MY LONDON: St. Thomas Smith takes us to a familiar place

Maybe his mother called him Bill. But to almost everybody else, her sweet William was the artist known as St. Thomas Smith.

More than 50 works by the late St. Thomas-based artist are on display at Museum London. The exhibition, titled William St. Thomas Smith, is organized by Chatham's Thames Art Gallery. Backed with a fine and feisty catalogue, William St. Thomas Smith puts the man's life and art back in the public eye and soul.

Not that the surging surf, sweeping skies, seascapes, landscapes and sunsets of St. Thomas Smith's world have ever been far out of sight. Wandering around Museum London's Forum gallery took me back to my grandparents' house at St. Thomas. There was "a St. Thomas Smith" on the wall. That painting was always like a warm and fascinating welcome to the home.

I'm sure other visitors to the exhibition will have the same sense of travelling back to a familiar place -- a home, a school, a business -- where a gem from St. Thomas Smith's brilliant career showed off its owner's exquisite taste.

Two other aspects of the new exhibition jump out at me. The man could paint Kettle Creek like nobody else. A personal favourite is the depiction of a farmhouse along the Elgin County waterway. it is in no way prettified, just beautifully "scrubby" to use Museum London executive director Brian Meehan's word.

There is also the sense that St. Thomas Smith didn't care much when it came to painting people. Happily, the few forlorn people in the show are vastly outnumbered by his beloved rocks, seas and skies. He worked often in watercolour using a "wet paper" technique to achieve his remarkable atmospheric effects.

Even if his subject matter is often European, the artist's ties to the London region are deep.

St. Thomas Smith was born in 1862 in Belfast. He immigrated to Ontario as a child with his family and later studied at the Ontario College of Art. It was there he likely received the nickname of "St. Thomas" to distinguish him from another art student also named William Smith.

He married his first wife, Julia Ann Elizabeth Payne, his former teacher, at Southwold Township in 1886. They settled at St. Thomas. A year later, he was part of the art staff at Alma College. He later travelled in Canada, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. After Payne's death, he remarried in 1930.

His art was exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists, the Royal Canadian Academy, the Toronto Industrial Exhibition and many commercial galleries.

St. Thomas Smith received an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1940.

So, despite all the struggles of any professional artist, he was a respected and admired figure in his own lifetime.

Somehow, we let St. Thomas Smith get away from us. He died on Feb. 18, 1947, just weeks after a major retrospective exhibition at the old London Public Library and art museum, curated by the late Clare Bice. Somehow, he began to fade into the background. Later exhibitions were not able to reverse the fade.

Too bad. Read the catalogue's commentary from curator Sheelagh Carroll de Sousa and Toronto art historian and critic Robert Stacey. You will learn all the reasons the artist they called St. Thomas deserves the best.

Stacey, in particular, slaps a big, bristly brush on a number of writers -- including former Free Press staffers -- too dim to locate St. Thomas Smith's excellence.

This is no bad thing. De Sousa and Stacey help ensure St. Thomas Smith won't fade away again.

There are other London-region artists who could use their own de Sousas and Staceys. I think the late Jack Chambers and the late Clark McDougall, to name just two, unfairly face that fade.

But we do have William St. Thomas Smith back from the fade and that is a cause for celebration.