Portrait over the writing desk 1961 signed and dated 'G. Cossington Smith 61' lower left oil on board 90.0 x 61.0cm (35 7/16 x 24in).
PROVENANCE Macquarie Galleries, Sydney Dora Sweetapple Jessie Bowen Fine and Important Paintings, Rushton Fine Arts, Sydney, 7 July 1987, lot 86 (illus.) Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1994
EXHIBITED Grace Cossington Smith, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 28 October 1964, cat. no. 2 Society of Artists, Annual Exhibition, Education Department, Sydney, 13-28 October 1965, cat. no. 42 Grace Cossington Smith, A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 4 March 13 June 2005; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 29 July 9 October 2005; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 October 2005 15 January 2006; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 11 February 30 April 2005
LITERATURE Deborah Hart, et al, Grace Cossington Smith, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, pp. 90 (illus.), 180
Daniel Thomas, the curator of the first Cossington Smith retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1973, describes her great interiors of the 1950s and 1960s as the 'grandest and most metaphysical of her painting subjects.'1 Portrait over the writing desk 1961, a fine example, dates from the centre of that period.
Perhaps because both her parents had been orphaned and came late to marriage and family life, Grace Cossington Smith had from the start a deeply felt sense of 'home'. From her earliest sketchbooks, dating back to her student days before the First World War, she had drawn and painted the domestic world around her with an intensity of feeling. Beds, tables, doorways and chairs, once sketched with a student eye, again became the focus of her art fifty years later, when only she and her sister Diddy remained at home in Cossington, the Federation-style house to which the Smith family had moved in 1913, and in which Grace would live until she had to move to a nursing home in old age.
Portrait over the writing desk 1961, is a view of her mother's writing desk, an item of furniture typical of the Federation style known as Queen Anne and dating from the period in which the family moved to Cossington. The chair with a pierced splat back, which we see from behind, is in the Arts and Crafts style, probably made of oak or silky oak, and also dating from the early years at Cossington. The leaves in the cut-glass vase remind us of the many flower pieces that Grace Cossington Smith painted and sketched throughout her life. Deborah Hart identifies the painting above the desk as a portrait of a family ancestor 2, the 'eighteenth-century canvas of a female English ancestor,' that Daniel Thomas had seen when he visited Cossington in the early 1970s 3. The painting to the left of the portrait could be by Cossington Smith herself. In an earlier interior of the same desk, with a view slightly to the right, Interior with portrait 1955, now in the Wesfarmers collection 4, the portrait remains the same, as do the smaller family sepia portraits, but the two paintings to the left and the right of the central ancestral figure are different. This suggests that they could be her own; her paintings recur in other interiors, most notably in Interior with blue painting 1956, where her 1942 Bobbin Head hangs above the sewing machine.
Deborah Hart suggests that the two interiors featuring the family portrait are, in part, 'a reflection on the past'5. Grace's sister Diddy, the last of the sisters remaining at home with her, had had a stroke in 1953. She returned to Cossington in 1955 as an invalid, the year Cossington Smith painted the first of these interiors. Diddy's hospital bed was in the living room, so that she could remain in the heart of the house. Grace painted around her, and by 1961, the year of Portrait over the writing desk, Diddy had only months to live. Cossington Smith's concentration on the writing desk and the portrait of the female ancestor supports Hart's interpretation. This intimate, female corner of the family home, once occupied by her mother, a great letter writer, and not far from the sick bed of her favourite sister, is imbued with a past that lives on. In this paradox of the full and empty room, the armchair to the left also suggests the absent, long-dead mother, an avid reader, as were the by-then absent sisters Madge and Mabel, whom she had once sketched reading in chairs in the garden, or by the fire, at Cossington.
While Portrait over the writing desk allows a glimpse of an intensely personal and feminine space, evoking Virginia Woolf's dictum of 'a room of one's own', perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this fine interior is not so much the domestic furnishings and family memorabilia, significant though they are, as the brushwork and colour. The yellow of the armchair and the portrait, and the green and yellow of the floor echo the hallmark radiance of interiors such as Cushions on the sofa 1969, and Studio door 1966. The background walls, magnificently executed in stipples of pink and white and blue, lift out of this more expected yellow, shimmering with an immanence that gives Portrait over the writing desk a metaphysical quality.
While Grace Cossington Smith's skill with and use of colour marked her work as modernist from as early as The sock knitter 1915, it was the influence of Cézanne, her 'favourite artist', that instigated her later use of stippled blocks of colour, small touches of paint to depict light. 'Our whole creation exists in light,' she said in an interview in 1970 6. The challenge of art, to her, was to create 'pattern expressed in colour'. The brilliant use of stipple colour in Portrait over the writing desk may also have been a knowing nod to the abstract expressionism that was so dominant in Sydney during the years when she was painting her great interiors. A nod, perhaps, but no more; the figurative was the heart and the soul of her art. 'I see things as a pattern expressed in colour,' she said in interviews during the 1970s, even as she insisted that her aim was to paint what she saw, that was all, in 'clear unworried paint'. It was by painting what she saw that she could, 'at the same time', express 'things unseen the golden thread running through time.'7
Dora Sweetapple, the sister of the modernist designer Marion Best, bought Portrait over the writing desk from the Macquarie Galleries in 1965. She and her sister Marion (née Burkitt) had known the Smith sisters since childhood, and this purchase is an indication of Sweetapple's pivotal role as an art critic and patron of twentieth-century modernist art and design in Sydney. The chair with the pierced back may well have been a purchase influenced more by her than by the Mrs Smith of the writing desk.
1 Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith: A Life, from Drawings in the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 45 2 Deborah Hart, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p. 90 3 Daniel Thomas, 'Modernity and Inwards', in Deborah Hart, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p. 103 4 Illustrated in Bruce James, Grace Cossington Smith, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, pl. 98 5 Deborah Hart, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p. 90 6 Grace Cossington Smith, interview with Alan Roberts, 9 February 1970 7 Quoted in Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1973, p.6