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Peter Purves Smith: 'Lucile' 1937


Peter Purves Smith | Australia 1912-49 | Lucile 1937 | Oil on board | 48.2 x 36cm | Purchased 2011 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

In this work the artist has painted Lucile Stephens as if she’s carved out of stone: monumental, yet somehow lifeless with downcast eyes and a half-smile both playful and frozen.

After a difficult childhood and an undistinguished early life, Peter Purves Smith discovered an inclination and aptitude for art while travelling in Europe during the early 1930s. He saw major surrealist exhibitions in London and New York before returning to Melbourne in early 1937 where he enrolled in the modern school of George Bell — a contact made from his classes with Ian McNab at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London during 1935−36.

Strongly influenced by the work of the European surrealists and encouraged by Bell, Purves Smith playfully drew on the contemporary social and political scenes for subject matter during his productive time at the school. Lucile 1937 demonstrates both Purves Smith’s talent as a painter and his facility with social satire. He provocatively teases out the psychological character of Lucile Stephens (1916−2003), a beautiful young woman whose mother was one of the leading social figures of pre-war Melbourne. Here, the artist paints her as if she’s carved out of stone: monumental, yet somehow lifeless, her downcast eyes and coquettish half-smile both playful and frozen. Lucile Stephens belonged to the same social milieu as Purves Smith and his close friend and fellow student Tas (Russell) Drysdale; both had attended Geelong Grammar School. Thus, Purves Smith’s implied gentle satire of Stephens could be seen as a self-deprecating statement about the Melbourne social world with which he was very familiar.

Soon after, in December 1937, Purves Smith left again for Europe. He stopped first in Paris, attending classes at the Académie Colarossi where his art developed rapidly. He painted a series of works critical of the developing political situation, especially the rise of Nazism in Germany and, one of his best known works from this period is the Queensland Art Gallery’s The Nazis, Nuremburg 1938, a satirical painting conveying Purves Smith’s frustration and alarm at the impending war.

Called to military service in 1940, Purves Smith spent six years in the British Army, first in Nigeria and later in Burma, where he contracted tuberculosis. Returning to Australia in 1946 he began painting again, and married Maisie Newbold — whom he had met at Bell’s school in 1937 — with Drysdale as best man. However, he worked for only two years before becoming too ill to continue, and died in 1949, at the age of 37.

The Queensland Art Gallery has a modest collection of modern Australian painting influenced by Surrealism, and this lively portrait by a major artist makes a significant contribution to the Gallery’s holdings from the modernist period. As George Bell commented in 1950, Peter Purves Smith ‘. . . was and would have remained unique in Australian art. None other has combined such a wealth of qualities, alertness of imagination always revealing something unexpected, an adult point of view and technical ability, all infused by a warm humanity and seasoned by a puckish humour which was his alone’.1

Angela Goddard, Curator, Australian Art to 1975

1. George Bell, Sun, 12 April 1950.