May Smith

May Anne Smith (1906–1988) was a painter, engraver, textile designer and textile printer.

May Smith was born in Simla, India, in 1906. At that time Simla was the summer headquarters of British India's government. Smith's father was Sir Joseph Smith, a civil engineer involved in building a network of canals that would irrigate the Punjab province. Smith was the eldest of three children and returned to England in her early childhood in order undergo a series of hip operations. The convalescence from these operations included long periods of enforced inactivity and, with encouragement from her grandmother, Smith used these periods to begin to learn to paint. Later at school, when she was mobile for the first time, she received more formal training—firstly at a convent in Mussoorie and then at Loreto College in Simla.

In 1921, in the company of her mother and two brothers, May Smith came to New Zealand, settling in Auckland, where she became a pupil of the Diocesan School. From 1924 to 1928 she attended Elam School of Art at the University of Auckland before returning to England to attend the Royal College of Art in London. During her time at the college she associated with Jocelyn Mays (who was later to marry A. R. D. Fairburn), James Boswell, and the painter Hildegard. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1931 with a diploma. In 1933 she visited Spain and met the artist Frances Hodgkins in Ibiza. Hodgkins invited Smith to come to her holiday home and look at the paintings she had done. It was the first of many other meetings.

With the Depression in full swing, Smith found it difficult to obtain work as an engraver after her graduation. Her attempts at obtaining work in book illustration or commercial art were totally unsuccessful. Influenced by Hodgkins, Smith took up painting and started exhibiting her painting in small galleries but no great sales eventuated. "It was during the depression and no-one was interested in art or artists. I was mainly concerned with earning a living so I concentrated on textiles."[1] She taught herself fabric designing and printing, using wood or linoleum cut blocks. She had some success selling her hand-printed fabric to boutique stores such as Peter Jones and Heal and Sons but did no repeat business.

With the outbreak of World War II, Smith returned to New Zealand in 1939 and painting became her priority. At the 1940 Auckland Society of Arts Show, Smith exhibited some of the paintings that she'd brought back with her. With their original sense of design and structure, and their daring use of colour, they aroused both shock and admiration. However the shortage of fabrics caused her to return to fabric printing. She was a member of the Auckland Society of Arts and worked on commissioned fabric prints and murals.

In 1944 she married Philip Hardcastle, a trades union official, and moved to Gisborne. where in 1950 she and her husband set up as commercial fabric printers, but this enterprise was short-lived. In 1952 the marriage broke up and Smith returned to Auckland. In order to support herself and her small daughter, Smith taught part-time at the Auckland Teachers Training College in the 1950s before teaching art full-time at the Epsom Girls Grammar School and illustrating for the school sournal.

She continued to exhibit her hand printed fabrics in group shows with the artist A. R. D. Fairburn and her work sold in a number of Auckland and Wellington shops including the Helen Hitchings Gallery. Smith eventually became disillusioned with textile design, feeling that it wasn't possible to compete with mass-produced fabrics, but she continued to incorporate textile design into her work. She also introduced her students, among them Robin White, to the possibilities of screenprinting.

She retired from the art department at Epsom Girls' Grammar School in 1965 and in 1967 moved permanently to the Coromandel. In 1974 she married John Fowler and continued to paint and exhibit regularly in Thames, Hamilton, Coromandel, Auckland and Dunedin up until the early 1980s. May Smith died in 1988.

List of works


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