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Grey-Smith, Guy Edward (1916–1981)

by Jenny Mills

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Guy Edward Grey-Smith (1916-1981), artist, was born on 7 January 1916 at East Wagin, Western Australia, second child of Victorian-born parents Francis Edward Grey-Smith, station manager, and his wife Ada Janet, née King. Francis Grey Smith was his great-grandfather. Educated at Boyup Brook State and Bunbury High schools, Guy joined the Royal Australian Air Force on 20 January 1936 and trained as a pilot. Next year he took a short-service commission in the Royal Air Force and moved to England. On 19 October 1939 at the parish church, Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, he married Helen Dorothy Stanes. Following the outbreak of World War II he went to France with No.139 Squadron. In May 1940 his Blenheim bomber was shot down over enemy territory. Baling out, he was hit on the head by the tailplane and severely wounded. While he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp, he began to sketch, using materials supplied by his wife. He developed tuberculosis of the lungs; sent to Britain on a prisoner exchange in 1944, he was admitted to the sanatorium at Midhurst, Sussex, where his interest in painting was further stimulated by an art therapy program.

In 1945-47 Grey-Smith studied at the Chelsea School of Art under Ceri Richards, Henry Moore and Robert Medley. He also took a part-time pottery course with Heber Mathews at Woolwich Art School. Pronounced medically unfit, he relinquished his RAF commission on 22 April 1947. Next year he returned to Western Australia. In 1950 he renovated a house and built a studio at Darlington in the hills above Perth. Setting up a home pottery and digging clay from a nearby road, he made slip-decorated earthenware. The family became self-sufficient, keeping chickens, pigeons, and a goat for milking, growing vegetables and fruit, and eating from his homemade earthenware.

In 1952 Laurie Thomas, then director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, promoted Grey-Smith’s work and that of his wife, also an artist and a printmaker, and acquired a Grey-Smith painting for the gallery. After recovering from a recurrence of tuberculosis, Grey-Smith took his family back to England in 1953. He studied fresco painting with Louis le Brocquy and Hans Tisdall at the Central School of Art and Design, London, and was impressed by an exhibition in Paris of Fauve painters. Back in Perth in 1954, he was employed part time at Perth Technical College and at the AGWA. He initiated art therapy classes at Wooroloo Sanatorium and Perth Chest (Sir Charles Gairdner) Hospital.

Grey-Smith was strongly influenced by the worker of Paul Cézanne; his paintings of the Western Australian landscape were emotive, with strong, demanding colour. In the 1950s he held successful exhibitions in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, gaining a national reputation. He was represented in several international exhibitions of contemporary Australian painting: in Canada (1957), in London (1961), and in London and Ottawa (1963-1964). Between 1955 and 1978 he won eleven important Australian art prizes. In this period annual trips to the State’s North-West and, increasingly, the work of the French painters Nicholas de Staël and Georges Rouault influenced his art, which became more abstract.

A part-time teacher (1969-76) at the Western Australian Institute of Technology, in 1971, under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Grey-Smith lectured in painting, drawing and ceramics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh. He was founding president (1966) and patron of the Western Australian branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia. Awarded a $10,000 grant by the Australia Council’s visual arts board in 1973, he gave most of the money away to help students. In 1977-80 he was a member of the board. A retrospective of his work was held at the AGWA in 1976.

Grey-Smith welcomed fellow painters, friends and young students to his Darlington home. His passion for `burning off’ sometimes caused fires that required visits from the local bush-fire brigade. To raise money for the brigade he inaugurated the Darlington Arts Festival, encouraging artists and craftspeople in the neighbourhood to exhibit. He spent the last seven years of his life at Pemberton amid the karri forests. Having regained his pilot’s licence he bought a small Cessna aircraft, using it to fly to Perth, sometimes landing in paddocks en route and asking their owners for a cup of tea. In 1981 he was appointed AM. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died of tuberculosis on 11 August 1981 at Pemberton and was buried in the local cemetery. His work is represented in all State galleries, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and other public and private collections in Australia, Britain and the United States of America.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Klepac, Guy Grey-Smith Retrospective (1976)
  • L. Thomas, The Most Noble Art of Them All (1976)
  • B. Hawthorn, Some Contemporary Western Painters and Sculptors (1982)
  • A. Davis, Guy Grey-Smith (1996)
  • H. de Berg, interview with G. Grey-Smith (transcript, 1965, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Jenny Mills, 'Grey-Smith, Guy Edward (1916–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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