Grace Cossington Smith: The Spirit of Light - Art Collector

Issue 7, January - March 1999

Download PDF

Collector’s dossier surveys the critical significance and market profile of Australia’s most important artists. This month, Judith White looks at the life and work of arguably our most celebrated female artist, Grace Cossington Smith.


Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was one of the most innovative Australian artists of the twentieth century. An early modernist, her fascination with light and colour and her unerring interest in what she saw around her developed throughout the many phases of her work, culminating in the luminous interiors she painted in the 1950s and 1960s.

A truly original artist, Cossington Smith came from a socially conventional background, the second child of well-to-do English immigrants. Her father Ernest Smith was New South Wales Crown Solicitor; her mother Grace, born in Yorkshire, was the daughter of an Anglican rector, and showed her five children the finer side of a Victorian middle-class upbringing. Grace the elder had been trained in classical music, had lived for some years at Stettin in Germany, and had a firm conviction that women should have the best modern education. Young Grace’s childhood home in Sydney’s Neutral Bay, named ‘Cossington’ after the ancestral family seat in Leicestershire, was filled with books, music and good conversation. Neighbours recalled the family as “eccentric, very English” and they remained Anglicans and monarchists. Unlike many artists, Grace Cossington Smith never rebelled against this heritage, but in her work she did break with convention; and the financial security her family provided enabled her to work as an artist for more than 50 years.

In 1909, recognising her talent for drawing, the Smiths sent Grace to study with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. Trained in Italy in classical drawing techniques, his Sydney classes were to be a formative influence on a generation of Australian artists, including Roland Wakelin, Roy de Maistre and Donald Friend. Closely following developments in European art, by the eve of the First World War he had become a passionate enthusiast for modernism and post-impressionism, introducing students (through books) to the work of Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Grace herself always cited Cezanne as one of her most important influences. Graduating in 1912, she travelled to England with her father and her sister Mabel. The two girls went on to spend more than a year in Germany, and Grace began painting in oils. When she returned to Sydney on the eve of war in 1914, it was as a fully-fledged artist. She resumed her studies with Dattilo-Rubbo and the family moved to Turramurra, building a studio at the back of the house which became her jealously guarded preserve.

In her new medium of painting Cossington Smith came into her own. The Sock Knitter (1915), a portrait in oils, has been hailed as the first truly modernist work by an Australian artist. There followed a series of family portraits and interiors, as well as light-filled landscapes such as Sunny Morning: Cows at Lanyon (1916). Soon she was also painting urban scenes, and although with her patrician outlook she found crowds highly disturbing, she captured the restive spirit of the times in arresting images like Strike (1917), Unrest (1920) and Crowd (1922).

Cossington Smith became the pre-eminent painter of Sydney between the wars. Her atmospheric 1925 painting The Centre of the City shows a sky of a brilliant clear blue, seen from the shadows of the streets around the Post Office clock tower; her Turramurra landscapes breathe the tranquillity of her North Shore surroundings, and her series on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, including The Curve of the Bridge (1928-9),1 capture the energy and dynamism of the project. Her Sydney works undoubtedly contributed to her growing popularity, and in 1928 she held her first solo exhibition.

Yet even in this period she continued to paint interiors and still life, with such memorable examples as Things on an Iron Tray on the Floor (1927-8) and drawings of her beloved native wild flowers. Her love of things outside herself, and her philosophy of art, shines through in all these works. Later, in her seventies, she explained: “All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people – has an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour, colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created.”

In the mid-1930s her work became for a time more stylised, for example in the landscape Govett’s Leap (1933) and The Lacquer Room (1935), her striking painting of the cafe at David Jones. But it was in her later paintings, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, that she reached her full maturity, in a series of astonishing domestic interiors alive with diffused light – works such as Interior with Wardrobe Mirror (1955), Studio Door I (1956), Open Door (1960) and Interior in Yellow (1962-4).

“My chief interest, I think,” she said in 1965, “has always been colour, but not flat crude colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine; light must be in it.”

Cossington Smith, her friend Ethel Anderson asserted, was moved to paint only by what the poet Shelley called moments of “the spirit of delight”. “Her wholly original technique,” Anderson wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald at the time of her first show, “seems to have grown, quite naturally, out of her efforts to give these moments their adequate expression in paint.”

The artist was acclaimed in her lifetime. She had 11 solo exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries in 40 years; and from the mid-1960s until her death in 1984, although she painted much less, she was a much-admired elder stateswoman of Australian art. After that early trip to Europe, from which she returned transformed, she travelled little, steeping herself in the light and colours of the Australian landscape and of her native city. She remained an essentially private person. She did not pronounce on social or political questions, and she was not overtly feminist. In a rare moment in 1919, she let fly after hearing a man describe the art of Hilda Rix Nicholas as “not bad for a woman”: “Of course really only a woman could paint like that; a mere man not being capable of feeling things in the least like that – he may paint better, but not ‘feel’ better!”

It was in her art that Grace Cossington Smith broke the mould. She was a pioneer of modernism in Australia, and her legacy includes some of the most beautiful paintings of her times.


There is no doubt that the interiors of the 1950s and 1960s are the most memorable of all ‘Cossies’. They breathe the essence of what Shelley was on about. They are at once the fruit of long contemplation of luminescence on familiar surfaces, and the capture of a transient moment; they possess both the tranquillity of stillness, and the energy of constantly changing light.

But these paintings were the maturest expression of a long, consistent endeavour, and the earlier periods too produced gems, from her pre-First World War drawings to the landscapes of the late 1930s. The artist drew and painted only when she felt inspired. Although her output was prodigious, she could go for several weeks without picking up a brush, then work concentratedly as the spirit moved her. Undoubtedly her financial security helped her to develop this pattern, which artists reliant on commissions and exhibition deadlines might envy; the happy result is that there is a consistently high quality to her work.


Although some of the key works are in private collections, major galleries around Australia have considerable holdings, testimony to both the artist’s profuse output and her popularity.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is including Cossington Smith in this summer’s exhibition Seeing Cezanne: Australian Affinities, holds a large number of works, including The Sock Knitter (1915), Reinforcements: Troops Marching (c.1917), The Reader (c.1919), Rushing (1922), Things on an Iron Tray on the Floor (1927-8), The Curve of the Bridge (1928-9), The Lacquer Room (1935-6) and Interior with Wardrobe Mirror (1955).

The Australian National Gallery in Canberra also has an extensive collection, including Van Gogh’s Room (c.1916), The Cabbage Garden (1919), Eastern Road, Turramurra (c.1926), Pumpkin Leaves Drooping (1926-7), Interior with Verandah (1954) and Interior in Yellow (1962-4).

The National Gallery of Victoria has Quaker Girl (1915), Crowd (1922), Boys Drawing (1926), The Bridge In-Curve (1930) and Interior with Blue Painting (1956).

Other works are spread widely around the country, with Landscape at Pentecost (1929-30) at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Before the Arches Met (1930) at the Queensland Art Gallery, Strike (c.1917), Trees (1926) and Way to the Studio (1957) at Newcastle Regional Art Gallery and Open Door (1960) at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. There are also Cossington Smiths in the collections of the Western Australian Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum in Hobart, Wollongong City Art Gallery, Shepparton Art Gallery, James Cook University in Townsville, the University of Sydney, Fairfax Newspapers and Mosman Municipality.


Although Cossington Smith, with her successful run of solo exhibitions, scarcely suffered from discrimination in her lifetime, the art market since her death in 1984 has favoured her less than some of her male contemporaries. Prices peaked in 1988-90, influenced by a series of retrospective exhibitions and by the publication in 1990 of the first major study of the artist, by Bruce James. The highest recorded price at auction is $148,500, paid at Sotheby’s in Melbourne in November 1990 for The Gully (1928). The second highest, $93,500, was paid in 1988 for Self-Portrait (1918), equalled in 1989 for The School Cape (1919). In 1997, by contrast, the highest price fetched at auction was $41,400, for Wildflowers (1938).

One factor in the price ceiling during these years was the fact that few of the artist’s best-known works came on to the market. Both private and public collectors tend to hang on to them. Nonetheless most dealers agree that the collapse in market prices in the early 1990s hit Cossington Smith’s work particularly hard. “She is one of the artists whose values were affected,” said Brisbane dealer Philip Bacon. “But that represents a very good opportunity for collectors now.”


Because Cossington Smith produced many works in a variety of media - drawings, watercolours, pastels, gouache and oils – there is a wide range on the market, even though the finest works are so rarely sold. Good pencil drawings can be found from as little as $1000 to $3000 and watercolours from $5000 to $10,000, with excellent small oils a bargain for big collectors at around $30,000 to $35,000.

The best way to begin is to view as much of the artist’s work as possible, and to read about her. The most comprehensive work to date is Grace Cossington Smith by Bruce James (Craftsman House, 1990), a detailed, lavishly illustrated account of her life and work. There is also a good monograph with the same title by Daniel Thomas (Art Gallery of NSW, 1973), which is particularly informative about her philosophy of art.

Armed with a little knowledge and, hopefully, enthusiasm, the prospective collector’s next step would be to enlist the expertise of a reputable dealer. It’s worth watching what is coming up at auction, but there are good opportunities to be found through private dealers in the major state capitals.

“It’s the quality of her work that makes it such a bargain for art lovers,” said Bacon. “She had a vision that people really respond to.”

Share this page: