In the early to mid twentieth century, women played a leading role in bringing new European artistic ideas to New Zealand. May Smith was one of several New Zealand women artists who travelled and worked overseas, and became influential in this country.
She was born in 1906 in the town of Simla – the summer headquarters of British India’s government. Her father, Sir Joseph Smith, was a civil engineer involved in building a network of canals that would irrigate the Punjab province.
As a child, May Smith had to have a series of hip operations in England. She was forced to spend a lot of time resting, and during these times, encouraged by her grandmother, she began to paint.
She immigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1921. In 1924, she attended Elam School of Art in Auckland, where she specialised in engraving. She studied there until 1928. Then, with the support of her parents and the Director of Elam, A J C Fisher, she moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art.
After graduating in 1931, she tried to get work in book illustration or commercial art. However, the Depression was approaching and most businesses refused to hire women when so many men were unemployed. To earn a living Smith, began designing, producing, and selling her own hand-printed fabrics. (While painting in Ibiza, in Spain, Smith had met fellow ex-patriot artist Frances Hodgkins, who had worked as a fabric designer in the early 1920s. It’s possible that Hodgkins suggested Smith try textile design.)
Using wood and lino blocks, Smith produced small runs of hand-printed fabric for upmarket department stores. Despite the initial success of her textiles, her lack of marketing ability hampered her. In 1939, she returned to New Zealand, determined to make her way as a painter. Fabric design had given Smith more freedom to explore abstract forms than other mediums could, but her paintings were also innovative.
At the 1940 Auckland Society of Arts Show, Smith exhibited some of the paintings that she’d brought back with her. Like the work of ex-patriot painter Rhona Haszard, first exhibited in New Zealand seven years earlier, Smith’s paintings made quite an impact. With their original sense of design and structure, and their daring use of colour, they aroused both shock and admiration.
However, it wasn’t long before Smith was again producing hand-printed textiles. She also worked to promote fabric design as an industry here and influenced many local artists to take up the craft. She was generous with her knowledge, and ran courses in block printing.
Smith's textile design and painting developed together, each medium influencing and supporting her work in the other. Professor R P Anschutz wrote of her paintings, in The Arts in New Zealand, ‘Smith does not play safe with the nice, cool, restrained shades. She runs riot with all the hues that we have been taught to consider vulgar, garish and unladylike.’ (1)
In 1944, Smith married trades union official Philip Hardcastle and moved to Gisborne. In 1950, the couple joined forces as commercial textile printers. Up until then, Smith's textiles and paintings had developed along similar lines, but after 1950, her textile work and her painting began to diverge in style.
Her painting became increasingly conservative, and fell from fashion. Her fabrics on the other hand adapted to changing fashions and remained popular among sophisticated, urban buyers who wanted modern, high-quality furnishings.
Despite its initial success, Smith & Hardcastle's commercial textile business collapsed in 1952, as did their marriage. Smith moved to Auckland with their young daughter and took work as a part-time instructor at the Auckland Teacher Training College and, later, as a teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar.
Smith was disillusioned with textile design, feeling that it wasn’t possible to compete with mass-produced fabrics. However, she continued to incorporate textile design into her work, by introducing her students, among them Robin White, to the possibilities of screenprinting.
Anschutz, R P (1945). ‘The Little Sensation of May Smith’, In The Arts in New Zealand, Vol. 17, No 3, Serial No 67.
The following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre, Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
Kirker, Anne (1986). New Zealand Women Artists. Auckland: Reed Methuen
Lloyd Jenkins, Douglas. ‘Little Sensations: the hand printed textiles of May Smith’. Art New Zealand forthcoming.
Shaw, P (1983). ‘May Smith: Representation & the Freedom of Imagination.’ In Art New Zealand No 28, p.46.
Bedspread, 1953–55 designed and made by May Smith (1906–88), India/New Zealand moygashiel printed linen bedspread Purchased 1994 with Charles Disney Art Trust Funds