Obituary: David Smith

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The Independent Culture
DAVID SMITH was a great modern interpreter of two artistic subjects which have tended to be sidelined in this century, topography and the sea.

Unfazed in his loyalty to the documentary role of the artist, he was ever determined to capture the spirit of places, seeking out exotic locales. The freshness and penetrating vision he brought to his work, however, was anything but traditionalist. While he will probably be best remembered for his extraordinary images of Antarctica, the results of two extended voyages to that icy region, his fascination with the sea also took him across the globe to Japan, as well as around the shorelines of Britain.

He was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1920 to a fishing family. He would accompany his father aboard his drifter, The Kipper, for several days at a time, and never lost the voyager urge. During wartime service in the RAF, he was commissioned to sketch on bomber raids over Germany. These and other wartime images toured the country as an exhibition in aid of SSAFA (Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association) which showed in many cities, finishing at the Cooling Galleries in London, where it was opened by Sir Douglas Bader.

It established a pattern in Smith's career of extended, excursive commissions which would later include a series documenting the foundries and forges of the Sulzer engineering works in Switzerland, a voyage to Finnish Lapland commissioned by that country's Foreign Office, the working harbours of Japan and, of course, Antarctica.

He felt that he learnt little at the Slade, where he studied after the war. He was put off by the antagonism of the professors there towards the artists who excited him most, Van Gogh and the Fauves. With hindsight, he thought he would have done better to press on with the commissions that were coming his way as a result of the RAF exhibitions, to build up practical experience on the job. None the less, he went on to a distinguished career as an art teacher himself, which included 14 years at the Chelsea School of Art, from where he retired as a senior lecturer in 1979, and a swan-song as a much-revered teacher of etching at the Camden Arts Centre (he had been elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in 1951).

Generously, he was given leave by Ilea to take up the position of Official Artist on board the British Antarctic Survey's annual relief voyage in 1975. The Survey invited him back for a much longer (seven-and-a-half- month) voyage on his retirement from Chelsea. The extensive series of oil paintings which resulted from these voyages was exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute and illustrated Gordon Elliott Fogg's book The Explorations of Antarctica (1990), to which the Duke of Edinburgh contributed a foreword. It needed a latter-day Fauve as fearless as Smith to capture the hidden intensity of colour locked in the pristine cleanliness of this polar desert.

Impressed by his work in Antarctica, the officers of Trinity House approached him with the mammoth task of recording the lighthouses of England and Wales. This was in the early 1980s, at a time when the remaining active stations were going automatic and being superseded by light vessels and other new technology. Smith's images of the British coastline were as different from the Antarctica work as are the respective topographies. He firmly believed that the style of a work should be determined by the atmosphere the work attempts to capture. He was conscious of the eclecticism of his oeuvre, and revelled in it, saying that he "ploughed a zig-zag furrow".

It is a dubious honour in the world of pop music to be "big in Japan". Smith, however, was deeply delighted by the recognition he enjoyed there in the last decade of his life. He held exhibitions at many prestigious venues and undertook commissions. In 1993 the San'in Chuo Shinpo newspaper published 23 of his impressions of the Shimane Prefecture in its Sunday edition over a six-month period. The full-colour images were accompanied by poetic descriptions written by his eldest daughter, Caroline Kano, a professor of English and Chinese at the Prefectural Women's College, Matsue (Smith was married to the singer and teacher Elizabeth Hawes). These works, and Caroline Kano's texts, were collected in book form in 1996 as Journey to the San'in.

While his daughter guided him in the direction of the region's most famous temples and beauty spots, Smith was equally enthralled by the cacophony of back streets and the paraphernalia of busy working ports, which took him back to the Lowestoft he knew as a boy. The riot of colour and freedom of line unleashed in the best of these images equally transport the viewer to a childlike state of happiness.

David Thomas Smith, painter, draughtsman and printmaker: born Lowestoft, Suffolk 13 April 1930; RE 1951; married 1945 Elizabeth Hawes (two daughters); died London 1 September 1999.

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