Lived-in Landscapes. Paintings and charcoal drawings by Tom Henderson Smith

Chapel Row Gallery, Bath, UK 3rd – 7th April 2010

A fascination with all those aspects of landscape that suggest human presence has guided Tom Henderson Smith’s approach to image-making in creating this collection. A strong awareness of this theme led him to see this Lived-in quality all around him as he roamed the Penwith countryside in the company of his border collie “Rags”. This all started with realising that he wanted to further explore the theme of a cluster of buildings that had featured in some of the pieces included in his Falmouth exhibition in October 2008. From that initial starting-point he found himself drawn to depicting other features reflecting human presence in the landscape as well.

Penwith of course has a rich and varied history. Centuries of farming and a long history of mining have left a clear imprint, as have the more ancient bronze and iron age societies that once flourished here. The themes that Tom was able to use thus began to range from field patterns to ancient sites, from clusters of buildings to well-worn paths as well as a tragic and haunting image from the history of tin and copper mining that came from a visit to the workings at Levant. This thematic aspect was one lived-in element of the new series.

Another way in which these new pieces fit the description of lived-in landscapes has more to do with the very processes of painting and drawing. It comes from the fact that translating these images into varied areas of colour, tone and texture involved Tom in literally living in these compositions. “I find” he says “that lingering over the colour mixtures, the paint layering and the brush or finger marks that I use begins to coax a feeling of life into what I’m doing. This is something that I enjoy and that gradually leads to a sense that the piece I’m working on is beginning to have a life of its own.” In the resulting paintings and drawings he certainly brings this lived-in quality to an extraordinary pitch of vividness.

He describes how his discovery of two books about landscape enhanced his experience of creating this collection. One was The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins which was recommended by a visitor to his studio in the spring of 2009. Its reference to the great antiquity of some of Penwith’s field boundaries in particular struck him and confirmed his sense of human influence in this area over thousands of years. The other book, a novel called John Penrose by J. C. Tregarthen, is an imaginative recreation of a young man’s experience of life in 19th century Penwith. It also helped to inform his sense of this as a truly human landscape.

As the new collection reached completion he came to realise that the experience of making each of these paintings and drawings had one thing in common for him:“It was,” he says “the reality of the life-states of people who have lived here that were reflected back and lived-in through the processes of painting and drawing.” In these recent pieces Tom comes over as a man with a deep passion for the landscape, at home and comfortable in it, curious and ever marvelling at the discoveries he continues to make and that he takes pleasure in communicating to us.

It was while planning for this exhibition that Tom began to realise the wider implications of what he had been making. He tells me that his lived-in theme began to resonate in memory with the seven years he had spent living in the city of Bath more than thirty years ago. He recalled the way that the city’s built environment sits so comfortably in the Avon valley and that was why it became so meaningful for him to have the opportunity to also show this collection there, which he did at Bath’s Chapel Row Gallery over Easter this year, sharing with a much wider public his sense of what it means to him to live in the enchanted far west of Cornwall.

As with any good portrait, however, the effectiveness of what he aims to communicate involves far more than a likeness or in this case a recognizable location. “It’s not just the features of a place, it’s that feeling of being at home in it that I want to convey through this exhibition” Tom told me.

It seems to me that if we develop the state of mind to live well in our environment and with the people with whom we share it, then this sense of being at home in our surroundings can be available to all of us. This exhibition can help to point us towards developing just such an awareness.

Gabrielle Hawkes May 2010

>>Click here to watch a virtual tour of the Bath version of the exhibition.

>>Click here to read a blog entry about Lived-in Landscapes from Cornwall (comments welcome).

>>Click here for the artist’s statement about the influence on his work of Buddhist beliefs.