A WINDING ROAD-CORNISH LANDSCAPE 1920
Sir Matthew Smith (1879 – 1959)
- 53.6 X 65 CM
- OIL ON CANVAS
- Accession number
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