GRACE COSSINGTON SMITH: Spearheading Modernist Art

The Bridge in-curve (1930) - Photo by NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA

Grace Smith, as she was born in April 1892, is regarded as initiating modernist art in Australia. The genre is defined as “an artist who makes a deliberate break with previous styles”.

Her English parents, Ernest and Grace Smith had emigrated to Sydney from Leicestershire in 1890 after their marriage the same year. Grace senior’s father was an Anglican rector in Cossington, Yorkshire and saw that his daughter was raised in fine Victorian style; she was trained in classical music and believed that women should receive a progressive education. Ernest, a Londoner, was a crown solicitor, which profession he maintained in New South Wales.

Grace Smith, Self- Portrait (1948) – Photo by National Portrait Gallery

The Smith’s produced five children; Mabel (1891), Grace (1892), Margaret (1896), and twins Gordon and Charlotte in 1897. Grace was a pupil at Abbotsleigh School for Girls between 1905 and 1909. The school was founded by Marian Clarke in 1885 and moved premises several times before being established permanently in Wahroonga in 1898. It was the first school in Sydney to offer sports to girls, together with academic subjects including Physics and Latin. Run with strict discipline, it offered a complete education rather than being a finishing school characteristic of the era. It was here that Grace received art tuition from established painters Eirene Mort, Albert Collins, and Alfred Coffey.

In 1910 her parents sent her for drawing classes with Antonio Salvatore Dattilo-Rubbo. “Rubbo”, an Italian hailing from Naples, was not regarded as an illustrious artist in his own right despite having studied painting and classical drawing. His teachers were Domenico Morelli and Filippo Palizzi who together founded the Naples Società Promotrice di Belle Arti. However, Dattilo-Rubbo’s teaching techniques inspired and encouraged his students to experiment with methods including post-impressionism and cubism. Through books he introduced his students to Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh; his pet name for Grace was “Mrs. Van Gogh”. Grace herself claimed Cezanne as one of her most important inspirations.

In 1912, Ernest Smith and his two eldest daughters travelled back to England where Grace joined drawing classes at the Winchester School of Art. She and her sister Mabel then spent over a year in Germany at Speck, near Stettin, where she concentrated on sketching outdoors. She visited Berlin where she saw the works of 18th-century French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, who is credited with the creation of the genre fêtes galantes; Grace subsequently declared him as her most enduring art influence.

On returning to Sydney in April 1914 as World War I was threatening, Grace returned to classes under Dattilo-Rubbo when she started painting in oils for the first time. Her fellow pupil was Norah Simpson, also regarded as a modernist painter. Simpson had travelled to France and on her return to Sydney in 1913, she brought with her colour reproductions of works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso.

The Sock Knitter – Photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales | NSW Government

Probably Smith’s best-known work, The Sock Knitter was painted in 1915. It was her first piece to be exhibited, at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales, and is regarded as the first post-impressionist painting by an Australian. It currently hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Grace’s younger sister Madge (Margaret) is the subject knitting socks, reflecting the quiet background effort of women helping the war cause.

The family moved to Turramurra on Sydney’s North Shore and in 1920 her parents bought a house that they named Cossington, after Mrs. Smith’s family estate. Here, Grace accepted her mother’s suggestion to adopt the professional surname, Cossington Smith. Since 1914, Grace had used a garden hut as her studio but after her mother’s death in 1931 and her father’s in 1938, Grace had a bespoke studio built onto the house. She never married and lived there for sixty-five years before frailty forced her to move into a nursing home.

The term post-impressionism was coined by art critic Roger Fry in 1906 and he reinforced this in 1910 when he defined it as “the development of French art since Manet.” The genre is described by the use of shape and colour to represent realistic subject matter but in more abstract form. In an interview in 1965, Grace is quoted as having said “’My chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not crude flat colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine; light must be in it, it is no good having heavy, dead colour.”

The Prince – Photo by the National Gallery of Australia

In the 1920’s Grace concentrated on life in Sydney; a visit to the city in 1920 by the then Prince of Wales, later crowned King Edward VIII, resulted in her work The Prince. She created a number of pieces of the Sydney Harbour Bridge during its construction, but never once the edifice was completed. Although The Bridge in-curve (1930) was rejected from an exhibition in that year, it has become known as one of Cossington Smith’s iconic modernist creations. Since 1967 it has been held by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales bid successfully for Centre of a City (1935), paying A$348 000 for the piece in 1973. In June 2015 Blue Glass (1937) realised A$210 000 at auction, where her 1956 work The Window sold for A$170 000.

In 1926 Grace broke ties with Dattilo-Rubbo, becoming interested in theosophy and symbolic colour. In 1929 she painted a four-panel screen on commission, comprising a loquat tree, gum and wattle trees, a waterfall and a picnic. However, after the commission was rejected, Grace refused to accept any others.

She exhibited regularly; she had work accepted from 1915 by the Royal Art Society of New South Wales for their annual exhibitions, as by the Society of Artists from 1927. She held her first solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries in 1928, complemented by publication in Art in Australia which circulated between 1916-1942. She also held 11 solo exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries from 1931-1977. On 4th April 1977, the gallery was brazenly broken into and Grace’s entire 28-piece collection was stolen, none of the art ever to be recovered. It is rumoured that a Japanese businessman was behind the heist and that the works are to be found in an exclusive golf club in that country. Following an out-of-court settlement with the gallery, Grace was awarded A$8000 plus costs although the total valuation for the collection of drawings and paintings was A$24 800.

The Lacquer Room (1936) – Photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales | NSW Government

The Lacquer Room (1936) may be her best-known painting, based on an art deco café called the Soda Fountain. In an interview in 1979, Cossington Smith described how she found it when she visited the Sydney department store David Jones – “It was quite a surprise, I didn’t know it was there, but I went down to get cup of tea, and found this lovely restaurant. I was struck by its colour and general design the moment I saw it; scarlet, green and white held me spellbound.” The work was acquired by the Art Gallery NSW in 1967.

With the advent of Word War II, Grace painted numerous pieces including Wardens’ Meeting (1943), Dawn Landing (1944), and Signing (1945). Grace was known for painting from personal encounters, so these world events must have had an enormous effect on her.

In 1948 Grace and her sisters Madge (Margaret) and Charlotte (Diddy) returned to England. Madge had stayed at home to care for her mother and father until their deaths and continued to act as housemaid to Grace, cooking and cleaning. However, she married during the trip to England and did not accompany her sisters when they returned to Sydney in 1951.

During this trip, Grace developed an interest in English architecture. She made sketches and drawings of cathedrals and other buildings, as well as taking photographs of doorways and rooms in houses. Back home, Grace painted Interior With Verandah Doors (1954) and Interior With Wardrobe Mirror (1955).

Still Life With Jugs – Photo by the National Gallery of Australia

During the 1950’s and 60’s, she continued to concentrate on painting interior scenes and still lifes, in part due to her sister Diddy’s long illness and subsequent death in 1962. Still Life With Jugs (1963) sold for slightly less than 93 000 euros at auction in November 1999 and again for a little more than 100 000 euros in May 2004.

Cossington Smith was not widely known until she was in her 70’s; she admitted in 1973 after being awarded an OBE that she would have welcomed wider recognition earlier. That same year the Art Gallery of New South Wales arranged a retrospective exhibition and Australian tour of her work. Grace stopped painting after this, having become increasingly frail.

She left her beloved Cossington when she was admitted to Dalcross Hospital in 1978, before moving to Milton Nursing Home. In 1983, the Governor of New South Wales, Sir James Rowland, visited Grace at the nursing home to award her the Order of Australia. She died there on 20 December 1984, aged 92.

Grace’s legacy lives on in the form of a biennial art award, run by the Grace Cossington Smith Gallery. This not-for-profit initiative was opened at Abbotsleigh School on 12th October 2013, in honour of its past pupil.