ART REVIEW: William "St. Thomas" Smith retrospective
St. Thomas comes to London - in art form

By Nicole Laidler
Gazette Staff, University of Western Ontario
March 5, 2003

Artist: William "St. Thomas" Smith
Exhibit: Retrospective of Smith's paintings
Location: Museum London (421 Ridout St.)

During his life, William "St. Thomas" Smith was regarded as one of the greatest marine painters and water colourists of his time. Smith immigrated to Beaverton, Ontario, near Lake Simcoe, as a child in 1869; he graduated from the Ontario School of Art in 1884. A few years later, he married one of his teachers and the couple settled in St. Thomas, where they taught painting to the young ladies at Alma College.

Smith was elected Associate Member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1902. His work was exhibited throughout Canada and the United States, and hung in all the finest London homes. Despite this success, Smith's contribution to the development of art in southwestern Ontario was largely forgotten after his death in 1947.

The current retrospective of William "St. Thomas" Smith's career in the Forum Gallery at Museum London re-establishes his reputation as a technically gifted, if somewhat conservative, early 20th century Canadian artist.

The majority of the 52 works on display are watercolour seascapes or landscapes. At first glance, Smith's work may seem overly illustrative to a modern audience. But his wonderfully loose paintings of crashing waves, "Untitled (Waves-Orkney)," and swirling seas, "Untitled (Stormy Sea)," resonate with motion and colour and could have been painted yesterday.

"Untitled, Along the Shore" beautifully evokes the hazy heat left behind at the beach after a sudden summer shower. Smith and his wife travelled extensively in northern Scotland, and the pastoral mystery of the Scottish moors is captured in "Twilight." Paintings such as these truly showcase Smith's technical mastery and his innovative use of the "wet paper" technique to achieve atmospheric effects.

Some of the colours in Smith's smaller landscape paintings verge on the saccharine, but the watercolour technique itself is always impeccable. Smith was definitely at his best when depicting water and sky. The few romanticized scenes of working fishermen and farm labourers come across as awkward and old-fashioned. The large "Iceburg – Gulf of St. Lawrence" is the most abstract work of the show and is reminiscent of some of the paintings by the Group of Seven.

The show spans 65 years of Smith's career. It is a shame that guest curator, Sheelagh Carroll de Sousa, was unable to provide dates for most of the pieces on exhibit. This omission makes it difficult for the viewer to fully appreciate Smith's development as an artist, or to put the paintings into their proper historical context.

Despite his conservative subject matter and approach, Smith does not deserve to be forgotten. The man could paint – he made a living at it, and his work has aged much better than the chocolate-box paintings of another local artist, Paul Peel, which are on permanent display upstairs.

The William "St. Thomas" Smith exhibition runs at the Forum Gallery in Museum London until Mar. 23.