Artist and designer: 1908 – 1988
In the months before the onset of World War II, May Smith returned to New Zealand after a decade in Europe. At the age of 34 she would enter the 1940 Auckland Society of Arts exhibition and be acclaimed and criticised for her bold and colourful paintings, including “Belladonna Lilies” and “Camden Town Locks”. Thankfully her work was warmly received by the local literary and artistic ‘intelligentsia’ loosely surrounding the likes of Vernon Brown and Rex Fairburn. This wide and social group including Fairburn’s wife, the former Jocelyn Mays, a long-time friend of May’s from their early days at Art School in London would later be recognised as bringing about a definitive period of renaissance within the New Zealand cultural milieu. May’s work would go on permeate several areas of the arts over the next three decades, finding expression through printing, lino-cutting, mural work and landscapes in watercolour and oils.
The oldest of three children to civil engineer Sir Joseph Smith and his wife, May was born in Simla, India where her father was working. In her early childhood she spent many months drawing and painting while recuperating from a long series of hip operations in England; the family later moving to Auckland. In 1924 she took up a course at Elam Arts School, and the schools head Archie Fisher suggested to her parents upon graduating she should continue her education in Europe . At the Royal College of Art in London in 1929, May became friends with other New Zealanders including James Boswell, a politically orientated painter also from Elam; becoming briefly involved with the Communist Party during the time of the republican clashes with the dictatorship in Spain. The effects of the ‘Great Depression’ brought on by the Wall Street crash were also being felt throughout the arts. Gaining her diploma in 1933, May left England for respite in Spain, now under Republican governance after ousting the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. While holidaying with a group of students in Ibeza she met Frances Hodgkins, expatriate New Zealand artist on the point of returning to Britain after working on new paintings for exhibition – Hodgkins inclusion in the ‘Seven and Five’ group along with Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and fellow Kiwi Len Lye finally giving her some long sort-after recognition and bringing about a contract from which she derived a small income. Prior to this Hodgkins had often taken on teaching to support herself -also working as a textile designer for the Calico Printers Association in Manchester during the latter part of the 1920’s.
May remained in contact with Hodgkins over the next few years in Europe until leaving in 1939. During this time of occasional success, but mostly further hardship and disillusion, she ventured into lino-cut and block printing fabrics, after becoming a member of the Designers Guild and selling some of her work to fashionable London retailers.
Back in New Zealand amongst the company of the ‘Auckland Intelligentsia’ (that small group of poets, writers, artists and scholars generally associated with the Auckland University and the ‘Fairburn crowd’) her paintings became recognised for their use of ‘unique colour’ and ‘riotous hues’. Original in composition with sliding perspectives, stunningly colourful works such as ‘Pumpkins’ and her portrait of Marie Conlan, ‘Characterisation in Colour’ cemented her place in the alternative arts scene of the city.
Petit, talented, attractive and determined, May was a popular and quietly confident part of the group which was pursuing what could be called a ‘New Zealand modernism’. Standing out partly because of their socialist leanings in a time of war, and the austere and conservative nature of the general populace meant the group were often vilified but also connected with émigré architects and writers, helping expand the culture of a small colonial city on the edge of the world. With the influx of refugees and returned soldiers the Government passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1941 which operated to re-train, re-house and offer vocational and financial assistance to those in need. The ongoing effect of this and other related acts was to provide employment and housing, and much of this would provide ‘modernism’ a step-up to wider acceptance.
In 1941 May was working from a studio in Swanson St and designed a mural for John Burns, but sadly, this, as with the fate of many murals, no longer exists. Another mural in a stunning flat roofed creosote and white home for well known lawyer Frank Haigh and his wife ‘Honey’ (Anne) featured a delightful marine themed work by May in the entry hallway. Subdued in colour compared to works like ‘Pumpkins,’ the painting is a large scene of seemingly floating marine objects and beach flotsam arranged against a background of blue, with a distant bay. The house designed by Vernon Brown (in 1941) is a finely modulated and superb piece of architecture, from the entrance vestibule with the narrowing hall stepping down to the master bedroom, through to the detailing of the fireplace and built in furniture. (In many of his house designs Brown used sandblasted glass panels which were often the work of another artist and mural-painter of the time, James Turkington.)
Throughout the next three years until May left to live in Gisborne , she was a regular contributor to exhibitions at Auckland Arts Society rooms in Eden Terrace. With marriage and a change of circumstance came a change in direction. A daughter, Phillipa was born in 1945 to May and Phillip (Hardcastle) and this later instigated a return to fabric printing, the couple working together in the business until the dissolution of their marriage in 1952. May’s lino-cuts or block prints often incorporated fauna or marine themes, producing sophisticated high quality designs for curtain fabrics, bedcovers and upholstery, etc..(An early block-printed bedspread from her time in England is held at Te Papa).
With the war over and some restrictions on building lifted, the country was starting to enter a period of recovery. Sid Holland’s recently formed National Party won the 1949 election and instigated further state house building schemes which in turn acted as a stimulant for the post war economy. Labour had previously introduced into the culture large scale housing projects like the Dixon Street Flats (1941-44) and the Grey’s Avenue Flats (1945-47). These structures, along with magazines like ‘Design Review’ and ‘Home and Building’ promoted the ‘Modernist look’ and often featured works by Mervyn Tayor, Vernon Brown, Rigby Mullan, etc . May’s fabric and art works found homes in many of the houses being built throughout the post-war period. Also, during this time, Charles Brasch initiated ‘Landfall’, a quarterly journal of the arts based in his home town of Dunedin. Returning to New Zealand after time abroad Brasch set about, with the help of Denis Glover and the Caxton Press to light a beacon in what he called ‘this uneducated land’. ‘Landfall’ with Brasch at the helm, was to become the leading journal of the arts in the country over the next few decades, giving welcome recognition and financial help to many writers and artists.
As well as commissioning May to produce work for Landfall, Brasch was instrumental in expanding her outlets, buying her paintings and introducing her work to Dunedin’s galleries and society. With her return to Auckland in 1952, May accepted a commission for Harold Innes, producing a large five panel mural painting for his Waikato Breweries outlet in Hamilton; though the mural is no longer in existence, an early themed sketch by May including ‘Bacchus’ was rejected and resides with other examples of her work in the Hocken Library, several from Brasch’s own collection. Reunited within an expanded coterie of artists, socialists and academics (including Arthur and Ruth Coyle, Keith and Mary Sinclair, Willis and Isobel Airey, Jenny and George Gunn, Dove-Meyer Robinson and the Fairburn’s to mention but a few) May as a solo mother decided to pursue a fulltime position, starting as an art tutor at Epsom Girls Grammar in 1953. She also began a happy association with the School Journal (as did her sister-in-law Joan)- her watercolour and gouache work fitting in with the new developments being bought about in education through the influence of Gordon Tovey (National Supervisor of Art and Craft) and Cliff O’Malley at School Publications, under the auspices of Dr Clarence Beeby, Director of Education.
The demands of work and motherhood decreed a less prolific output but May still contributed to exhibitions and spent time sketching and producing watercolours of landscapes or even her daughter with a cat. The tonality of the painted works had changed with time, many of the later works using an earthier palette.
In 1961 a group of the May’s friends including the Sinclair’s, Northy’s , Thompson’s bought a small parcel of land on the outskirts of Coromandel, on which they constructed baches of varying sophistication; the Sinclair bach being designed by the Frank Stockman, previously with Structural Developments but also working with Group Architects. Some months prior- in 1960, Willis and Isobel Airey’s daughter Deirdre Airey had returned from Europe, taking up the post of ‘medical superintendent’ at Coromandel hospital, which in reality often placed her as the only doctor on call throughout the peninsular. The rugged terrain and metal roads contributed to hair-raising night time call-outs to the sick and elderly, all of which Deirdre conducted with hearty solid professionalism and humour. She encouraged May to visit and make use of her spare rooms at the Coromandel surgery, which proved to be an opportune and ideal situation allowing May to spend long spells sketching and wandering the rugged terrain close by. Many of her paintings from the 1960’s are based on the changing appearance of the Coromandel peninsular and islands of the harbour. The Auckland Society of Arts exhibition of 1964 contained “Coromandel Summer” (30 guineas) a view of the peninsular to Whanganui Island, the brown earth tones of summer scorched earth and shadows against an almost ice blue sea.
Retiring from teaching in 1965, May moved to the Coromandel in 1967 allowing her to work on her art undistracted by the necessity of earning a wage. She was a frequent contributor to the Waikato and Thames/ Hauraki galleries while also exhibiting throughout the country including at the Hos’s ‘New Vision’ gallery in Her Majesty’s Arcade, Auckland. Her files are full of catalogues from her exhibitions around the country, with notes on who bought which works and for what price (incredibly small amounts in relation to worth). Sketches and invites tumble amongst the pages of the catalogues with notes attesting her wealth of friends, if not finances. Charles Brasch’s letters detail many transactions, some relating to what seems the same painting between several different owners or galleries.
May married for the second time, becoming ‘Mrs John Fowler’ in 1974. Life in Tiki Road was a productive and settled environment with John’s support, and a studio constructed for her to work in. The previous year had seen Deidre Airey return to the South Island to spend weeks nursing their dying friend Charles Brasch, a “great good man” and benefactor to many artists and writers in their times of need. It was shortly after her return from nursing Charles that Deirdre began a practical engagement with art. Deirdre, along with potter Barry Brickell would then spend time together sketching, and from these Deirdre began producing terracotta and stoneware relief tiles of biblical scenes, fired in Driving Creek kilns. As the 1970’s rolled on many artists and craft’s people where drawn to the Coromandel area and its’ counter-culture and ‘green’ aspects. May and her friends (like Deirdre, Barry, Janet Paul ) were central to the growth and establishment of arts on the peninsular, their wide network of friends and acquaintances visiting the area and returning to Auckland and other towns with purchases of paintings, ceramics and pottery.
May continued to paint and exhibit well into her later life. Though no longer seen as contemporary, Peter Shaw’s article in the spring issue of Art New Zealand in 1983 provided a wonderful account of a life lived with and for art, the hard times and great sorrow of losing her daughter at an early age ever so slightly dissipated by the ongoing support and care from John and their wide circle of friends. Original, vibrant and colourful like her work, May passed away in 1988. Shortly afterwards a large number of Mays personal collection of works was auctioned in Coromandel to provide funds for the local arts, a gift from May to the community that had befriended and nourished her in the last decades of her life.