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Smith, Grace Cossington (1892–1984)

by Daniel Thomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984), artist, was born on 20 April 1892 at Cossington, Neutral Bay, Sydney, second of five children of Ernest Smith, London-born crown solicitor, and his wife Grace, née Fisher, daughter of the rector and squire of Cossington, Leicestershire. Ernest Smith's brother was private chaplain to Queen Victoria at Osborne, Isle of Wight, his sister an Anglican nun. The close-knit Sydney family moved to Thornleigh; Grace's schooling until December 1909 at Abbotsleigh included art classes by Albert Collins and Alfred Coffey. Next year she began to study drawing in Sydney with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo who had special classes for young ladies, and continued there two days a week when the family moved to Bowral in 1911. With her elder sister she sailed in March 1912 for two years in England, staying with an aunt at Winchester; she attended a few drawing classes there and some outdoor sketching classes at Speck, near Stettin, Germany, but the most lasting art influence was her memory of paintings by Watteau in Berlin.

Grace returned to Sydney in April 1914 to the house her family had rented at 43 Kuringai Avenue, Turramurra, which remained her home for the rest of her working life. She returned to Signor Rubbo's classes and for the first time began to paint. Rubbo had become interested in modern art, enthused by a former pupil, Norah Simpson, who had returned to Sydney in 1913 with colour reproductions of work by the Post-Impressionists. Smith's 'The sock knitter' (1915), her first painting to be exhibited, was perhaps the first fully Post-Impressionist work painted in Australia. Her use of colour and paint became bolder as Rubbo read aloud accounts of van Gogh and Cézanne, and van Gogh's feeling for humanity was also sympathetic to her; small, vivid studies of topical subjects—reinforcements for World War I, a strike, a crowd at a racecourse—were painted in 1917-19.

In 1920 the house at Turramurra, originally built to accommodate Quaker meetings, was bought by the Smiths and renamed Cossington. At the same time, at her mother's suggestion, Grace became Grace Cossington Smith, the working name for a dedicated professional artist. Members of her family's comfortable suburban milieu might have perceived her as a ladylike amateur; her fellow modernist painters, especially Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, greatly respected her art. She sent paintings to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales from 1915, the Society of Artists from 1919 and the Contemporary Group from 1927. Her first solo exhibition was in 1928 at the Grosvenor Galleries, then, from 1932 to 1971, every three or four years at the Macquarie Galleries.

Published illustration and discussion of her work in Art in Australia accompanied her exhibition of 1928 and in 1940 twenty of her friends gave one of her works to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. She was included in large museum surveys, 150 Years of Australian Art (Sydney, 1938), and Art of Australia 1788-1941 that toured North America.

Her participation in Modernism, after her van Gogh phase in the late 1910s, included a darker, more tonal phase with subjects from city life in the early 1920s, then from 1926 a return to more radical flat-patterned construction and sometimes the radical colour of Gauguin. From 1937, when her friends began to own motor cars and drive her on outdoor landscape-painting excursions, Cézanne was her principal hero.

From 1914 Grace had painted in a small studio hut in the garden, beyond the tennis lawn. Her mother died in 1931, her father in 1938, and she became head of the Cossington household. A larger well-lit studio was added to the house, adjacent to her large bedroom.

While her art was mostly private in subject, until the 1930s her other paintings often expressed the general excitement and turbulence of big-city life, including ballet and musical performances. And, most unusually in Australian art, there are also about a dozen paintings of high occasion in public life: troops marching to World War I, a dawn landing on D-Day in World War II and the 'Signing' of surrender (the last two painted from newspaper photographs, not from her usual sketchbook studies); thanksgiving services in her parish church at the end of war; a 1920 visit to Sydney by the Prince of Wales (she went to a ball given for him); the building of the Harbour Bridge. Nobody else in Australian art has so consistently acknowledged the big simple things in life: love, politics and religion. There are, in the 1950s, two Biblical paintings, illustrating texts from St Matthew and Revelation.

However, her most moving works are the late interiors of Cossington. After a visit to Europe in 1949-50 (Grace, based in Sussex, sketched English cathedrals and visited Italy—Florence for Fra Angelico and Assisi for St Francis) one sister stayed in England. In 1962 her favourite sister died after six invalid years at Cossington. She now lived alone and the house so insistently filled with memories and affections became the principal subject of her art, showing God-given golden light entering doors and windows from the verandahs and the leafy garden, spreading into corners, corridors and cupboards.

Her quiet simplicity was deceptive. She was very strong. Her art was very pure. She painted only when the spirit moved her and then decisively and rapidly; the painting—ideas as well as visual images—had already been shaped in her mind. In 1967 she stated with utmost simplicity: 'I have always wanted, and my aim had always been to express form in colour—colour within colour, vibrant with light'.

In the 1940s art museums throughout Australia began collecting Cossington Smith's work but she did not begin to become widely known until the 1960s, after Bernard Smith's Australian Painting was published. In 1973 she was appointed O.B.E.; that year a museum retrospective exhibition of her work was organized by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and toured Australia. She did not paint after that. Slow recognition was due to her quiet temperament, not to the fact that she was a woman; the profound simplicity and directness of her work also gave it an air of naivety to some academic fellow artists. She did, however, let slip in 1973 her awareness that wide recognition at 81 was rather late, and that her open-hearted offerings of delight in what she saw around her could have been welcomed earlier.

Grace Cossington Smith eventually left Cossington for a nursing-home and was visited daily by her brother's children. She died at Roseville on 20 December 1984 and was cremated. Her art seems to express the spirit of Sydney, its big-city energy and also its lyrical bushland and its flowers and its light. It also expresses timeless, universal feelings about familiar lived-in houses and about the individual presence that resides in all things in the world. From 1926 nothing is recessive in her art, everything depicted comes forward to the viewer. It is art made by a devout Anglican Christian, in a family that was very English in its high ideals of public service and independence of mind. It was still a time when women artists could stay at home without guilt, and paint more for love than for money.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1973), and for bibliography
  • Art in Australia, Dec 1928, Nov 1938
  • Hemisphere, 17, no 6, June 1973
  • Style, 15 Dec 1975
  • Sydney Mail, 1 Aug 1928
  • National Times, 15 Dec 1975, 8 Feb 1985
  • H. de Berg, interview with Grace Cossington Smith (transcript, 1965, National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Daniel Thomas, 'Smith, Grace Cossington (1892–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-grace-cossington-8469/text14893, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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