Sir Matthew Smith 1879-1959


J.B. Harland, acquired directly from the artist
Private Collection, by descent


On long-term loan to the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, from June 1987 until 2015


The work has been authenticated by John Gledhill and will be included in future editions of his catalogue raisonné of Matthew Smith's work. 
Matthew Smith was born in Halifax in 1879. He studied first at the Art Department of the Manchester Municipal College of Technology from 1901 until 1905 and then enrolled at the Slade in 1905 where he remained until 1908. The infamous Professor Henry Tonks taught Smith, but had little time for the young man’s draughtsmanship declaring he had, “No sense of drawing, no ability to paint”. Smith briefly studied at Matisse’s school in Paris but the institution closed shortly after his arrival in 1910. Nonetheless the trip to Paris was to prove formative, introducing him to the techniques and use of colour employed by the Fauves. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Smith initially remained in Paris, before returning to England to enrol for service in 1916, returning to Paris and Aix-de-Provenance to live between the wars.

Famed for his luscious paintings of still-lifes, nudes and landscapes of Cornwall and Provenance, Smith ranks as the premier British colourist of the twentieth-century, producing works of unparalleled intensity and singular richness. Roger Fry wrote of Smith in 1926 that “One feels that he almost seeks to exasperate and torture his own sensitive nerves by the violence and intensity of pure crimsons and vermilions with the oppositions of dark ultra-marines and green.” During his lifetime, Smith showed his work in numerous solo and group exhibitions in London and Paris, including with the London Group, Arthur Tooth and Sons, Alex Reid & Lefevre, the Mayor Gallery, and the Salon des Independants. He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1938 and 1950, was awarded a CBE in 1949, and knighted in 1954. His work is held in international public collections and he had major retrospectives at the Tate in 1953 and, posthumously, with the British Council in 1983.

Painted in the 1940s whilst Smith was primarily based in London, Still-Life with Flowers is Smith demonstrating his full, mature prowess. A lush scene, Still-Life with Flowers bears many of the quintessential characteristics of a work by Smith: the “lapsed diagonal in composition” and the intensity of the close-cropping so that “heat calls to heat” as Alice Keen, Smith’s biographer, identifies. Realised with loose, expressionistic handling of the paint, Smith conveys the sense of flora, of petals, of flower heads, and fronds but the details are left to the viewer’s imagination. Suggestion abounds, specificity is subject to the supremacy of colour and the materiality of paint. Smith generally worked directly from life without preparatory drawings. In a BBC radio broadcast, he argued that “everything essential in Art exists in Nature…Art can never exhaust Nature…Art I think seeks to create something as living as Nature, so that it itself may continue to live.”

Famed for his ability as a colourist, in Still-Life with Flowers, form is made manifest through colour. Francis Bacon, an avid admirer of Smith, wrote in 1953 that Smith’s painting “tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa. Here the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in. Consequently, every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance…”. Painting Still-Life with Flowers with immense confidence, Smith handles paint with broad thick sweeps to describe the round table and the curve of a leaf, sensuous strokes to suggest the bulk of a flower, and animated dabs and squiggles to indicate petals. Rich colours permeate the entire work: burnt orange, emerald green, a dominant crimson, and romantic pinky white. The work is luxurious and fecund, full of the life of Nature in which Smith sought inspiration.