It has always been my opinion that the artist Matthew Smith was our greatest 20th century colourist. He was also well known as a painter and enjoyer of luscious nude ladies.
Not long after the war I bought a delightful little painting of his from Freddy Mayor, of the Mayor Gallery. It cost me just over £100 – a large sum in those days. I treasured it.
At a dinner party, given by Anna de Goguel, I found myself to be a fellow guest with the great artist – surprisingly for his female subjects and virile reputation, a frail, bony, pale man. I told him about my painting. He wanted to see it.
So I made my excuses to my hostess and rushed back to my two small council rooms to unhook my treasure from the wall and carry it back to the party.
Matthew Smith was delighted to see it again. He told me that in the 1930s he had painted it in the South of France as a study for a much larger painting. This he did, but no longer knew where it was, or even if it existed.
He told me that he got into some kind of bother (I later heard that it was to do with the Customs) and that the Consul in Nice, one William Ashcroft (the brother of Peggy Ashcroft, the actress), had helped him resolve the matter. In gratitude he had given Ashcroft my painting as a token of thanks.
The painting always had pride of place in my houses, and hung sometimes in the lavatory.
When living in Tangley in the 1980s I very foolishly had the painting valued. And its value was so high that I enquired of my insurers if I might insure it. The answer was that of course they would cover it – for a price and the understanding that I would have to add a burglar alarm to my house, with all the extra precautions of locks everywhere.
It was my habit to keep an open house, with it unlocked and open to friends at all times, except at night time. So I decided not to insure it.
Now, when I was working or relaxing in the garden well away from the house, I started to feel uneasy about the safety of my little painting. So I took it back to the Mayor Gallery for safekeeping.
About that time my marriage came to an end and I parted with the painting as part of the division of jointly held artefacts. I believe it was sold right away, and for a considerable sum.
I have somehow missed that painting more than any other with which I have had to part, and that includes a Rodin, several Burras, a large Paul Nash, a Wadsworth and many others – all going in my bachelor years when the bank manager demanded it.
So when a little Matthew Smith pastel came up for sale at Christie’s, with a reserve at under a thousand pounds, Margreet and I put in a bid for it. The small work on torn paper went for four thousand.
I was rather upset by this, as we had rather set our hearts on getting it. So, to assuage my longing, I bought some pastels (for the first time in my life) and did four little pieces as homage to the great artist. Although I did them in my own way, I used the still life ingredients used by Matthew Smith. To be sure that there would never be confusion, I wrote on them boldly: “Homage to Matthew Smith” and stamped them with my studio stamp. One of them I hung on the wall. I had my pastiche. I was happy.
In a Christie’s catalogue of a sale, when one of my own paintings was on offer, there was a very interesting illustration of a Matthew Smith for sale. We went to see it and were both very impressed. Margreet wanted to buy it so that we could both enjoy its surprisingly light colouring and very Matthew Smith lines. Its title was “Flowers in a Vase”. She took advice from James Gould, the expert there on British 20th century art, and placed a bid.
We went to the auction, knowing how high was her offer, and it was knocked down to her at a much lower price than she had expected. She paid, it was wrapped, and hanging on our wall no more than an hour after the auction.
The artist left the bulk of his unsold work to Mary Keane, who donated the collection to the City of London, with a permanent exhibition at the Barbican Centre. We met her daughter, Alice Keane, at the gallery where Matthew Smith exhibited, then called Rowland, Browse and Delbanco. We already had the Alice Keane excellent biography of the artist. I asked if she would like to see the three drawings in my possession, which she would, but never came.
It occurred to me that in looking at the three books I had on the artist’s life and work, that there might be a clue as to when our pastel was done and where. And there, in Alice’s biography, were three illustrations that absolutely matched our pastel. So not only did we now have the new acquisition, but we also knew that John Russell (the great art critic of the day) and Vera Barry (who he later married) had taken Matthew Smith with them to a house that, in 1956, they had rented in Villeneuve les Avignons, in the South of France. Matthew Smith was nearing the end of his life and not well, so was disinclined to create as much as his host and hostess had wished. But he did produce some work from a room with a balcony overlooking a landscape with water. We had acquired one of those pastels.
When I told the Christie’s man what I had discovered, he told me that had this information been known before the sale, the work would have sold for another two thousand pounds.