Artist profile: D. C. Smyth – Historic subjects

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art,
in several segments.

Dorothy Carleton Smyth produced many illustrations that refer to times past. I’m calling these “historic subjects” even though some are more literary.

The first is Cupid’s Garden (1909), which I think is just amazing in terms of detail and composition.

Cupid's Garden (1909)
Cupid’s Garden (1909)

The foreground, mid-ground, and background are defined well, and the couple stands out enough to not be subsumed by all the details. But Smyth made them somewhat harmonious with their surroundings, too, by incorporating flowers into their clothes. (I would date their clothes to around 1730, France.)

This illustration is also a great example of the influence of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print artists (like Hiroshige) on European art around the turn of the century. The clean, dark flowy lines and a subtle, delicate color palette are visible in many European artists’ works, including those of Alphonse Mucha.

The Suitors (undated)
The Suitors (undated)

The Suitors also depicts French people from around the 1730s. I don’t know what the story is, but obviously there are two men (one of whom looks like a soldier) interested in this lady, whose clothing puts me in the mind of a maid. The mid- and background are presented more as suggestions, which I quite like.

Costume design for Macbeth (1933) from the Glasgow School of Art's archives
Costume design for Macbeth (1933) from the Glasgow School of Art’s archives

This is a costume design for the third witch from Macbeth. The other two you can see on the Glasgow School of Art archives. I like the raggedy sleeves and the crazy orange fingernails!
Full cover of The Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1899)
Full cover of The Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1899)

My last few images are of a book cover Dorothy Carleton Smyth hand-painted for a collection of poetry by Lord Alfred Tennyson. This book was published by the employees of Cedric Chivers, who invented a type of cover that he called “vellucent”, which was transparent vellum over paper board. These luxury books weren’t the best for his business, and he eventually concentrated more on binding books for libraries. He employed mostly women to fold, collate, sew, bind, mend, design covers, and paint the covers of books. Among his workers were Smyth, Alice Shepherd, J.D. Dunn, Muriel Taylor, and Agatha Gales.
front cover
front cover

The front cover shows King Arthur kneeling in front of an orderly row of flowers, holding his sword. On the back cover, Queen Guinevere kneels and prays with her eyes closed, her hands resting on a large Book of Hours. I wonder if the wild thorny flowers behind Guinevere are an indication of her betrayal? The figures represent Tennyson’s cycle of poems “Idylls of the King”.
back cover
back cover

Next week is my last post for Smyth, and will include some lovely miscellaneous illustrations.

Other parts in the Dorothy Carleton Smyth artist profile series
Antiques Roadshow
Other subjects



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