powerful sexual freedom for this student not allowed into the life class is reflected in all his painting, not just, obviously, in the flamboyant nudes. Even his flower pieces, whose splashy technique was openly, to Smith's considerable anger, appropriated by Epstein in his watercolours, are as sensually charged as his figure paintings.

His landscapes are also a part of his great Cunningham-inspired awakening. Perhaps his status as the English Fauve is partly due to his conspicuous lack of any English artistic alliances. He pointedly refrained from joining the two major groupings of the contemporary English avant-garde, Paul Nash's Unit One and the Ben Nicholson-led 7 and 5 Society, Significantly, the only 7 and 5 painter with whom he had anything in common was Ivon Hitchens, whose relatively few nudes among his multitudinous landscapes stood up well to Smith's paintings. Classing Smith as a Fauve explained and rationalised his manifest non-Englishness. Like O'Conor, whom he always addressed as "Matre", he had been wholly alienated and seduced by France, whose light and colour meant far more to him than his own country.

While, rather like Stanley Spencer, he was in character a true English eccentric, as an artist he was almost wholly European, with a strong French bias. Although any comparison with Matisse is simply not plausible, it is significant that there is no valid comparison to be made among his English contemporaries. The coarseness of Augustus John, the subdued palette of Sickert, the angularity of Wyndham Lewis - all of these passed Smith by. Only with Epstein, the American Jew with whom he once shared the model and mistress Sunita, is there a link of sensuality.

Matthew Yorke has done us a service in presenting so painstaking an account of a remarkably tough and self-reliant artist, whose French-inspired, liberated and liberating joie de vivre made him one of the great 20th-century English painters.

Tom Rosenthal is an art critic and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.

Matthew Smith: His Life and Reputation

Author - Malcolm Yorke
ISBN - 0 571 17336 5
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 264

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