(Blogpost) Borlase Smart: Drenched in Talent

Borlase Smart, ‘Ebb-tide on the Reef’, 1943, Oil and tempera on canvas, 101.6 x 129.5cm (c) Brian Smart, Currently on exhibition at the Civic Offices

This week Art on Tour has been focusing on artworks relating to the element of water. After all it’s National Marine Week and we just love to find links between art and… well… Just about any topic going!

So this week’s episode of the Art Snaps Podcast explores two nautical-themed still lifes in the collection by two great names of British painting, Christopher Wood and John Nash, and ends with a look at Nana Shiomi’s stunning contemporary Japanese print ‘Waves’.

However there wasn’t quite enough time to discuss another fantastic piece about water in Swindon’s collection; Borlase Smart’s Ebb-tide on the Reef (1943). And it really is about just that… water. Rushing, crashing, rippling, splashing water…

It’s a brilliant painting which is full of energy and movement, painted by an artist who lived near to, and closely observed water for most of his career. Borlase Smart moved to St Ives in 1919, aged 29, where he lived in a loft overlooking Porthemor Beach. Over the following decades he established himself as a talented painter of seascapes, even writing a book ‘The Technique of Seascape Painting’ in 1934.

He also became an invaluable member of the growing artistic community in St Ives, encouraging the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon with what were, at the time, ground-breaking practices. As Secretary of the St Ives Society of Artists from 1934-47, Smart organised exhibitions of work by important St Ives-based artists, and has often been credited with making the name of St Ives famous the world over.

Ebb-tide on the Reef was purchased from Smart in 1946, after he opened an exhibition of works by St Ives Artists right here in Swindon. Records show that he sold it at a concession to Swindon Museum and Art Gallery to show his appreciation for the kindnesses shown to him during his visit.

He also felt that Swindon had a future as an important centre for the Arts. I certainly hope he would be thrilled to see that Swindon’s art collection has expanded significantly since it started out in the mid 1940s, and includes work by several important artists associated with St Ives, including Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and the aforementioned Ben Nicholson.

Ebb-tide on the Reef depicts an Atlantic reef of rocks called Codgy, located one mile from his studio where, according to the artist, the waves were biggest. It’s one of four pictures Smart painted of this spot which were exhibited at the RA in 1943, and he described it as one of his “best sea pictures”.

When I read this I realised that, as familiar as I am with Swindon’s painting, I’ve never actually taken the time to look at other paintings by Borlase Smart. A quick visit to Art UK revealed his gift for capturing light and movement through water. Morning Light, St Ives (1922) at the Royal Cornwall Museum has an incredible luminosity about it, and shows the artist’s close observation of the reflections of light bouncing off the surfaces of the water and wet rocks.  

A later piece River Scene, Scotland (c.1938) at New County Hall, Truro, is much darker and almost foreboding with its rushing white undulations on top of a dark mass of water. However closer inspection reveals blues, greens and orangey browns which capture the nuances of colours beneath the surface.

Swindon’s work Ebb-tide on the Reef is a later piece in Smart’s oeuvre, and seems even more charged with energy than Morning Light and River Scene. It’s almost an immersive experience. The rushing water on the large canvas is pushed right up into our space. If we were there, the water would be splashing our faces and drenching our feet. I don’t think I’m over exaggerating to say that you can almost hear the noise of the crashing waves, and taste the sea salt.

By this time, Smart had been paying close attention to the dynamism of water for several years. We can see how, with his trained eye and artistic skill, he has boldly captured the reflections of light and variety movements, with the great energy and painterly expression of someone who knows and appreciates the stuff of water.

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill

2 thoughts on “(Blogpost) Borlase Smart: Drenched in Talent

  1. How could I not have known of this wonderful artist? Thank you Katie for bringing him to light – up to the surface you might say – with this sea treasure. Having looked him up I see what I’ve been missing until your blogpost.

    Liked by 1 person

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