Menzies Art Brands

GRACE COSSINGTON SMITH, Christmas Tree, 1953


‘I feel that with interiors I need not be in a hurry over it because it will be there for me the next day. Whereas out of doors I like to get the effect of the particular time when I’m doing it … Not that I want to be slow at all because I don’t believe in dilly-dallying over a painting. I feel you must go at it full tilt, not to be slow about it and put it off … I think that is a great mistake.’1

Grace Cossington Smith was the 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. The close-knit Sydney family lived in Thornleigh and Grace attended Abbotsleigh in Turramurra until December 1909 where she was taught art by Albert Collins and Alfred Coffey. After finishing school she continued with her art classes, taking lessons in Sydney from Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. 

In March 1912, Grace and her eldest sister set sail for England where she spent two years, attending drawing classes both at the Winchester School of Art and in Stettin, Germany. The most lasting art influence from this time abroad was her memory of paintings by Watteau in Berlin. Upon returning from Europe, she resumed art classes with Datillo-Rubbo, this time embracing the medium of oil. Her teacher had become a passionate enthusiast for modernism and post-impressionism, introducing students to the work of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh through colour reproductions. In painting, she had discovered the medium in which she could express her spiritual feeling for light and colour. 

Her tight-knit family moved into a house at 43 Kuringai Avenue, Turramurra, which remained her home for the rest of her working life. The family named the home ‘Cossington’, after Grace’s grandfather who was the rector and squire of Cossington, Leicestershire. The home would come to be an ongoing source of inspiration for the artist and many of her best interiors were painted there in the small studio she had had specially built for her painting. 

The artist recalls when she was spending more time at home with her sister, she found a whole world to paint in Cossington.

I didn’t like to go out and leave [Diddy] all day, naturally. We were both content and happy with our life at home. I found quite enough to paint.2

The artist’s most moving works are the late interiors of ‘Cossington’. After visiting Europe in 1949-50 to sketch the grand churches and cathedrals, her sister and travel companion stayed in England. In 1962 her favourite sister died after six invalid years at ‘Cossington’. Grace found herself now living alone and the house so insistently filled with memories and affections became the principal subject of her art, showing golden light entering doors and windows from the verandahs and the leafy garden, spreading into corners, corridors and cupboards. Deborah Hart describes the interiors of the 1950s as radiant paintings3, the artist experimented with light and dark, interior and exterior, and the fall and presence of draperies over pieces of furniture. Christmas Tree (1953) displays this  ‘radiance’ which the author describes – present are the colours and luminosity characteristic of Cossington Smith’s best interior works. 

The lone miniature Christmas tree sitting atop the drapery, perhaps a sentimental memory of past family Christmases, is the focal point of the interior composition. Its joyful little baubles hanging from the delicate branches, reflecting the light streaming in through the window. Christmas Tree (1953), displays the best features of the artist’s 1950s interior scenes – the studio steeped in light and colour, looking out into the bushland of her native city which she felt so deeply for. She remained at ‘Cossington’ for many years, passing away on Christmas Eve, 1984. 

Despite the quiet, conservative life Grace Cossington Smith lead, she was a true pioneer of modernism. She never married; she was interested only in painting and the joys which it brought to her. She taught art for several years at two small private schools however preferred to paint in the solitude of her own surrounds. She held 18 solo exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries between 1932 and 1977 and showed her work in many group exhibitions in Sydney and overseas. The many awards she received included the OBE and AO. She is represented in all state and major regional galleries and  a major retrospective of her work was held in 1973 at the Art Gallery of New
South Wales.

Caroline Jones BA, MA (Art Admin.)

1. Grace Cossington Smith, interview with Alan Roberts, 28 April 1970, quoted
in Hart, D., Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, 2005 p.80

2. Grace Cossington Smith, interview with Alan Roberts, 28 April 1970, quoted
in Hart, D., Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, 2005 p.63

3. Hart, Deborah, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p.77

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