Available Works: Smith, Fred
Fred Smith’s artistic career bares the traces of a singular event which altered the course of his life forever. A driven and focused professional working in a full-time office job, Smith never considered himself to be of an artistic persuasion until a serious car crash left him lying in a hospital bed.
Recuperating on the hospital ward, Smith’s attention was drawn to the steady working rhythms of those around him. Amid the hustle and bustle of the building were hundreds of individuals, each of whom formed a critical part of the care provided at the hospital. Yet it seemed to him that each person around him must define his or her sense of self not so much through the role ascribed to them at the hospital, as through a unique story they told about themselves, a modest, internally-formed narrative which governed their sense of who they were. There was a quiet and humble beauty about people’s movements as they went about their tasks with the minimum of fuss, but also a melancholy sense of containment. Smith became fascinated by the notion of the internal world that each hospital porter or nurse harboured within them, a story which both sustained them through their working day, and yet went entirely unspoken.
Smith was struck by the parallels with his own life up until that point. He had been progressing along a straight and narrow path of professional focus and containment. He now faced a choice. Either he could continue along the career trajectory which offered such a familiar, unwavering course into the future, or he could so something which addressed the reflections which had come to him in the aftermath of his accident.
Fred Smith was discharged from hospital resolved to become an artist, and more specifically, to produce an art which connected him to the wider community he felt he had been missing out on. He decided to create works which paid tribute to the understated magic of everyday working lives, but which also encouraged people to move beyond their private, internal narratives of the self, highlighting a wider world of community and connectivity.
For his exhibition at Meller Merceux, as a conceptual artist, Smith has painted a sequence of Oxford and West Oxfordshire scenes, focusing on ordinary people going about their everyday lives. The compositions are rendered in a naive, uncomplicated style which has powerful resonances with the British folk art tradition and gives a highly authentic feeling of insight into quotidian situations which often pass under the artistic radar. The settings for these pieces include Magdalen Bridge on May Day morning, the Radcliffe Camera, the historic Buttercross at Witney, the Cotswold hills, and the town of Burford. A feeling of romance and narrative runs through the paintings, conjured by the unobtrusive presence of an anonymous couple holding hands in some of the scenes.
Smith depicts the human figure with a lightness and economy of touch. His is an art which proudly celebrates the simple intimacies of the everyday, consciously moving away from both the cinematic panorama and the idea of the landscape as sublime “prospect,” which latter has sustained so much of the British artistic canon. Instead, the minimalistic touches which bring Smith’s figures to life position the viewer firmly within the spatial limitations of the daily routine or ritual, inviting one into outdoor spaces which nonetheless take on the comfort and stability of the domestic.
Smith’s construction of art as a redemptive move from the professional mainstream to emblematic small-scale scenarios is a highly autobiographical one. Yet it is illuminating to consider that his commitment to the quotidian rhythms of Englishness evokes powerful resonances with key aspects of Britain’s cultural history. Whilst the modernist movement in the arts, corresponding to what Raymond Williams has called “metropolitan perception,” continues to have a determining influence on so many painters, Smith’s paintings tap into a related but distinct current of Englishness, one which historians such as Jed Esty have begun to recognise in recent years as the “anthropological turn” of the 1930s. During this period, with British imperial power seen to be on the wane, modernist figures such as Virginia Woolf, in her final novel Between the Acts (1941), began to move away from the urban centres of Empire so often identified with the modernist movement and returned to the organic forms of village life and as a way of re-examining the nature of English identity. Woolf ’s novel, for instance, is structured around the idea of the traditional village pageant play. It was part of a tendency which coincided with the consolidation of anthropology as a discipline with a wide influence on the arts, leading figures such as Woolf to consider traditions such as the pageant play as microcosms of wider national identity. It was also a period in which modernist artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood were drawing inspiration from the untutored Cornish painter Alfed Wallis, a retired fisherman, whose seascapes and scenes of fishing villages evidence no artistic training, but demonstrated a direct, unaffected response to the landscape. This “anthropological turn” was the artistic correlative of political “Little Englanders,” who, reflecting on the receding borders of the British Empire, proposed an alternate vision of England, based not on expansion, but on geographic and cultural consolidation.
It is easy to view the art of a painter like Stanley Spencer in these terms; an artist who directed the perspectival tropes of modernist experiment towards, as Smith does, the power of habituated traditional spaces, turning them into emblems of a spiritual feeling of belonging. Along with the redrawing of colonial boundaries, the interwar period saw the construction of over four million homes, meaning that artists and writers were increasingly aware of the spiritual significance of spatial demarcation, the threatened English landscape becoming the setting for a battle for the future of the country. This is something we see given profound expression in the garden paintings of Stanley Spencer, or the visionary landscapes of Paul Nash, two among many celebrated artists of the interwar years who foreground tensions between the man-made and the natural. Illuminating both the rural spaces of West Oxfordshire, and those city spaces which feel most untouched by urbanisation, the paintings of Fred Smith build their own distinctive and highly autobiographical engagement with this English tradition of awareness of the power of spatial arrangement.
Just as many artists of the interwar period looked to rural, organic symbols of Englishness, so Smith’s paintings effect a highly personal version of the British folk art tradition, his simply-rendered human forms evoking the honest testimony of the hard-working, untrained hand. Instead of employing the spatial illusion of perspective, Smith like L. S. Lowry invites us into the idiosyncratic space of folk tradition, focused less on fooling the eye than on vividly conveying the spirit of a place and the people who live and work there. His methods obviously fulfil an important autobiographical role for Smith, since they allow a direct route into the private worlds to which he was alerted while recuperating in hospital, whilst at the same time locating the personal within a wider sense of community. Smith draws his viewers into scenes which would ordinarily be deemed worthy of no more than a passing glance, and connects with a tradition as old as the human impulse to make representations of itself.