When the Tate gallery in London held a major Matthew Smith exhibition in 1953, Francis Bacon wrote “I very much admire Matthew Smith,” before explaining that “he seems to me to be one of the very few English painters since Constable and Turner to be concerned with painting – that is, with attempting to make idea and technique inseparable.” Bacon praised Smith for achieving “a complete interlocking of image and paint”, so that “the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in”.
Bacon was far from alone in lauding Smith. At the time, he was widely regarded as a leading British painter of the 20th century. But after Smith died in 1959, he gradually became less well-known. So the selling exhibition of his landscapes, now at the Crane Kalman Gallery in London, provides a reminder of his extraordinary gusto. Taken in conjunction with John Gledhill’s catalogue raisonné of Smith’s oil paintings, published last year by Lund Humphries, it vividly conveys his ability to arrive at a free, vigorous and above all visceral response to the world – launching what Bacon described as “a direct assault upon the nervous system”.
At first glance, Smith’s mature landscapes may appear straightforwardly ecstatic. Yet the man who taught himself to unleash these uninhibited brushmarks was riddled with severe inner tensions. His father, a prosperous Yorkshire wire manufacturer, felt ambivalent about Smith’s choice of career and supported his student period only on condition that he avoided Paris and never drew from the nude model. Smith always maintained that this paternal antagonism was “a serious psychological obstruction”, but he disobeyed his father in any case, and studied briefly with Matisse in 1910 before beginning his long love affair with the South of France.
The earliest paintings in the Crane Kalman show, dating from 1911, show how indebted he was to Post-Impressionism. His youthful fascination with the dynamism of sunlight was interrupted, however, by the first world war. Put in charge of burying the enemy dead after battle, Smith was exposed to gruelling dangers. He was wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and only recovered his impetus as a painter on a visit to Cornwall three years later. Here, at St Columb Major, he produced some powerful, ominous and haunting images of a nocturnal church steeple thrusting into a dark mauve sky.
Stripped of all detail, these stark yet deeply glowing canvases announce Smith’s forceful originality. Even so, his time at St Columb Major, which he proudly described as “unknown to painters who continue to cluster like limpets around Newlyn and St Ives”, was short-lived. Afflicted by chronic nervous depression, he attended a Swiss sanatorium and then underwent treatment with the psychotherapist Dr Roger Vittoz, who had successfully treated T.S. Eliot. Encouraged by Vittoz’s chief disciple in Lyons, Smith started painting again in 1922. His paintings of Lyons are intensely dramatic: almost overwhelmed by foliage, they recall the dark colours of his Cornish work. “Près de Lyons” (on sale at Crane Kalman for £85,000) seems about to explode in an apocalyptic tempest.
Bespectacled and primly dressed, Smith looks the epitome of uptight English decorum in surviving photographs. But his paintings became ever wilder as he struggled to liberate his trapped emotions. “Storm in the Mediterranean”, swiftly painted around this time, is devoid of buildings and vegetation, and here Smith handles his brush with such windblown freedom that everything – sea, land and sky – appears to change as we gaze at this marvellously impulsive painting.
From now on, Smith makes us increasingly aware of his prowess. He explores Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire, making it almost disappear beneath an impetuous blue sky and dense areas of burgeoning foliage. Provence becomes, time and again, the focus of his most avid and audacious attention. “Landscape, South of France” (priced at £85,000) is enhanced by brushwork so urgent and zestful that it takes on an outspoken life of its own. Looking forward at times to Frank Auerbach, these expressive gestures give Smith’s work its essential vivacity.
Tragedy scarred him once more in the second world war when both his sons, Frederic and Dermot, were killed. But he managed to continue pursuing his infatuation with the French countryside. And in “Landscape, près d’Avignon” (priced at £65,000) he leaves crucial areas of the canvas empty in order to give the trees and water even more breathing-space.
“In painting,” Smith once stressed, “the gravest immorality is to try to finish what isn’t well begun. But a picture that is well begun may be left off at any point.”
Here, near the close of his prolific career, Smith knew precisely when to stop and leave us eagerly waiting for more.
Matthew Smith Landscapes, Crane Kalman Gallery, London until June 12 www.cranekalman.com
Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, June 26 -September 5 www.victoriagal.org.uk