As you may recall,my theme for the 2018 A-Z April Challenge is writing Letters to Dead Artists. So far, we’ve had:
A: Alexandros of Antioch (sculpted the Venus de Milo)
Although Cezanne beckoned for Letter C, I have chosen Australian artist, Grace Cossington Smith, who virtually lived and painted in my own backyard in Sydney’s leafy North Shore. Moreover, while I’d previously dismissed her work as being too domestic, I’ve now gained a deeper appreciation of her ground-breaking use of modernist techniques and the full breadth of the subjects ranging from The Sock Knitter (1915), through to The Bridge in-Curve (1930). By the way, getting back to Cezanne, Cossington Smith was heavily influenced by the French modernist, so you could say he’s peering out through some of her brushstrokes.
Since I grew up right near Grace Cossington Smith, I’ve chosen Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree as her song.
Grace Cossington Smith lived at Cossington, 43 Ku-Ring-Gai Avenue, Turramurra five minutes drive away from where I grew up and where my parents still live. Yet, despite our geographical proximity, I have felt our views were worlds apart.
You see, as an independent, modern woman, her heavy use of domestic subjects irked me. In particular, there was The Sock Knitter. While knitting might have made a comeback in recent years, in my youth, knitting was old-fashioned, domestic and something grandmothers or aunties did.
However, once I started researching Cossington Smith, I found out that The Sock Knitter was actually a ground breaking, modernist work. Moreover, the painting also contains a noble back story. You see, her sister, Madge, was actually knitting socks to assist Australian troops on the notorious Western Front, who were sinking through the mud and developing trench foot. She was performing a community service. Moreover, women weren’t the only ones knitting socks for the troops. Boys at Sydney’s Cranbrook College also knitted socks, which resulted in a saying which is still floating round: “If you can’t get a girl, get a Cranbrook boy.”
In addition to The Sock Knitter, Cossington Smith painted many scenes around the house and was always painting and drawing. This reflected the utmost importance of her family, and I guess also their availability. The apparent contentment of their family life also provides the modern family with a wake-up call…that the home doesn’t have to be a prison. That “home” is what we make it. After all, love, family, community, belonging…what’s so wrong with all of that? Why do we mock and persecute it all so much? We each need a refuge from life’s storms, and ideally that is a place called “home”. Of course, I know this isn’t always the case, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, or that peace on the home front should be perceived as an unattainable ideal!
On that note, I get the feeling that we as a society have deified work, and for too many of us, work has become home. Worse still, that thanks to the mobile phone and laptop, work has even invaded the home front, which used to be our sacred haven.
However, Cossington Smith also painted a ground-breaking portrayal of the Sydney Harbour Bridge The Bridge in-Curve (1930). This dynamic work shows the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at that very exciting and critical moment that the two arches were about to connect above the harbour in an incredible feat of engineering. I absolutely love this painting and had it was in my kitchen for many years. It has such energy and force.
Thanks to this painting, I developed more of a connection with Cossington Smith. You see, I absolutely love the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Every time I go over it or even catch a glimpse of it, I get a buzz. Moreover, it’s an amazing sensation when you fly back into Sydney, and see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House waiting for you as though you never left home. On a more personal note, when I used to have infusions of IVIG at Royal North Shore Hospital, I used to look out across the urban jungle and fixate on the pair of flags at the top of The Bridge. Needless to say, when you’re having a canula jabbed into dry veins, watching the Bridge made a huge difference
Speaking of illness, in later life Grace Cossington Smith became an invalid and couldn’t leave her home. However, that didn’t stop her from experimenting and looking for new ways of seeing and images to paint. Indeed, she’d angle the huge mirrors a on her gigantic bedroom wardrobe to catch a glimpse of blue sky” That sounds quite sad, but also shows her resourcefulness and incredible strength of spirit.
So, without further ado, here’s my letter to Grace Cossington Smith.
Letter to Grace Cossington Smith
How are you? I can hardly imagine that a little thing like dying has dampened your fervent love of painting. Indeed, you must have an unlimited range of captive subjects up there.
I thought you’d enjoy afternoon tea under The Bridge here at Kirribilli. So, I’ve set up a little table and chairs and brought my Shelley Sunlit under the Tall Trees tea set, which reminds me of the towering gum trees around Pymble and Turramurra.
By the way, how do you like your tea?
I guess you’d be surprised to hear there’s now a tunnel underneath Sydney Harbour, yet another engineering marvel we didn’t think could happen. I’m not sure that you really want to know about all the other changes that have taken place, although Australia has had its first female Prime Minister and we recently legalized same sex marriage. Sadly, we still haven’t had an Aboriginal Prime Minister. There are other changes too, and I felt quite sad when I saw your painting of Eastern Road, Turramurra. When you drive through the North Shore these days, huge blocks of apartments have risen out of the earth like alien invaders. I still remember when North Ryde was green pastures dotted with cows, and I am not that old.
However, for better or worse, I’ve since left the North Shore and live near the beach, where I can get where I want, and can be myself. The waves are so accepting.
Our next stop is going to be the Grace Cossington Smith Gallery at your former school, Abbotsleigh. They can’t wait to meet you and no doubt you’ll be excited to see so many of your works congregated together.
Time is slipping away, so let’s carpe diem seize the day before it’s gone.
Reply from Grace Cossington Smith
Thank you so much for morning tea beneath The Bridge. Seeing The Bridge again, was like catching up with an old friend, and I’d also forgotten the refreshing salve of a good cup of tea.
However, I can’t tell you what it meant to visit the Grace Cossington Gallery. Naturally, one fears that our work will die with us, and we’ll both be forgotten. So, to finally see my work recognised and honoured in this way, brought such joy.
Of course, Abbotsleigh under Miss Clarke, always encouraged my talent and I was taught by professional artists.
I was also lucky that my parents were so supportive. As you may be aware, my father built a studio for me in the backyard at Cossington. They had such faith in me, and never suggested that just because I was a woman, that I couldn’t become a professional artist. No one forced me to get married either, and have a family. I could pursue my own path. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. There wasn’t a lot of choice for women back then.
Next time, could you please take me back to Cossington. I’d love to visit Cossie again and float around her walls like a ghost.
Many thanks and best wishes,
Grace Cossington Smith
Do you have a favourite artist starting with C? Or, if you’re taking part in the A-Z Challenge, please leave a link through to your post.