Shaping a Vision of Cornwall - The Art of Tom Henderson Smith

Painting: Stream flowing to the sea, Cot Valley Painting: Summer sea Painting: Leaving harbour, Newlyn Painting: Winter Sun

Shaping a vision of Cornwall

"Cornwall provides an endless supply of fascinating material, ideas which I feel compelled to translate in terms of colour. This in turn involves selecting and adjusting shapes, often tracking down certain kinds of shapes in the landscape such as the fall of a hillside, the curve of a beach or a square of sky. At other times an unexpected discovery can lead to a surprise decision to embark on a new kind of design for a picture."

From this statement about his approach to his recent paintings and charcoal drawings Tom's reasons for choosing the title of this exhibition began to come into focus for me.

He first came to Cornwall more than 25 years ago to teach Art at Mounts Bay School in Penzance and when the opportunity came in 1999 to paint full time, he knew that he was in the right place. His recent work shows how Cornwall's landscape, culture and over-arching quality of maritime light have enabled him to bring together his sensuous enjoyment of colour that probably originated from a childhood in the tropics when his family lived in Africa, with his sense of the key role of design that had been confirmed by a two year stay in Italy as a young artist. Colour and shape, vision and design; these are the key elements of his approach to his task.

Born in Yorkshire, his early education was in Huddersfield and he went on to gain an honours degree in Fine Art at Newcastle-upon-Tyne University. On graduating in 1971 he was awarded a Bunzl travel scholarship to study in Italy. He returned to the U.K. in 1973 and lived for seven years in Bath, training as a teacher at Bristol University. This led to a teaching career which he now sees as an apprenticeship for his current work as a painter. During the late 1980s and early '90s he and I also co-directed Visions and Journeys Gallery at our home in St Just, a wonderful opportunity for us to work with other artists on presenting a series of exhibitions.

The demands of teaching, however, increasingly pushed Tom's painting and his gallery work into the background and he remembers that it was for a time only his photography that kept his image making instincts alive. By the mid 1990s the pressures of his educational role had also led us to the decision to close the gallery. With the approaching millennium and his own half century Tom drastically reassessed his priorities and when an opportunity to leave teaching arose for him we decided to convert what had been the gallery into our shared Studio, the Turn of the Tide, in St Just.

His first major show in this new phase of his career was held at the Mariner's Gallery in July 2001. Entitled 'A Peninsula Suite' it traced the way that fresh ideas for his painting had arisen from intimate studies of coastal forms leading on gradually to panoramic sequence paintings. Music, in particular that of Bach, had played an important part in inspiring this process. The success of this show confirmed the new direction his career had taken and it was followed by a second one in October 2003 called 'Valleys and Horizons'. His landscape interests had by now led him to develop folding "valley" paintings and a "horizon" series. He tells me that these involved a preoccupation with pictorial geometry which remains central to his approach. I can certainly see that a hall-mark of this latest exhibition is the way he repeatedly rings the changes through square, lozenge shaped, vertical, horizontal and even triangular canvases. But to me geometry sounds rather dull and I personally think Tom's strength lies in his love of being out in the landscape. He gets the weather into his paintings - muddy tractor tyre ruts glistening in the sun, a storm over the sea, fog hanging over moorland. Hardly a day goes by, whether foggy, rainy, sun-drenched or wind blasted, without Tom and Rags the dog, his enthusiastic walking companion, setting out again to explore their favourite haunts. They arrive home, damp or baked but exhilarated and with a fresh supply of ideas for paintings.

There is in one sense nothing new for Tom in putting before the public his quite ambitious pictorial schemes. As a recently qualified young artist back in the 1970s, he showed mural scale works at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and later at Newcastle University. Then, moving to the West Country, he showed sequences of studio interiors at Art Centres in Bath, Bristol and Plymouth. But there is something quite different about his new Cornish work quite apart from the distinct location that he depicts. He tells me that while preparing for his exhibition this time he came across the following statement by Henri Matisse:

"When we speak of Nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of Nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe." 1.

In planning this show Tom found that Matisse's sentiments resonated strongly with him. This awareness of how a person's life state interacts with nature and is in fact reflected back by one's surroundings rang true of his own recent experience of the Cornish landscape, informed as it has been by having practised as a Nichiren Buddhist (see www.sgi-uk.org ) for most of his adult life.

So, what exactly does he mean by a "Vision of Cornwall". When I asked him about this he told me that for him it could perhaps best be summed up in the words of his mentor Daisaku Ikeda:

"May all people shine!
May all life shine!"
2.

Gabrielle Hawkes March 2006

1. Quoted in MATISSE by Volkmar Essers published by Taschen.
2. Lectures on the Lotus Sutra Volume three by Daisaku Ikeda published by World Tribune Press.

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