Jack Smith: Painter who rejected his work as part of the 'Kitchen Sink School' in favour of abstraction

On 31 March 1984, a show called The Forgotten Fifties opened in Sheffield. As if to underline the deathliness of its title, the exhibition was held at the Graves Gallery. Among the artists in it was a local boy, Jack Smith, who had left town to make good in London 30-odd years before. The show's name and venue did not suggest a triumphant homecoming.

This was rather less than the truth, since Smith had made good in London, after St Martin's and the Royal College. It is not given to every painter to have an art movement named after one of his works – Monet's Impression, Sunrise springs solitarily to mind – but such was the case with Smith.

In 1953, aged 24 or 25, he had painted a picture called Mother Bathing Child. This showed, in dowdy sepia, a woman washing a baby at a sink. The influential critic of Encounter, David Sylvester, spotting the work in a show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, thrilled to its ordinariness. Here, he said, was real Realism, plugs and all. "Everything but the kitchen sink?" Sylvester enthused. "The kitchen sink too." Thus was born the Kitchen Sink School, peopled by Smith and his fellow Sheffielder, Derrick Greaves, along with the painters John Bratby and Edward Middleditch – a foursome quickly dubbed by the press "the Beaux Arts Quartet".

These were glory days for Smith. Sharing a crowded Kensington house with Greaves, the sculptor George Fullard and their various partnersand offspring, the opportunities forordinariness were endless. At times, the Kitchen Sinkers seemed tocompete with each other in banality: in title at least, Bratby's Still Life with Chip Frier probably pushed the tendency as far as it would go. None the less, Smith's summing-up of his own work – he had had religious leanings in his youth – sounded more like Stanley Spencer than Gustave Courbet. "I wanted," he said, "to make the ordinary seem miraculous."

Although his art seemed unrelentingly grim, Smith denied that its sinks and drying underclothes – the latter the subject of Creation and Crucifixion (1955-56) – were meant as socialcomment. "If I had lived in a palace," he reasoned, "I'd have painted chandeliers." In the day of the Angry Young Man and Whistle down the Wind, though, his work was fated to be seen as gritty and probably Northern, misreadings that did it no harm at all. In 1956, the Beaux Arts Quartet represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. The following year, Smith won the first John Moores Painting Prize with Creation and Crucifixion, now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

For all the dowdiness of its subject, this picture is notable for something more than underwear. With itscomposition pushed up flat against the picture-plane, Creation and Crucifixion seems almost abstract. In themid-1950s, Smith had begun visiting Cornwall, then a hotbed of English abstraction. Although he stayed at Zenor rather than St Ives – Smith rented a cottage once lived in by DH Lawrence, to whom, in a portrait of the time by Derrick Greaves, he bears a strong resemblance – friendships with abstract painters such as Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon clearly left their mark. By the time of his one-man retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1959, Smith, in semi-abstract works such as the Tate's Bottles in Light and Shadow, had begun to turn his back on realism. By the mid-1960s, he had abandoned it altogether.

In career terms, this was not so much brave as suicidal. Although Smith was to prove a hugely talented abstractionist, his reputation had been made as a realist, the man whose work had given its name to Kitchen Sink painting. Buyers and gallerists have a natural aversion to change, especially when the thing changing has been so joyously marketable. Smith carried on regardless, swapping galleries and dealers and supplementing income lost from sales with another teaching at the Chelsea School of Art.

In his 1960s series, Written Activity, he explored territory first charted by the great Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian. Like Mondrian, Smith was an aficionado of jazz. Where the Dutchman organised his compositions into a counterpoint of grid and colour-block, though, Smith aimed for something more like musical notation. The hieroglyphic forms in his paintings of the 1960s and 1970s are phonetic pictograms, each shape approximating to a sound in a sentence taken from a book or newspaper. If his old fan-base found these new pictures not to its taste, Smith himself was delighted. "I seem now to be able to build up a visual written language that can deal with any experience or sensation," was his own awe-struck evaluation of the eight Written Activity canvases.

Taken as a fable, the moral of Smith's story is, perhaps, that courage andcuriosity do not always pay. Wowed by the palette of Pop or the eye-bending tricks of Op, Smith was happy tointegrate them into his work, evenif only to discard them. Although hisabstract painting was consistently good, it was not consistently good in the same way: there was never a recognisable Smith "look". Where Bratby wenton painting domestic scenes and became an RA in 1971, Smith was ignored by the Academy. There were to be no more shows at the Whitechapel. And then there was the inescapable problem of his youthful fame, of being doomed to be known forever as the one-time hero of the Kitchen Sink. By the end of his life, Smith had come to hate the movement with an uncharacteristic vehemence.

In many ways, though, his life, like his name, remained parodically domestic. He had met his wife, the painter Sue Halkett, at St Martin's in the late 1940s; while all about were divorcing, their partnership lasted for over 60 years. When other artists were buying houses in Camden Town or St Ives, the Smiths moved to Hove. A visit to their house was a quiet affair, with none of the booze-and-drugs entertaining of their contemporaries. Jack Smith continued to paint to the end, showing in recent years at the Flowers Gallery. He died after a fall at home.

Charles Darwent

Jack Smith, painter: born Sheffield 18 June 1928; married 1956 Susan Halkett; died Hove 11 June 2011.

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