It is the artist’s bedroom, formerly her parents’, in the house that had been her home for 50 years. She loved the place whose name she also bore, but as a young Post-Impressionist she usually painted more public domains, Sydney city streets, construction sites, theatres. Eventually, however, her art came home to concentrate on Cossington, in the highland suburb of Turramurra.
Parents long dead, three siblings gone and only invalid sister Charlotte left to share the house, Grace turned 60 and was less out-and-about. Her easel strayed from the studio to various indoor rooms. In the first of the late, great paintings of Cossington, Interior with verandah doors, 1954 (also in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection), we look from the other side of this same bed to two glass doors, open to morning light.
She answered a questionnaire. Personal art philosophy? ‘Art is the expression of “whatsoever things are lovely”, at the same time expressing things unseen — the golden thread running through time.’1 So to say ‘I sit here a lot; you get to know it’, implied memories and emotions as well as things seen.2
Immediately before beginning the golden interiors she had sent ‘I Looked, and Behold, a Door was opened in Heaven’ to the new Blake Prize for religious art. Through a homely door exactly like the one in Interior in yellow, we see a vision revealed to St John. The artist liked finding ‘a lot of different “visions”’3 of doors seen through doors, and liked to remember that before the Smiths lived here the house had been a Quaker meeting place, designed in the 1890s as a dwelling that could become a kind of church.
An early sketchbook drawing of a figure raising her arms in the kitchen doorway, seen from the garden at dusk, called up another memory. ‘I was taken by the lighting, dark out, light inside; I’m sorry I didn’t do a painting. A nice feeling, the end of day, going inside. What Dad used to say — “The Smile of Home”’.4
It was the time when she transcribed a text about ‘The psychic and philosophical messages of colour’5 and when the writer Ethel Anderson first thrilled Grace with art talk. ‘The exciting new concept of space composition … a perspective beyond the boundaries of the frame. The subject … could expand inwardly or outwardly … in the cube, not merely on the surface … With your unique brush stroke, with your grasp of colour … You may find a fourth-dimensional emotion as yet unfound, un-named.’6
Of Interior in yellow the artist said: ‘The chief thing to me was the yellow walls ... It was a very exciting thing to do … express an interior with light … the sunlight did not come in in a definite way but the whole room seemed to be full of light.’7
Vibrations from the square touches of yellow paint – her favourite colour, ‘The colour of the sun!’ – certainly express a refulgence of indirect sunlight, but there is much more.8 Tennis on the lawn and tea on the verandah, memorised in the wardrobe mirror. Dresses on hangers waiting to be warmed by sunlight when the mirror-door opens (as in a marvellous coloured-pencil sketchbook drawing in the Gallery collection). Artist colleague Roland Wakelin, whose painting hangs above the bookshelves. The door to the heart of Cossington. The other Cosssingtons, her own birthplace in Neutral Bay, Sydney, her mother’s rectory home in England. Dad’s ‘Smile of Home’. Mother, another Grace, who had languished here with cancer. The yellow wall beyond which favourite sister Charlotte lingered for six years — a hospital bed installed in the family dining room — and died just before Interior in yellow began. Grace’s broken hip from a fall, alone in the house, causing this to be the only painting set aside nearly completed, and finished two years later. The bed was the unfinished part, and crucial.
Like the ecstatic, abstract draperies that fill old master religious paintings, the rumpled bed cover and cloths are devices that connect the spectator to a surge of visual and emotional energy. Across a contemplative place of solitary sleep and dreams and maybe death, the wrinkle-lines and the touches of colour drag us deep through the sunfilled looking-glass, which in turn throws us back to a place of once and future outdoor activity. We and other things outside the painting are embraced by the radiant forms and colours. Space and time fulfil the prediction: a sacred place, fourth-dimensional. As Ethel Anderson said of Grace Cossington Smith in 1925, ‘there were truly great artists in Australia, and she had just met one of them.’9
Daniel Thomas 2002
1Daniel Thomas Grace Cossington Smith Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales 1973 p.6 (exhibition catalogue).
3Daniel Thomas Grace Cossington Smith: A life: From drawings in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1993 p.10.
5Bruce James Grace Cossington Smith Sydney: Craftsman House 1990 p.67.
6Bethia Foott Ethel and the Governors’ General: A biography of Ethel Anderson (1883-1958) and Brigadier-General A.T. Anderson (1868-1949) Sydney: Rainforest Publishing 1992 pp.129–30; this first meeting was March 1925.
7Thomas 1973 p.6 from a tape recorded interview 16 August 1965 with Hazel de Burg, Canberra: National Library of Australia, transcript p.2.
9Foott op.cit. p.130.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002