Sir Matthew Smith Still Life with Clay Figure, I 1939

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Artwork details

Artist
Title
Still Life with Clay Figure, I
Date 1939
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 730 x 1162 mm
frame: 1015 x 1459 x 145 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Bequeathed by Mr Francis Halliday 1976
Reference
T02101
Not on display

Catalogue entry

T02101 STILL LIFE WITH CLAY FIGURE, 1 1939

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 × 45 3/4 (73 × 116.2)
Bequeathed by Francis Halliday 1976
Prov: Purchased by Francis Halliday from Arthur Tooth and Sons 1948
Exh: Paintings by Matthew Smith of the Years 1938–40, Arthur Tooth and Sons, October–November 1947 (3); Venice Biennale, 1950 (55, dated 1940); British Painting 1925–1950 (1st Anthology), New Burlington Galleries, May–June 1951, Manchester City Art Gallery, June–July 1951 (87, dated 1936); Matthew Smith, Paintings from 1909–1952. Tate Gallery, September–October 1953 (68, dated 1938–40); Ten English Painters 1925–1955, RSA, Edinburgh, January–February 1956 (59, dated 1938–40); A Memorial Exhibition of Works by Sir Matthew Smith CBE 1897–1959, RA, October–December 1960 (190); Matthew Smith, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, June–July 1966 (35); Matthew Smith: A Loan Exhibition: Paintings from 1920–1950, Waddington Galleries, January 1968 (14); Matthew Smith: A Loan Exhibition, Arthur Tooth and Sons and Roland, Browse and Delbanco, April–May 1976 (49)
Lit: John Russell, ‘Matthew Smith at the RA’ The Sunday Times, October 16, 1960; John Russell, ‘Matthew Smith in France’, Apollo, LXXVI, 1962, p.375 (repr. Fig.2 p.374); John Russell, catalogue foreword for Matthew Smith: A Loan Exhibition..., Waddington Galleries, January 1968 (fifth page, un-numbered)
Repr: Penguin Print (No.II) 1952; Hendy, Halliday, Russell, Matthew Smith 1963, pl.45 (in colour)

Still Life with Clay Figure, 1’ was painted in Aix-en-Provence, where Matthew Smith lived between the years 1936–40. When France fell in June 1940 the artist was evacuated to London and this was one of a number of canvases left in Aix during the war years in the care of Madame Monay, wife of the artist Pierre Monay. In 1946–7, Smith returned to Aix to recover these works and subsequently took them to Paris, where, in June 1947, he was joined by Richard Smart, who had agreed to help him transport the works back to England. Richard Smart, at that time a director of Tooth's Gallery, has confirmed that T02101 was among the paintings with which they returned to London on 5 June 1947. Later that year, Tooth's mounted an exhibition of these works, Paintings by Matthew Smith of the Years 1938–1940 (op. cit.); 18 of the 23 canvases shown were still lifes and T02101 was exhibited as one of a series of six numbered paintings with the same title. Richard Smart does not believe that the numbering of this series reflected its chronology but that the numbers appended by the artist are more likely to relate to the order in which the works were packed in France, or unpacked prior to the London exhibition.

The clay figure of the series provides the central motif for a number of Matthew Smith's still lifes of the period - other examples are: ‘Clay Figure with Peaches’ (1938–40), also exhibited in the 1947 exhibition and afterwards acquired by the late Lady Hayward of Adelaide, South Australia, and an un-numbered ‘Still Life with Clay Figure’ of c.1938. Other references are less overt. It is interesting to note the appearance of part of the figure's head, in an earlier still life, ‘Peaches’ (1937) (Tate Gallery, N05266). Richard Smart has suggested that the recurrent use of a sculptural image in his still lifes may have reflected the artist's long-standing friendship with Jacob Epstein.

Of the remaining paintings in the clay figure series shown in 1947, the current ownership of three works has been established and a further work is known in reproduction. ‘Still Life with Clay Figure, IV’ (c.1939) - illustrated in the catalogue of the 1947 exhibition (10), opposite a portrait of Madame Monay - was acquired by Southampton Art Gallery in October 1947. ‘Still Life...III’ and ‘Still Life...V ’ (d. 1938) remained in the possession of the artist and, on his death in 1959, became the property of Mrs Mary Keene, to whom he left the contents of his studio. Mary Keene has confirmed (letter 26.4.78) that these two paintings, together with a copy of ‘Still Life...V ’ now form part of the Barbican Collection of works by Matthew Smith and writes...‘The background to V is a red screen (painted by M.S. with a cartoon of Leda and the Swan, also in the Barbican Coll:) showing as the red background of your picture’. ‘Still Life...V ’ together with ‘Still Life...VI’ were reproduced in an article by Mary Sorrell, (Matthew Smith, Apollo XLVIII, July 1948 p.31, figs.II and III). In the article Mary Sorrell described the clay figure in the still life series of the 1947 exhibition as having substituted Smith's ‘usual reclining nude’ and contrasted the static contemplative composition of ‘Still Life... VI’ with the looser and more rhythmic handling of the fifth version.

Mary Keene has a pencil drawing by Matthew Smith, (16 7/8 × 13in), which is a study for this series. Here the clay figure is viewed directly from behind, lying on a small table, head inclining slightly to the right and dominated by larger figures of Leda and the Swan. The left foreground shows a table with brushes, bottle and possibly a palette.

The clay figure itself was modelled by the artist in plasticine, and measures approximately 11 1/2 × 12 5/8in. It is now in the collection of an artist in Aix, having been left with him by Matthew Smith at the outbreak of the last war. Mary Keene writes... 'As to the clay figure itself: I have a small plaster replica 4 inches high of a figurine (standing) hands held to breasts that M.S. set great store by. I believe the original is in the Louvre where M.S. bought the replica. She also refers to ‘a painting by M.S. a bust of a girl - Christiane de Mauberge [now in a private collection] - on which the upper part of the clay figure in the painting (T02101) is doubtless founded’. In the light of this information, it is interesting to note that the torso and head in T02101 are painted in a lifelike manner which contrasts with the more simplified and static rendering of the rest of the figure. Mary Keene's daughter, who saw the clay figure in Aix, has confirmed that it has its right arm raised, which would seem to demonstrate that Smith's references for the painting were not solely confined to a straight-forward rendition of the figure he had modelled.

Smith's awareness of the need for a sound structural framework, to counter-balance the emotive force of his colour, led to concentrated study of works by the artists of earlier periods. In this connection, John Russell has written (Apollo op. cit.) that one of Matthew Smith's favourite paintings was Courbet's ‘The Corn Sifters’ (1855), a work which he had carefully studied in the Museum at Nantes, and that the artist had once confided to Francis Halliday that the composition of T02101 had been based on this painting.

While T02101 has been recorded as dating from 1936, 1938–40 and 1940 at different times, Richard Smart thinks it safe to assume that it was painted in 1939, the date given in the catalogue he compiled for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1960. He has pointed out that the late Francis Halliday was called in to advise on the dating of many of the paintings in this exhibition and, as the owner of T02101 and a close friend of the artist, would have been party to the most accurate information in this respect. This would confirm the theory that the still life series of the 1947 exhibition was numbered ‘casually’ in that ‘Still Life with Clay Figure ...V ’ is dated 1938.

As both Mary Keene and Richard Smart have mentioned, the fact that Francis Halliday bought T02101, suggests that Matthew Smith regarded it as the most successful of the series.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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