Sir Matthew Smith

The Young Actress


Not on display

Sir Matthew Smith 1879–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 756 × 635 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Knapping Fund 1943

Display caption

The actress is the artist's niece; nearly all Smith's portraits were of friends and family. Another version of the subject is at the Barbican Art Gallery, but he did not paint this sitter again.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on canvas, and is unvarnished. The canvas is a plain weave with thirteen horizontal threads and eighteen vertical threads per square centimetre, with a selvedge present on the right tacking margin, attached to a four-membered stretcher. There are four gilded wood battens pinned over the tacking margins, on all sides.

A thin, white preparatory ground was applied evenly to the canvas, allowing the texture of the fabric to show through. The ground extends to the cut edge of the tacking margin indicating that this piece of canvas was likely to have been cut from a larger piece of prepared, possibly commercial canvas. The ground consists of a chalk and lead white, presumably oil-based lower layer with an upper ‘flattening’ layer made of the same materials, possibly with more lead than chalk, which has the effect of smoothing the surface. This is typical of commercially prepared canvas from the early twentieth century.

It is known from studies of other paintings that Smith tended to use a thinned red paint or charcoal for his preparatory drawings, however no drawing was visible in this painting. The palette Smith used for The Young Actress included a range of bright colours such as ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, orange and yellow pigments, all of which were applied rapidly and directly onto the canvas. The shapes in the composition were reinforced at the final stages with bold dark blue outlines, probably in ultramarine. The use of white is limited, but small areas of white canvas have been allowed to show through the brushstrokes. The paint appears oil-rich and glossy, allowing for expedient and smooth application with a brush and wet-in-wet mixing of colours directly on the canvas, which is in keeping with Smith’s stated technique: ‘I paint while the paint is wet; a picture is finished for me once the paint’s dry ... I paint my pictures in one sitting’ (Shepherd, 2014). There is a slight impasto texture to the whole surface following the direction of Smith’s wide, bold brush strokes, which add both shape and texture to the composition.

The painting is currently in good condition. Smith’s paintings are generally known to be water sensitive in some areas and susceptible to a white surface bloom, both of which can be seen in this painting. The bright red of the sitter’s clothing and the dark transparent blue in her hair are slightly water sensitive. Water sensitivity is often observed in unvarnished twentieth century oil paintings, and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). Migration of some of the mobile components of the paint to the surface of the painting has caused a white surface bloom (fatty acid efflorescence) to develop in the lower pink form in the foreground. This phenomenon is often seen in oil paintings, and conservation treatment has been carried out to remove this distracting material, first in 1988 and more recently in 2014. The painting is currently framed and glazed using low reflecting glass, which provides better viewing conditions for dark and glossy paint than plain glass.

Further reading
John Gledhill, Matthew Smith: catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings with a critical introduction to his work, Farnham 2009.
Clare Shepard, An Investigation in the Materials, Techniques and Conservation Issues of Oil Paintings c.1942–57 by Sir Matthew Smith (1879–1959) in the Collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery of London, master thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, London 2014.

Judith Lee and Lucia Bay
April 2016

Research on this work was undertaken as part of the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘MS’ b.r. and, on back, ‘MS 43 C. Gdns.’
Canvas, 29 3/4×25 (75·75×63·5).
Purchased from Arthur Tooth & Sons (Knapping Fund) 1943.
Repr: Hendy, 1944, pl.20; Rothenstein, 1962, n.p.

This is a portrait of the artist's niece Phoebe Noël Smith (Mrs John Stewart), painted just before or soon after her twenty-first birthday in 1943 at the artist's studio in Clarendon Gardens, W.9. The sitter began her dramatic training at the Westminster Theatre School but shortly after the outbreak of war joined the W.R.N.S. She later appeared in A. P. Herbert's play Big Ben. She gave up her acting career, emigrating to Canada in 1952 and becoming Head Librarian of the Children's Library, Montreal (information from A. Noël Smith, 16 July 1958).

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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