I arrived at the railway station of the small Welsh village, I was here to interview a painter who’s work I had discovered on the internet…
….as I alighted the train only one person was at the end of the platform. I walked towards the figure with my hand extended as a greeting. We shook hands and within minutes I walked through the door to his home and studio. His wife (Pauline) had already prepared refreshments of tea and cake. The feeling from both of them, was warm and calm and we chatted about how they found themselves living on the borderlands between Wales and England.
Pauline was a deputy head-teacher in Borneo, the largest island in Asia, together with John. He was offered a teaching job in Denbighshire and they moved to Wales many years ago. It was a move that proved to have personal historical connections, even though she only discovered her Welsh family connections after she had moved to Wales. John also had many a long lost family connection in Wales. I told them of my own Welsh family background, one which was not so distant as their own. My grandmother and grandfather (on my mothers side) were born and raised in Wales, before they moved to Manchester and my Uncle still lives on the North West Welsh coast.
The first impression of John Smout is one of a cultured and serious Artist. His background supports this as he was educated at Stourbridge and Liverpool colleges of Art and holds a BA (Hons). He is a Royal Cambrian Academician and taught and lectured on art and the history of art in various art establishments for many years. All that detailed information was new to me. My only reason for wanting to see his paintings [in the ‘flesh’] was driven by the examples of paintings I discovered whilst searching the world wide web for paintings that showed both originality, talent, authenticity and quality.
Our chat over tea and cake didn’t last very long before John invited me to see his work.
He has a number of rooms dedicated for creating art. Upstairs was his main studio, which Pauline had whispered to me that he had spent a lot of time ‘tidying-up’ before I’d arrived – On the racks there was work that either John considered he hadn’t finished with or they hadn’t shown themselves to be finished. Several were placed around the room which were positioned to show how he developed his work organically. He told me how other people asked him: “why he kept changing his style? ” – a question that always irritated him.
We talked about how the development of painters is often mistaken for change of style by non-painters [and some galleries]. As perhaps it is more common for Artists today to stick to a style and then repeat it. Which is fine, if you need to keep selling your Art ‘to pay the rent’ – John Smout has never had the need nor the desire to live off his Art, but rather he lives for it. In fact, he rarely tells people very much about his art all. He also never wishes to explain his work, not only because it’s difficult for him to talk about himself, but he firmly believes in that well known phrase, “Art should speak for itself.” Which today is not as loud as it used to be, modern audiences rarely look at images for more than 10 seconds.
However, I also agree with Mark Rothko, when he said that after a work is finished it should be sent ‘out in the world’ to fend for itself. And John’s work has not really seen the outside of Wales in the last few decades or so. He did have some of his work exhibited in the Manchester Royal Exchange, but that was way back in 1986 – And whereas John has always produced quality and interestingly modern abstract/figurative work, his ‘developed paintings of later life surely stand head and shoulders above the paintings he exhibited back in the day.
He has also diligently kept date marked ‘scrap-books’ which have small copies of his work from 1969. Flipping through them was a fascinating insight into the artists history and his consistent and steady ‘development of his art’ that he stands behind. Time was clocking on fast, as he shown me these books, and he kept a close eye on the time as he knew I could only spend five or so hours with him before I had to catch my train back to Manchester. Before we left the room he pulled out a full size copy of an ink drawing he had made. “I really like using pen and ink, it concentrates the mind and one can produce more detailed images” he said and smiled. “Here, you can have this one.” I took it with pleasure.
He encouraged me to leave the main studio and follow him downstairs, through the kitchen, where Pauline was preparing a little lunch for us. We then went out into the garden, which was quite beautiful with a view over the hills, and into another room.
This is where, ‘stored’ in perfect order, was most of his completed work. It was carefully covered in bubble wrap and placed neatly floor to ceiling, over two main walls, with the third wall as a sort of hanging space and small desk, where he, no doubt, painted in the summertime. “I still enjoy making watercolour paintings” he said, evident from the excellent watercolour samples he had shown me in his main studio. He began pulling a few larger paintings out from the racks to show them to me. I asked him how many he had stored there. “I don’t know for sure, maybe ninety or more,” he said as I looked at these wonderful creations. He had already explained how in some of his ‘series’ of work he took nature as the base, but he wanted to get underneath the earth of the landscape – to expose another dimension with a created structure that could only exist in the minds eye of the creator of it. John’s fondness for structure also came through in an architectural way. He has painted a number of, what he described as ‘monuments’ – which was a celebration of the monumental structures of times gone by. This monumental architectural interest had also stimulated him to paint ‘old-churchs’ in Wales “before they are all demolished.”
He said. Not that he believed in these buildings for any religious reasoning, but because he loved how they had been made of the stone and slate that is indicative of the building materials used throughout Wales. He explained that the copy of the drawing he gave me, was a ‘homage’ to the workers of the ‘slate quarry’ who had given their lives in the course of their employment as quarriers.
John’s fascination with history and art was another reason for a number of works that he calls ‘his girls.’ These are portraits of young women (head and shoulders) which have been painted in such a way that one may think that they were ‘lifted’ from a wall in Pompeii. I think, they are as amazing as John’s ‘structured or exposed landscapes’ as he calls them. His ‘girls’ are beautifully painted, not so such much as original in subject matter nor contemporary, as his other work, but nonetheless you can feel that they are special to him, and that feeling transmits through to the viewer of them.
“my work does not stand still, and is always evolving, sometimes responding to current events and moods, but I hope will always remain relevant to the present time”
John has said before he believes that his work “radiates a spirit of optimism.” And he also has said that. “…occasionally they are tinged with the darker side of humanity.” I disagree, that which he may well see as the ‘darker side,’ is for me at least, better described as ’empathy’ and like so many painters before him, empathic work can be sometimes taken for a depressed or darker view of life. But John is a human who wants the society to be fair for less fortunate human beings. And it’s a desire that, I believe most of society want and indeed are beginning to demand of our Governments.
John’s work has been extensively exhibited, mostly in Wales as I have said. He has participated in solo, two man and group shows for some time now. His latest exhibition was with the Oriel Theatr Clywd – an organisation that like so many of its kind, has a very well appointed Gallery, but lacks the financial muscle to market it’s exhibitions to a wider audience. The consequence being that Johns work remains sort of hidden from the rest of the UK. It will be interesting if, like me, the established private Galleries on the high street will agree with me, that it is high time his work was shown to the larger viewing public in one of the big Cities in England.
John took me back to the small village railway station, with 3 minutes to spare (the train was late) – We shook hands and as he walked away he turned.. “you should come back, one day.” He said and smiled. “Don’t you worry about that John, I shall.” …was my reply.
Denis Taylor (Editor) was in the studio with John Smout.