Abstract watercolour and ink on paper 55.0 x 45.0cm (21 5/8 x 17 11/16in).
PROVENANCE Lady Drysdale Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1989
EXHIBITED Spring Exhibition, Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 110 September 1980, cat. no. 144, titled Mobile
LITERATURE Spring Exhibition, exh. cat., Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 1980, cat. no. 144 (illus.)
In 1943 Sydney Ure Smith (1887 1949) edited Australian Present Day Art, the firstbook in a series on contemporary Australian artists. President of the Society of Artists, artist, patron and publisher of the magazines Art in Australia, Home, Australia National Journal, and monographs on art, architecture, interior design and photography, Ure Smith was instrumental in promoting Australian art during the period 1914-1949.1 Thirteen artists were selected for the book: ten men and three women 2, the most well-known being William Dobell (1899-1970) with 28 plates and Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) with 22 plates. The least known was Peter Purves Smith, then unrepresented in any Australian public collection. 3 Purves Smith had seven reproductions in black and white, accompanied by an essay by his friend Russell Drysdale (1912-1981), with whom he attended the George Bell School in Melbourne in 1937. 4 Away on active service, he did not see the book until 1944 when he was in India. 5
Purves Smith's art career began in England in 1935, when he enrolled in the Grosvenor School of Modern Art under Principal Iain McNab (1890-1967), initially for a 'few months before April 1935 and re-enrolled for the academic year commencing 16 September 1935'. 6 After seeing the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London at New Burlington Galleries from 11 June to 4 July 1936, McNab discouraged his students from succumbing to this psychological art movement. Along with 25,000 others, Purves Smith saw the exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, and later in the year, the second major Surrealist exhibition of 1936, Alfred Barr's Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art New York from 9 December 1936 to 17 January 1937.
Despite McNab's protestations, Purves Smith was profoundly affected by Surrealism completing New York 1936 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), and Surrealist landscape (1939/40) 7, both employing Daliesque motifs of forked hands, clocks, clouds and sea.
Abstract (1939/40 or 1948?), is a large drawing in pen and ink and watercolour. A number of other drawings in the same media such as Composition Surrealist drawing (1938 - 1948?) with a Roland Penrose sea shell 8 placed between tracks, and Wheels on a beach 1948, gouache and ink were included in Homage to Peter Purves Smith, a survey at the Joseph Brown Gallery in 1976. 9 The date of Abstract is uncertain because drawings such as Composition Surrealist drawing, once thought to be produced in 1938, have been redated to 1948. 10
Wheels on a beach, signed and dated 1948 includes some of the same Surrealistic devices as Abstract - a nostalgic boomerang form, a curved leaf form, spring-like 'yo-yo's' dangling at the end of projecting forms and Calder-like mirrors poised to inspect abstract forms. The idea of drawing movement in motion can be linked to Alexander Calder's first Stabile 1937 a 'mobile' on a floor-mounted vertical wire frame with moving wires attached to mirror-like discs. This sculpture was exhibited at The Mayor Gallery, London in 1937. Mobile 1936, was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition.11 As The Mayor Gallery was the leading gallery for Surrealism from 1933 and The London Gallery from 1938, it would appear likely that Purves Smith was aware of Calder and the British Surrealists John Banting (1902-1972), Roland Penrose (1900-1984), and Len Lye (1901-1980), a New Zealander, each of whose work has stylistic affinities with Purves Smith. All took part in the International Surrrealist Exhibition and were published in the London Bulletin of the London Gallery (April 1938-June 1940). The closest in style is John Banting (1902-1972), represented in both the London and New York Surrealist exhibitions in 1936. He held a one man show of Recent Works at the Storran Gallery in Piccadilly in October 1938, the same month Picasso's Guernica was shown at the New Burlington Galleries.
As Purves Smith joined the British Army in July 1940 and was in West Africa, India and Burma until March 1946, he was unable to return to painting until 1947, about the same time as when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It is still to be determined whether Abstract one of his rare Surrealist abstract works - was created before his enlistment, or, on his return to Australia, from memories of his time in England during the heyday of British Surrealism in 1935-40.
1 See Nancy D. H. Underhill, Making Australian Art 1916-49. Sydney Ure Smith Patron and Publisher, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne, 1991 2 Sydney Ure Smith, Australian Present Day Art, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1943. The artists represented in chapter order were William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Lyndon Dadswell, Frank Medworth, Margaret Preston, Daphne Mayo, Donald Friend, Joshua Smith, Adrian Feint, Douglas Annand, Eric Wilson, Elaine Haxton and Peter Purves Smith 3 The Diplomats 1939-40 was captioned as being in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was borrowed by the Joseph Brown Gallery for an exhibition in 1976. This work was gifted by Lady Casey to the National Gallery of Australia in 1979 4 Purves Smith's widow Maisie (nee Newbold), also attended the George Bell School. She married Peter Purves Smith on 14 June 1946, and long after his sudden death following an operation on 13 July 1949, married Russell Drysdale in 1964 5 Mary Eagle, Peter Purves Smith: a painter in peace and war, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2001, p. 176 6 Op. cit., p. 53 7 Location unknown, cat 146 in Spring Exhibition, Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 110 September 1980. The drawing for this painting is owned by Mornington Peninsular Art Gallery, Victoria 8 The dustjacket design by Roland Penrose featuring an eye on the spine and key and seashell was used for the first edition of Herbert Read, Surrealism, Faber, London 1936. Peter Purves Smith may have owned a copy. 9 Homage to Peter Purves-Smith 1912-1949, Joseph Brown Gallery, 5 Collins Street, Melbourne, 12-28 July 1976, cat. no. 26 and cat. no. 37 10 Eagle, Op. cit.,illus. p. 173, not signed, not dated, private collection 11 Alexander Robertson, Angels of Anarchy and Machines for Making Clouds. Surrealism in Britain in the Thirties, Leeds City Art Gallery, 1986, "Sculpture and the Object", p. 147 and illus. p. 152