Richard Shirley Smith

Paintings Collages Wood Engravings & Illustrations


Richard Shirley Smith at Eighty

During sixty years work as an artist, many paintings, illustrated books, murals, engravings and bookplates have been made. My main interests have been Italian architecture, theatre, classical ruins, Surrealism and still-life.

I must have been about seven when I was invited to stay with my kindergarten friends at their home in Ashmansworth on the Berkshire Downs. This was the house of Gerald Finzi composer of Dies Natalis, Let Us Garlands Bring and much else. His wife Joy made beautiful wood sculptures and portrait drawings such as that of their friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, now in the National Portrait Gallery. My own home had been a happy and comfortable place to return to at the end of the day but this was a revelation to me even as a child. It was a centre of civilisation and the arts where imagination, scholarship and skill were urgently employed with integrity, whole rooms were devoted to composition, sculpture or reading and there were hundreds of exciting books. Here it was that I was first inspired to respond to literature for my images. The Finzis showed great kindness in encouraging me so warmly in spite of many problems they had during the war. Later there were Gerald's new choral works at Gloucester Cathedral and I remember a visit to Hilles, the home of Detmar Blow, a leading architect of the Arts and Crafts movement. Detmar and Winifred had encouraged Gerald as a young man, much as I had been inspired by the Finzis.

During my time at boarding school, the celebrated artist David Jones lived modestly almost next door. He had spent longer in the trenches than any of the other war poets, producing his great poem In Parenthesis only in 1937. I, and later with my first wife Juliet Wood, spent many hours discussing his paintings, engravings and poetry and we would hear of recent visitors such as T. S. Eliot, Lord Snowdon or Lord Clark of Civilisation. On one occasion someone rang to say that Stravinsky planned to visit. David took it with a pinch of salt and was later dismayed to see a big black car roll up. When Juliet and I went to Rome, he wrote us ten erudite and elaborate letters, now in the National Library of Wales. I published them as a labour of love and the Vatican library requested a copy. David was the most delightful company and his lengthy obituary concluded … 'He was a singularly dignified, gentle and warm spirit, amused and amusing'.

At the Slade I was not a student who produced wonderful things but learned by entering and exploring every unpromising cul-de-sac. At least, as a professional, I don't visit them anymore, knowing them as I do. I have always loved pictures of creatures, artefacts or events and all this was right off the menu at The Slade. I was passionate about Blake and early Palmer, whose remark about his fellow artist's choice of subject matter amused me. He likened them to his dog 'who refusing plum pudding would lap up a vomit'.

In 1960, Juliet Wood and I married and managed to study for fourteen months in Rome. We explored Rome for six months and then moved to Anticoli Corrado beyond Tivoli to paint and, in my case, to learn to engrave on wood. I cannot begin to enumerate all we saw and can only quote Goethe's words of 1786: 'In this place the entire history of the world is ravelled up, and I feel I was born a second time, really born again, the day in which I set foot in Rome'.

The Dominican Brother David was an inspiration. He had been sent to Rome to show pilgrims around during the Holy Year of 1950. He regarded us as pilgrims and arranged for us to see places unreached by tourists such as the Pope's private chapel, painted by Michelangelo, and the Mausoleums of the second century AD under the Crypt of St Peter's. Brother David lived near Sta. Maria Maggiore, the finest remaining example of Constantine's great Roman basilicas. One memorable expedition was to Anagni, east of Rome, with its unusual Romanesque cathedral. Romanesque was the austere religious architecture most favoured by Eric Gill, David Jones and his circle, and Roman Baroque, in spite of Pevsner's efforts, was as yet beyond the pale for us. I returned ten years later and photographed the architecture of Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona with great delight.

We were surprised to learn that Brother David (originally Reggie Lawson) had been with David Jones at Ditchling in 1920 under the friendly and practical direction of Eric Gill. They had even shared a cottage which was known to Gill's daughters as The Sorrowful Mysteries. Unsurprisingly, the girls found some of the survivors of the First World War, who came to Gill for advice, both sorrowful and mysterious. Another visit was to Prenestina (birthplace of Palestrina) to see the great floor mosaic that was originally in the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia. The Romans were obsessed with Egypt, and this great flooded landscape full of exotic animals, hunters, temples and boats symbolises the mystic marriage between Isis, the Egyptian earth, and Osiris the overflowing fertilising river.

I don't think we wasted a single moment of the opportunities we were given in Italy. In a letter of 17 August 1961 David Jones comments: 'I think it's wonderful how you both get down to your painting, engraving etc. in another land and in a land of so many natural and manmade beauties. Lots of people find it impossible to work under such circumstance'.

In 1973 I published a set of four educational slide strips, The Story of the Venetian Villas, following three photographic expeditions to the Veneto. Why was I so fascinated by these Villas, one thousand five hundred, of artistic interest alone, in all sizes and states of repair? They seemed so promising to photograph: sun and shadow falling on these marvellous artefacts, picturesquely eroded by time. They invite heavenly and decorative images of mutability. Normally great works of art are sought in cities surrounded by garbage and exhaust fumes, whereas in the heart of the Italian countryside one can see the works of Palladio, Veronese or the sculptor Vittoria: indeed, at Maser they all three worked on the same magnificent Villa Barbaro. There have been a few occasions in my life when I have felt a particular delight and artistic privilege, such as studying Aphrodisias in Asia Minor; and photographing Villa Barbaro in detail was another of them. I wrote in my notes for the film strip:
Villa Barbaro is not just a dreary attempt to display the wealth and power of a particular family, but the collaboration of geniuses working not just for rich patrons but for friends who were themselves artists. Not only does all the splendour of the Italian Renaissance live on in these rooms from a time when Venice was a world power, but they are of human scale, have humour and are related to the practicalities of their beautiful rural surroundings.
Another great cycle of murals I enjoyed photographing was at Villa Valmarana ai Nani. In 1757 Giambattista Tiepolo painted a magnificent Sacrifice of Iphigenia in his grand manner, and much else in the Palazzina, while his son Domenico decorated the Guest Wing with a Gothic Pavilion, a Chinese room and charming rural scenes. I learned much from these murals and I hope this experience affected my twenty subsequent mural decorations.

While I was teaching myself to engrave with great excitement in Anticoli Corrado near Rome in 1961, Joy Finzi came to stay. She was working on A Point of Departure, a group of poems expressing her bereavement following Gerald Finzi's tragic early death. I was inspired to make seventeen engravings to accompany the poems. They remained unpublished for six years until Laurence Whistler suggested that Raymond Lister might like to publish them at his Golden Head Press, which he did in 1967. On my return from Italy I showed these engravings to Anthony Gross who had taught etching and aquatint at the Slade. He at once recognised a huge improvement and introduced me to Berthold Wolpe at Faber & Faber and to Oxford University Press. I did engravings for both these publishers and for Burns Oates and The Folio Society.

In 1970, I was asked by John Dreyfus, the typographer and agent for the Limited Editions Club of New York, to do forty-two wood engravings for Stephen Spender's selection of the poems of Shelley. Shortly after this was printed I began to meet experts in private presses, engraving, printing and bookplates, such as David Chambers, James Wilson, Iain Bain and Brian North Lee. They have all taken a lively part in printing, publishing or writing about my engravings. My thirty years of wood engraving has been the backbone of my reputation, such as it is.

I have taken little part in 'The Art World' but I have been blessed with many wonderful friends and collaborators; the interior designer Bill Bennette saw, as others did not, the potential for trompe l'oeil murals and set in motion a sequence of twenty projects over the years. My friends Ian Lowe and Anne Stevens at The Ashmolean made the Fiftieth Birthday Retrospective possible and consequently the acquisition of all my engravings in The Ashmolean Print Room.
Michael Mitchell and I have worked together on many projects for over 40 years since the start of his magnificent Libanus Press. He has explored printing from hand printed limited editions to fine book design on computers with superb taste. I am lucky to have such a friend working nearby in Marlborough.The scholars Iain Bain and the late Brian North Lee are well known in engraving circles. They have both been a huge encouragement commissioning engravings and writing monographs. Joe Whitlock Blundell has been a most artistic and life enhancing Production Manager at The Folio Society and produced many exciting commissions for me such as Metamorphoses of Ovid and The Poems of Rochester. Peter and Juliet Kindersley sponsored my book The Collages & Paintings, 2002 and also commissioned a three storey mural for their Sheepdrove Eco Centre. Sir Roy Strong has written perceptively and invited me to paint an eight foot overdoor for the Laskett. Roger W. Moss, Emeritus Director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia has collected through the internet all my printed work: illustrations, engravings, limited editions and books on my work etc. and donated them all to The Center for British Art at Yale University. Five hundred items occupying fifteen feet of shelving. A magnificent American Patron. All these experts have greatly affected my career. With friends like these, who needs The Tate or The Arts Council?

Sometimes I am asked who my favourite artists are. Apart from Blake, early Palmer and the obvious giants like Piranesi and Giulio Romano, I do have a few great favourites, who are not appreciated in this country. From the sixteenth century the magnificent Francesco Salviati, of La Bella Maniera, deserves great attention as does Pietro da Cortona of the seventeenth. His immense painted ceiling in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome has to be seen to be believed, with great golden bees flying in heraldic formation against the sky. I note two special early twentieth century artists neglected in this country. The Symbolist Gustav-Adolf Mossa: Poésie et Tristesse: le désir et la mort. Beardsley with knobs on. The other is Eugene Berman of the Melancholic Sublime. He loved sensuous figures, fantastic ruins and stage sets. A very impressive contemporary of mine is Albin Brunovsky, who made very small prints showing huge mysterious galleons and deep tangled forests inhabited by the most sensuous nudes imaginable. I greatly admire the liberating inventions of Cubism and Surrealism.

All the artists I know and respect seem to share a love of knowledge of their craft and the patience to perfect it: awareness of the fabulous works of the past, preventing any ignorant pride; a love of beauty based on the observation of nature and a view of art as the monument by which civilizations are judged and as a communication with future generations. Carlo Menotti was very emphatic that by 'wearing a false nose or painting our hair green we may be able to surprise people for a short time but not deceive anyone as to our real identity'. He believed that true originality could only be achieved by a relentless process of self-discovery in our art.


Wood Engraving - Decorated Rule

Copyright ©2002 Richard Shirley Smith
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