DETAIL: Grace COSSINGTON SMITH,  'Interior in yellow', 1964, oil on composition board, National Gallery of Australia

In the warm fold of family: Grace Cossington Smith's sketchbooks

  Grace Cossington Smith '(Sister sleeping)' [Previously listed as "Sleeping sister"] c.1920 charcoal on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Grace Cossington Smith’s sketchbooks form a remarkable collection of drawings of extraordinary aesthetic and technical expertise. They are also precious keepsakes of family memories.

While we remember Madge as the quiet model for The sock knitter 1915 and Diddy as the rather uncomfortable subject of The reader 1916, they and other family members are rarely the subject of Cossington Smith’s paintings. Family portraits are instead found in splendid abundance in her sketchbooks. A pencil, crayon or pastel and a sketchpad were easily transported; they were not intrusive and allowed the artist to sit, quietly drawing within the intimacy of the family circle.

It is a wonderful experience to slowly turn the pages of Grace Cossington Smith’s sketchbooks. It is obvious that many of these images are drawing exercises, superb studies in line and form. In between the garden studies, still lifes and carefully detailed interiors, one begins to recognise faces and warms to just how tenderly Cossington Smith portrays her family. And when family photographs are viewed, all falls into place. It is surprising how easily faces are recognised: Madge with her lean features, downcast eyes and introspective manner; fun-loving Diddy, so often deep in thought or with her head in a book; beloved brother Gordon, as both boy and man; and his son, Robert, the spitting image of his father. There is Gordon’s wife, Mary�– named ‘Anne Boleyn’ by the artist, and who is curiously more attractive in her photos�– and Mary’s father and mother, drawn at family gatherings at Exeter, instantly recognisable by their strong and distinctive features.

Family holds a special place in Cossington Smith’s sketchbooks. One might be forgiven for thinking that the Smiths lazed around the family home in deckchairs, reading all day long, for these leisurely images abound. All but Mabel, her oldest sister, are present in these drawings of the 1920s; she was married and living in England by this time. While this genre of portrait provides an affectionate insight into the eccentricities of each family member, they are also wonderful studies in line and form. In them the artist experiments with the simple structure of a favourite cane armchair or a familiar deck chair. The straight, wooden members and hinged angles of a deckchair provide a subtle profile for a study in line, while the soft silhouette of the body, supported by the chair’s canvas, is an effective counterpoint in form. The shadows of chair and body are delicately executed by Cossington Smith’s confident hand. The eye easily follows an angular line from the feet to the head and in drawing after drawing one can imagine the delight she found in rendering these studies.

Grace Cossington Smith '(Portrait of the artist's father)' Folio of drawings c.1930 pencil on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge  

Just as the wardrobe is part of the iconography of Cossington Smith’s paintings, there are icons or family ‘trademarks’ in her sketchbook portraits. Books, and a family who have time to spend leisurely reading, are symbolic of an upper-middle-class life. Individual family members have their own trademarks, too. In images of Diddy we begin to seek out her dainty feet, perched neatly on a table’s edge as she reads. In a later sketchbook we recognise her presence again simply by her feet resting on a ship’s railing. While Diddy’s feet are a memento for us, Cossington Smith’s father, Ernest, is remembered by the cigar in his mouth and his quaint rounded glasses; invariably he appears with legs stretched out and his slippered feet comfortably crossed. Conversely the artist’s mother, Grace, is identified by the rug that covers her legs and feet as she lays reading. These portraits remain somewhat unresolved, as if her legs are missing, yet they might simply convey that she is more demure than Diddy or tell us discretely that the rug over her legs is the rug of an invalid.

Gordon is remembered most endearingly as a young boy. He makes his earliest appearance in the Smithkin calendars of 1910 and 1911. Among these delightful and quaintly naive watercolour vignettes we find Gordon in pride of place. In a striped blazer and full of life, he confidently swings a cricket bat or tennis racquet. In other pencil and watercolour studies of the same period the artist focuses on Gordon’s face�– his high forehead and distinctive curl of hair, long eyelashes and sensitive mouth are the charming and easily recognisable characteristics of a much-loved brother. In a pencil study of 1910 he sits awkwardly on a straight-backed chair reading. He is wearing a somewhat crumpled school uniform and sits with one leg resting across the other. It is a drawing of strong and competent line that beautifully captures the ungainliness of a pre-pubescent schoolboy.

  Grace Cossington Smith '(The artist's brother Gordon)' c.1910 watercolour and pencil on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Images of family sleeping are perhaps the most engaging of Cossington Smith’s portraits. Madge is the subject of the beautiful charcoal drawing Sleeping sister 1920. One does not wish to disturb her; the introspectiveness and sharp, angular lines of her face softened by sleep. Innocence in repose is most perfectly captured in Cossington Smith’s portraits from 1936 of her newborn nephew, Robert. His soft, rounded head is drawn with a delicate rendering of line and sensitivity of pencil stroke, and the fractured line for the crinkling of the pillow and tufts of hair are exquisite. The addition of velvety pink pencil to his cheek and a touch of red to his tiny lips complete these lovely images.

Unexpectedly, it is a superbly rendered drawing of coats, bags and dog leads draped loosely over hooks on the back of a door that provides the most palpable image of those most dear to Grace Cossington Smith. The coats, with their soft folds still warm from the owner’s body, bear the imprint of Ernest and Gordon returned home safely from a day at the office or school. And one can imagine the much-loved pet, tired after a walk with Madge, now curled up on her lap or sound asleep by Diddy’s feet as Cossington Smith sits nearby, drawing intently on another page in another sketchbook.

Anne McDonald
Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings

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