May Smith
Representation & the Freedom of the Imagination


In 1939 May Smith returned to New Zealand after ten years spent studying and working in England. She brought with her a number of paintings that were a shock and a revelation to many who saw them at the Auckland Society of Arts 1940 show. She was immediately taken up by the well-known architect, Vernon Brown, and by the poet, Rex Fairburn, both of whom seem to have operated as the final arbiters of quality and taste in visual matters at the time.

In the following years May Smith annually exhibited a significant body of work - all of it highly original in its sense of design and structure, daring in its use of colour and 'difficult' in its carelessness of perspective.

MAY SMITH Pumpkins 1941
oil on canvas, 485 x 587 mm.

By 1945 she was well-enough known to he the subject of an appreciative article in The Arts in New Zealand, written by Professor R.P. Anschutz. In spite of a timid title and some unnecessarily finicky worry about her apparently 'incorrect drawing', Professor Anschutz understoood her 'unique colour'. 'Miss Smith does not play safe with the nice, cool restrained shades' he wrote. 'She runs riot with all the hues that we have been taught to consider vulgar, garish and unladylike.'1 Not since that article have the pictures Belladonna Lilies (1940) and Railway Yard (1944) been either exhibited or reproduced.

May Smith's best-known painting is undoubtedly the Characterisation in Colour (1941), which has been frequently displayed in the Auckland City Art Gallery, since Eric Westbrook purchased it in 1953. At that time it was still considered controversial and the artist remembers that it was only acquired by the Gallery after much struggle to convince members of the City Council of its worth.

Although she has continued to have regular exhibitions, especially since she turned her attention to watercolours in later years, May Smith's earlier paintings have remained largely unknown, except to those who bought them in the 1940s.

May Smith, the eldest of three children, was born in Simla, India in 1906. Her father, Sir Joseph Smith, was a civil engineer involved in building the great network of canals for the irrigation of the Punjab.

As a small child she under-went a series of hip operations in England, and it was in the long periods of enforced inactivity that she began, encouraged by her grandmother, to paint. At first she used to copy the sprays of flower illustrated in the painting tutors of the period; and this taught her the basic techniques of watercolour. Later at school, when she was mobile for the first time, she received more formal training-firstly at a convent in Mussoorie and then at Loreto College in Simla.

The artist with engraving tools, Royal College of Art London 1930.

In spite of what many might imagine a childhood in the Indian summer of the British Raj to have been like, May Smith's early life involved little which could be termed 'colonial-genteel'. Her younger brother, Arthur, remembers that 'Raj grandeur didn't impinge upon us at all. Our friends, both Indian and European lived all around us. We lived much of the time on construction sites where there were few European families'. May does recall attending as a schoolgirl an afternoon tea at Government House where Baroness Chelmsford, the Vicereine, acknowledged the curtsey of each little girl with a faint inclination of the head. She has said, however, that 'It is possible that a childhood spent in India with an ayah in daily contact and influence, surrounded by oriental buildings, fabrics and hand-wrought objects richly endowed my visual memory'.

In 1921, in the company of her mother and two brothers, May Smith came to New Zealand, settling in Auckland, where she became a pupil of the Diocesan School.

In 1924 she went to the Elam School of Art, specialised in engraving, remaining there until 1928. In the last two years of her time at Elam the Principal of the school was A. J. C. Fisher, who encouraged her parents to let her enrol at the Royal College of Art in London.

Jocelyn Mays (later to marry A. R. D. Fairburn) and the painter Hildegard. Read also went from Elam to the Slade or the Royal College then, and for some time May and Jocelyn shared a flat in South Kensington. It was a period of intensely hard work, in spite of May's previous experience as an engraver., In 1931 she graduated with a diploma.

MAY SMITH Oast Houses in Sussex 1938
oil on canvas, 510 x 610 mm.

They had all been preceded at the Royal College by another ex-Elam student, James Boswell, who had come to England in 1926. By the time May Smith met him in 1929 he was already one of a group of artists with strong political commitments. Although her involvement in the politics of the Left did not affect her work to the same degree that it did Boswell's, May Smith was, during this period, a member of the Communist Party because, as she says: 'In the inter-war period, political involvement in general and socialism in particular seemed the best answer to the growing Depression'.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she joined organisations for Spanish medical aid and was involved in fundraising for the cause, exhibiting one of her very earliest paintings in a show called Artists against Fascism, which had been organised by Henry Moore and Julian Trevelyan.

In 1933 May Smith went to Spain, not for any overtly political purpose but rather, 'to see the almond blossom and to get away from the English cold'. While in the town of Ibiza she met Frances Hodgkins, whose work she had already seen in England at the St. George's Gallery, Mayfair. Hodgkins invited her to come to her holiday house and to look at the paintings she had done. It was the first of other meetings which followed when they returned to England.

Since leaving the Royal College May Smith had found it increasingly difficult to get work. The Depression had hit artists particularly hard and the skills of an engraver seemed to her to be of little use in those days. As a solution to the problem she had taught herself fabric designing and printing, using wood or lino cut blocks. 'Sales were few and far between, although I had some success with stores like Peter Jones and Heal's. There were no repeats and I felt that my lack of business acumen let me down'.

Also at this time she felt the need to liberate herself from the smallness of the engraver's plate. Undoubtedly the example of Frances Hodgkins helped her in the eventual decision to take up painting.

MAY SMITH Railway Yard 1944
oil on canvas, 570 x 725mm.

In the summer of 1937, after becoming disillusioned with the struggle to maintain herself by means of commercial work, she decided to go for a holiday on her own 'because I wanted to see the country of Constable'. in the one small suitcase she took with her was included the necessary painting equipment. At the village of Earles Colne she painted The White Horse, which was later bought by Vernon Brown when she returned to New Zealand. In this and other paintings of the time she used very little brush application of paint, preferring to apply it with the palette-knife and then scratching on it much as an engraver would do. This holiday convinced May Smith that she should make her future as a painter.

In London she visited all the major galleries, looking attentively at what was new, acknowledging later that the impact of the whole French school was overwhelming. She admired also the work of the English painter Christopher Wood, who died at the early age of twenty-nine and whose complete works were to be exhibited at the Burlington Galleries in March 1928.

The impact that Wood's work had on her can be clearly seen in Oast Houses in Sussex (1938), with its blocks of unmodulated colour, its quite deliberate flouting of the rules of perspective, its flatnesses, and the obvious use of palette-knife or the tip of the brush-handle to scrape the wet paint.

There is a strong sense of pattern and an arresting play of visual rhythms which belies the charge of 'childishness' that can be too easily made on a superficial viewing. It was this quality of simplicity which New Zealand connoisseurs found so difficult in May Smith's work upon her return to this country in 1939.

Ron Tizard vividly remembers the opening of the 1940 Society of Arts annual exhibition in which May Smith showed Camden Town Locks and the very first painting of Belladonna Lilies, a subject to which she has returned many times in following years. Mr Tizard speaks of the way in which A.R.D. Fairburn and Vernon Brown walked around the exhibition with May, the two men confidently expressing their many opinions while others gathered to hear what they had to say.

It was at the 1941 exhibition that May Smith's paintings made their greatest impact because that was the year in which she had painted the portrait of Marie Conlan - known as Characterisation in Colour, and the large, still-life Pumpkins. As well as these there was an Abstract inspired by a Piano which appears to have been lost in the intervening years.

MAY SMITH Characterisation in Colour 1941
oil on canvas (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

Writing in the Star on May 15th 1941, Arthur C. Hipwell observed: 'The most challenging exhibits confront the viewer when entering the Gallery. May Smith heads this group with paintings which defy all recognised standards of approach. One has immediate visions of Picasso and Matisse'. He wrote also of the portrait Characterisation in Colour saying that 'visual concepts are ignored and colour is used to express and not to depict'.3 His critical confusion when faced with these paintings is plain but he concludes with the remark that 'such work is serious and thoughtful and not to be lightly dismissed'. Others, including Mrs Dreaver of the Auckland City Council, were less tolerant. That lady expostulated, at the suggestion that public money be spent on Characterisation in Colour: 'Now, if you were to give ME a box of paints ... !'

At the time Characterisation was painted May was friendly with a group of women who used to go at weekends to stay at the small Piha bach owned by Marie Gaudin, who was then a journalist on the Star but later taught English at Epsom Girls' Grammar. The subject of the portrait, Marie Conlan, was a highly intelligent young woman who was questioning her Roman Catholic faith, was strongly anti-Fascist, and who had already been operated on for a cancer of which she died in 1943. May was attracted by her liveliness and describes the LOOK of the portrait as something conceived in a flash.

We were driving back through the Scenic Drive all singing the Internationale at the tops of our voices, I turned around in the car and saw those big eyes and bang - there it was. The following weekend we went back to Piha to allow me to make the painting. Someone said 'You can't have that dull background' and produced a strongly-patterned bedspread. Away we went; it didn't take long at all. Both Dr Guy Chapman and Bob Lowry, who had it for several years, liked it at once but Archie Fisher hated it because it was in a way a contradiction of all that he stood for.

The painting entitled Pumpkins had a similar though less spectacular genesis as the artist was walking past a fruit shop in Newmarket and was taken with the haphazardly arranged but brightly coloured vegetables piled up in crates. This is probably her most adventurous composition, and certainly her most colourful. The paint has either been laid on in small but thick brush-strokes, utilising a maximum contrast between tones, or in broad banks of closely-matching colour. Its sense of design is absolutely secure which is no mean achievement given the picture's complexity of organisation.

Linocut block fabric design, 1945.

For the next four years, until her marriage and move to Gisborne in 1945, May Smith exhibited regularly with the Society of Arts. She maintained a studio in Swanson Street and it was here that the Portrait of Jean Bartlett was painted in 1943.

May had been interested in painting jean Bartlett because of the intense blue of her large eyes. She agreed, sat for pencil studies, and the painting was then made in her absence. She recalls the high-backed William Morris chair in which she was asked to sit, and that May often served a luncheon of smoked fish and lettuce.

jean Bartlett's remark that 'all our talk was political in those days' is an indication of the considerable intellectual ferment in a city whose academic and artistic leaders E. H. McCormick described as 'Auckland's intelligentsia'.

In his book on Eric Lee-Johnson, published in 1956, McCormick writes of 'that little group of Aucklanders, presided over by Mr ARD. Fairburn, whose bodily ailments are diagnosed by Mr Douglas Robb, whose literary productions are printed by Mr RN. Lowry, whose habitations are designed by Mr Vernon Brown, whose legal affairs are disentangled by Mr F.H. Haigh. . .'5 He might well have added that their walls were frequently decorated with the paintings, murals and fabric designs of May Smith.

MAY SMITH Coast-line with Clouds 1969
watercolour on paper, 270 x 380 mm. (Private collection, Auckland)

Professor Robert Chapman, then a young man, remembers the atmosphere of intense discussion that characterised these years, all of them dominated by a colouring of socialism and concerned with serious political and social questions.

He describes May Smith as a 'quiet leader' in the artistic field who could 'foot it in the company of these perceptive and witty people because she was highly cultivated and had had a wealth of travel and experience. She would demur when a judgement seemed wrong to her. She was a corrective, she did not perhaps generate sparks but she dampened the wrongly-lit fires'. Professor Chapman also speaks of her 'classical beauty, a fact of which everyone was conscious. It was wholly appropriate to hear such perceptiveness of judgement coming from so beautiful a source. The big difficulty came in separating the person from the work-the one so gentle, the other so strong. You had to divest yourself of the impulse to run the two together.'

Vernon Brown, Rex Fairburn, the architect Fred Beckett and May Smith must have come close for a time to putting into practice those ideas which had found their most definite expression in the words of Paul Nash, who wrote in 1932, while he was founding the group Unit One, 'when the day conies for a more practical, sympathetic alliance between architect, painter, 'sculptor and decorator, we may see the acceleration of an important movement.'6

This co-operative approach, with its proclamation that art, architecture and design could be the harbingers of progressive social change, no doubt helped to motivate Rex Fairburn to join with May Smith in taking up fabric design. There were homes like those of Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Rix-Trott and Frank and Honey Haigh whose walls and windows were decorated with their work.

MAY SMITH Portrait of Jean Bartlett 1943
oil on softboard, 487 x 383 mm.

There was, however, no intention of a 'movement', although Vernon Brown, like Ernst Plischke in Wellington and Paul Pascoe in Christchurch, played an important if as yet largely unrecognised part in establishing the idea that cheap houses need not be nasty as well.

May Smith also worked as a muralist, producing one based on a marine subject for the Haighs, as well as another for John Burns Ships Chandlery, both in 1941. The latter, sadly, no longer exists; nor does the much larger series of eight murals she did in 1952, commissioned by Harold Innes for his Waikato Wines and Spirits outlet in Hamilton.

Of these years May Smith has spoken of her delight in finding 
that there was a need for what I had to give and when I was offered a teaching tutorship at the WEA in Adult Education it was a tremendous thrill. I was earning at last. In London people looked at you as though you were a piece of dirt when you had the temerity to produce a folio of work. Now everyone seemed keen that I should get work. The years of seemingly fruitless study could be put to use in country areas and in secondary schools where replacement was necessary for men who had joined the services. I held this W.E.A post for three years.

Her painting Railway Yard (1944) evoked some diverse reactions. Professor Anschutz called it an 'immense improvement' because it did not exhibit the teasing ambiguity of space which had caused him earlier to criticise her 'incorrect drawing'.7 Others were less tolerant and were worried by its 'Toytown' appearance and the apparent carelessness with which, in the interests of artistic order, she had rearranged the painted railway lines with scant regard for the safety of the railway workers.

MAY SMITH The Gulf under Rain 1976
watercolour, 290 x 400mm

In 1944 May Smith married and her life-style naturally changed with a move to Gisborne. When a child was born in 1945 she turned again to fabric printing because that could be done at home close to other duties. In 1952 the marriage broke up; May returned to Auckland, and in order to support herself and her small daughter, decided to begin teaching full-time. She retired from the art department at Epsom Girls' Grammar School in 1965. From 1953 onwards she was also a prolific illustrator of the School journal, work she particularly enjoyed.

During this period her output obviously declined with the pressure of work but the group called the 'Monday Nighters 'was, as she says, 'a tremendous refresher from the fatigue of teaching'. In 1960 she discovered Coromandel 'due to the fact that my friend Dr Deidre Airey had taken over a practice in this (then) out-of-the-way old mining town, which completely enthralled me with its scenic loveliness'. It was here that she came to live permanently in 1967.

May Smith has continued to paint ever since. In 1974 she married John Fowler, to whom she is indebted for his help and encouragement: not the least of which involved setting up the ideal environment for a painter to work in. She has continued to exhibit regularly in Thames, Hamilton, Coromandel, Auckland and Dunedin, where Charles Brasch had earlier shown interest in her work, purchasing fourteen pictures between the years 1949-1969.'

The artist in her Coromandel living-room, 1982.

On the wall above May Smith's studio desk in both the houses in which they have lived in Coromandel are these two quotations from C├ęzanne: 
Nature excites the imagination to represent but one must add to this the Spirit of the landscape.
There is an inherent truth which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object represented. This is the only truth that matters.

1. 'The Little Sensation of May Smith' by R.P. Anschutz in The Arts in New Zealand, April-May 1945, Volume 17, No. 3, Serial No. 67.
2. Written by the artist for a file held in the Library, Auckland City Gallery,
3. Review of Auckland Society of Arts Exhibition in the Star of May 15th 1941 by Arthur C. Hipwell.
4. From a file on the artist in the Library, Auckland City Gallery.
5. From Eric Lee-Johnson, with a biographical introduction by E.H, McCormick, edited by Janet Paul, Pauls Book Arcade, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1956.
6. From a letter written by Paul Nash to the Listener on 16th March, 1932.
7. ibid 1.
8. The New Zealand Herald, Monday June 12,1944, review of the Society of Arts Exhibition by A.C. Hipwell.
Other material quoted in this article is drawn from records kept by the writer of conversations with May and John Fowler, Jean Bartlett, Lesley Vernon Brown, Robert Chapman, Jack Crippen, Marie Gaudin, Marjorie Lees, Phoebe Meilde, Frank and Honey Haigh, George Haydn, Harold Innes, Arthur Smith, Ron Tizard. A biographical statement written by the artist in 1979 and a series of tapes made by Phyllis Crowley have also been consulted. There are many paintings by May Smith, (especially those exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts in the period 1940 to 1945) of which there are no permanent records. The author of this article would be most grateful for any information as to their present whereabouts.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 28 Spring 1983