Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984)

g. cossingtonsmith 1980.17 crop edit

Grace Cossington Smith was sixty years of age when she painted After fire 1952.  It is one of a group of similarly themed landscapes that she produced close to her family home on Sydney’s upper north shore. After spending the previous three years in Europe, she had returned to Turramurra to be confronted by the worst bush fires in 40 years.

After fire, as it is inscribed by the artist, gives a sense of the devastation caused when these fires commenced in November 1951 and continued well into the summer of 1952, ravaging 3.4 million hectares of grassland and forest in New South Wales and taking the lives of at least six people. In contrast to the newspaper headlines of the day which carried fiercely apocalyptic overtones, Cossington Smith’s paintings are much more subdued in tone and nature. Fire, as she and her contemporaries well knew, was a constant reality for those who lived in the Australian bush or semi-rural areas and was an important management tool used by Aboriginals to control over-forestation and to encourage new growth.

Cossington Smith’s paintings of fire range from those that depict landscapes rendered in bright oranges, browns and charred blacks and those, such as After Fire, that have a tinge of green and yellow spared by the inferno or already begun to reappear along the roadside. Rendered in her highly individual technique utilising rhythmic broken brushwork in unmixed, high-keyed colour, the painting offers signs of hope and perhaps solace for those who had either lost loved ones or property by representing the harsh but cyclical nature of the Australian bush.

Grace Cossington Smith is one of Australia’s most celebrated 20th century painters and an  important early exponent of modernism in Australia. Born in 1892, Cossington Smith grew up in her family’s first house, Cossington, in the Sydney suburb of Neutral Bay. In 1920, they moved to what had previously been a Quaker meeting-house, which they also called Cossington, in Ku-Ring-Gai Avenue, Turramurra, where she was to live most of her life.

Cossington Smith began her art studies with painter Antonio Dattilo Rubbo in Sydney in 1910. In 1912 she travelled to Europe and attended classes at Winchester School of Art in England and at Stettin in Germany. She claimed not to have studied modern art during her trip. When she returned to Dattilo Rubbo’s classes, in Sydney, she studied European modern art, alongside Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, through colour reproductions brought back from Europe by Dattilo Rubbo and fellow student Norah Simpson.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Cossington Smith enhanced her reputation as one of Australia’s most innovative colourists by painting a dynamic series of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in construction and producing important works celebrating modern urban life in Sydney. Turning increasingly to landscape and then interiors, by the mid-1950s Cossington Smith now produced much of her work at Cossington. This was partly due to the long illness of her much-loved sister and the need to care for her at home. These late works reveal, in the words of an Art Gallery New South Wales curator, Cossington Smith’s ‘powers as a mature painter and shimmering statements of her astonishing powers as a colourist.’

Rodney James

Deborah Hart, Grace Cossington Smith: a retrospective exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Daniel Thomas, ‘Smith, Grace Cossington (1892–1984)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 January 2019.

Image Above: Grace Cossington Smith,  After fire 1952
oil on canvas laid down on board
31.0 x 43.5 cm
Benalla Art Gallery Collection. Ledger Gift, 1980

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