Important Australian + International Fine Art
25 November 2009

John Firth Smith

born 1943

oil on linen

91.0 x 244.0 cm

signed and dated verso: Firth-Smith 88
inscribed verso: JOHN FIRTH-SMITH / “SALMON” (RED LEAD) 1988 / OIL ON LINEN / 8’X 3’ / SYDNEY

$30,000 - 40,000As
Sold for $20,400 (inc. BP) in Auction 12 - 25 November 2009, Melbourne

Corporate collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

As a major Australian painter and one of the leading artists of his generation, John Firth-Smith has kept alive the transcendent possibilities inherent in painting. At times described as a landscape painter, abstract symbolist and marine painter, the true scale and weight of Firth-Smith's practice transcend any of these descriptions. Neither regional nor avant-garde, Firth-Smith stepped free of the cultural nationalism that characterised earlier Australian schools and created work of depth and conviction that was instantly recognisable as true to its origins and aware of its place in the world.

From his first exhibition as an 18 year old in 1962, Firth-Smith was recognised by then critic James Gleeson as a painter of surprising maturity, displaying a pictorial language defined by a ‘sober troubled mood’.1 In the decades that were to follow, Firth-Smith refined his practice through continuous experimentation, developing a masterly ability to convey the nuances of atmosphere and form.

By the 1980s, he began to produce paintings in a panoramic horizontal format which ‘best encapsulated his poetic approach to abstraction’.2 Of such a scale that they cannot be viewed in a single glance, his works from this period require the viewer to walk their length, and it is from this period that our painting, Salmon 1988, emerged. Its motif heralds the artist's lifelong engagement with the ocean, and with the Sydney Harbour in particular. Filled with symbol and meaning, the paintings engulf and reveal, taut and alive with an unmistakable vigor. As observed by critic John McDonald in 1988, 'Firth-Smith's paintings seek to capture a moment when our finite and earthly perceptions of the world give way to intimations of the infinite. Grounded in simple observations of the harbour, the rusty hull of a ship, or the ripples in a pool of water, they point towards a higher form of vision…'3

1. Gleeson, J., ‘Young artists - but so mature’, Sun, 21 July 1962
2. Wilson, G., John Firth-Smith, A Voyage that Never Ends, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, p. 1623. McDonald, J., ‘Visions of the infinite’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1988