Richard Shirley Smith is that very rare thing, a thoroughly civilised artist whose love of tradition does not cramp his style. His work is full of the most extraordinary imagery: recondite references to ancient sculpture and buildings, Renaissance painting, history and and poetry combine in entirely original decorative flights of fancy. Surreal juxtapositions of architectural fragments, seashells and extravagant plant-forms abound, mixed sometimes with reminiscences of Victorian typography and period costumes, but almost always combined with representations of the bizarre found-objects which fill the artist’s studio and give him such evident delight and inspiration. However, even in his most exquisite designs for the pages of books or collectors’ bookplates his work never descends to the merely literary; rather it is literate – the highly finished, precisely rendered imaginings of a mind well stocked with episodes from myth and legend, the history of classical building and the minutiae of the natural world; the remarkable erudition leavened at all times with a lightness of touch. During a distinguished career already spanning fifty years, Richard Shirley Smith has worked as a painter, a draughtsman and illustrator and a wood-engraver of great distinction. As well as this he has found time to create a substantial body of work as an architectural muralist, projecting on a larger scale fantasies that seem effortlessly to combine the worlds of Tiepolo and Piranesi, but in those subtly delicious, ice-cream tonalities that are so instantly recognisable, too, in his smaller easel pictures and decorative caprices.
Though trained initially as a painter in the inspiring, if not, at that date, wholly congenial realist milieu of the Slade School of Art, it was during a crucial eighteen months spent in Rome that Richard could be said to have found himself as an artist. Imbibing classical forms and details – which he also photographed avidly – he responded directly to the architectural magic and atmosphere of Italy, fashioning himself as what, in the eighteenth century, would have been called a painter of ‘fancy pieces’. Lacking in the dull pedantry of topographical views, his work would have delighted eighteenth century milordi and connoisseurs making their Grand Tour just as it appeals today to those who respond to the romance of the classical world but also find a fascination in the essential strangeness of the modern sensibility.
In this collection of recent small works we see Richard Shirley Smith in perhaps his favourite and most natural role as a master of the capriccio, the painting of quirky architectural forms and strange objects placed in unreal or unexpected surroundings. These are cabinet gems in which meticulous technique and a rare imagination combine to create images which both tease and give lasting delight.