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Where paintings have been – Matt Smith

Following the Government announcement yesterday, museums and galleries in Cambridge will be closed to the public as part of a period of national/local restrictions. So, with great sadness, we will not be able to reopen as planned on 2 January 2021.

The artist's response

Out of place - copyright Matt Smith

Matt Smith’s lockdown adventure was spent in County Kilkenny.  From there he recalls being in the Fitzwilliam’s Gallery 6, where decades old wall coverings reveal memories of where paintings have been.  Effects of light and marks of use revealing the passage of time. 

This led Matt to an early photographic process called cyanotypes, creating an image using just paper, light and two chemicals.  Often used in the past to create flower prints, Matt’s mind turned to flower paintings by artist Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) in Gallery 17. 

Hear how he makes a connection from Ruysch’s paintings to the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Podcast transcript

This transcript was generated using Amazon Speech Recognition; there maybe errors in this text. Please do point any errors that you find out using the feedback widget at the bottom corner of this page.

  1. 00:00:01 - 00:00:05
    Carmen Pryce Hi, I'm Carmen Pryce, and this is “In my mind's eye: The museum explored”
  2. 00:00:06 - 00:00:26
    Carmen Pryce A podcast where I get to talk to artists and writers during the covid 19 lockdown about their memories of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. In this episode, I speak to artist, ceramicist and curator Matt Smith, who's built his hugely successful career on making site specific work in museums and galleries.
  3. 00:00:26 - 00:00:35
    Matt Smith If we think of museums as memory holders, the people we don't see represented in museums or thrown into the realm of the unreal or the insignificant and
  4. 00:00:36 - 00:00:50
    Matt Smith this is what draws me back time and time again, to working with museums, trying to understand what we think is important in society and what we don't and how we need to be arguing with that and interrogating that better.
  5. 00:00:50 - 00:00:55
    Carmen Pryce Matt was locked down in Ireland when I spoke to him, and he remembers the physical feeling of being in the museum.
  6. 00:00:56 - 00:01:02
    Carmen Pryce The remote recording in this case is a tiny bit ropey, but we've had to live with that as the new normal.
  7. 00:01:03 - 00:01:08
    Carmen Pryce I called Matt on Monday, the 13th of July 2020 at 3 PM British summer time.
  8. 00:01:10 - 00:01:13
    Carmen Pryce Matt Smith, so good of you to join me today on this lock down call.
  9. 00:01:13 - 00:01:15
    Matt Smith It's an absolute pleasure Carmen.
  10. 00:01:15 - 00:01:17
    Carmen Pryce Tell me about your lock down situation.
  11. 00:01:17 - 00:01:28
    Matt Smith Lockdown has been quite the adventure for me, as I think it has for quite a lot of people. I usually base myself in England and teach over in Stockholm in Sweden,
  12. 00:01:29 - 00:01:50
    Matt Smith but we've ended up in Ireland in County Kilkenny. My husband's Irish, so I am here with him and, the dog Gracie and we're in a field in a very rural location, which is stunningly beautiful and, very quiet and very different from being in an urban situation where I usually am.

  1. 00:01:50 - 00:01:52
    Carmen Pryce What are you actually doing? How's your working day?
  2. 00:01:52 - 00:02:13
    Matt Smith I'm still working during lock down. I got access to a studio here. My main practise area is clay, so I've got access to kiln. So in terms of practise, it's been a, really productive time. And I think that's for most people lockdown wouldn't be what something I would have chosen, but it certainly had benefits as well as difficulties.
  3. 00:02:13 - 00:02:18
    Carmen Pryce Now let's talk about museums and memories and what you remember after a visit.
  4. 00:02:18 - 00:02:22
    Matt Smith It's interesting thinking about memory and museums.
  5. 00:02:23 - 00:02:47
    Matt Smith For me, often more than one particular artwork, what stays with me after a visit to a museum or when thinking back to a visit to a museum is the feeling of being in the space. It's that kind of physical and visceral experience that exists in my memory to a large extent, and sometimes that might be due to the light or the physical space.
  6. 00:02:48 - 00:03:07
    Matt Smith sometimes it's about how the museum makes you feel. In Birmingham Museum in the early nineties, I used to go there really regularly as a student, and there was a painting of Bacchus by Simeon Solomon, and the interpretation next to the painting talked about Solomon's life and homosexuality
  7. 00:03:08 - 00:03:23
    Matt Smith And that label stayed with me for decades. It told me that queer people existed in the eyes of the museum and that not only do they exist, but they were welcome in that space and that queer people were part of the cultural narrative,
  8. 00:03:24 - 00:03:24
    Matt Smith and, I think,
  9. 00:03:25 - 00:03:38
    Matt Smith is the emotional response. I get too objects and museums more than a curatorial narrative that I find really lingers with me afterwards and having museums discuss
  10. 00:03:39 - 00:04:00
    Matt Smith what they own on who they relate to and, the better they become about relating that to more than just may be the dominant group within society. I think it's huge power in how people emotionally connect and how they want to maintain an emotional connection with objects and also with you, the museums that show them.
  11. 00:04:00 - 00:04:02
    Carmen Pryce Can you tell me about your emotional connection to the Fitz?
  12. 00:04:02 - 00:04:12
    Matt Smith Yeah, of course. The Fitzwilliam for me is almost an anomaly. I grew up in Cambridgeshire, not very far from the Fitzwilliam. But
  13. 00:04:13 - 00:04:17
    Matt Smith for whatever reason, I never went there as a child. I was never taken there by my parents
  14. 00:04:18 - 00:04:19
    Matt Smith And
  15. 00:04:20 - 00:04:38
    Matt Smith When I started working with the Fitzwilliam a few years ago, this set off a really odd confusion for me that I felt that since it was relatively local where I grew up, I should be familiar with it, and I should know it and there was a real disconnect going in there of going in somewhere unfamiliar,
  16. 00:04:38 - 00:05:06
    Matt Smith but emotionally I felt I should connect with and It got me thinking about how we deal with absent memories, how we deal with recollections that we think we should have and feel on how we try and adapt to make emotional connections to compensate for this this lack of actual memory when we think it should be there. But obviously, that was four years ago, and since then, working with the Fitzwilliam quite intensively on the Flux parent unpacked exhibition.
  17. 00:05:07 - 00:05:11
    Matt Smith I've built up this huge wealth of memories since then and It was
  18. 00:05:12 - 00:05:33
    Matt Smith a really joy to be invited to work with the podcast, to go back and start thinking about the memories that were made in that relatively short recent period of time and how I might be able to work with those again and re engage with museum collections in a way there was outside of the work we did with flux.
  19. 00:05:33 - 00:05:38
    Carmen Pryce Tell me a little bit more about flux, Parian Unpacked and your relationship with the museum.
  20. 00:05:38 - 00:05:51
    Matt Smith My relationship with the Fitzwilliam really started in 2017. The museum had acquired a collection of around 300 Victorian Parian wear busts,
  21. 00:05:51 - 00:06:05
    Matt Smith and it's both a really beautiful collection, but also quite a difficult one I think for a museum, most of the busts are about the same size. And they're mostly portrait busts of men,
  22. 00:06:05 - 00:06:13
    Matt Smith many of whom we wouldn't necessarily recognise today, even though at the time when they were created that are being incredibly famous household figures.
  23. 00:06:14 - 00:06:36
    Matt Smith And so for me, the challenge was how to engage people with this collection. Parian, there's a clay and flux. A compound is added to porcelain, and it gives the porcelain the appearance of marble when it's fired. I was interested with this idea of flux, the chemical that creates Parian
  24. 00:06:37 - 00:06:49
    Matt Smith also being a thing, a word that talks about change, how our view of these people might have changed in the 150 years or so since these busts were created, the museum has
  25. 00:06:49 - 00:06:51
    Matt Smith talked about the way it presents work. Is it
  26. 00:06:52 - 00:07:01
    Matt Smith a country house style of pulling decorative art objects and fine art objects together in a much more domestic way than
  27. 00:07:02 - 00:07:14
    Matt Smith many museums would and I was interested in this idea of the Country House and how this could maybe work with this collection of busts. So I decided to create chintz wallpapers based on
  28. 00:07:14 - 00:07:29
    Matt Smith some of the activities of the people represented in the busts had done during the lifetime. I created six chintz wallpapers for six of the people in the collection. Each then pulled out for their histories of,
  29. 00:07:29 - 00:07:43
    Matt Smith doing things within the British Empire overseas and most of them, disastrous or catastrophic or genocidal and somehow, by mixing the idea, the visual language of chintz, with some of the horrors of
  30. 00:07:44 - 00:07:54
    Matt Smith what these people did overseas brought these two competing views of history together. That kind of put this idea of flux in made it visually
  31. 00:07:55 - 00:08:12
    Matt Smith readable. For me, it was this idea of these are people and they did good things, some of them, and they did bad things. And I think I idea of history in England has been very much a celebratory one until quite recently, and I wanted to just
  32. 00:08:13 - 00:08:20
    Matt Smith challenge that slightly by looking at some of the less palatable things that these national heroes have done overseas.
  33. 00:08:21 - 00:08:24
    Matt Smith But it was. It's been interesting in the last few months to see how
  34. 00:08:25 - 00:08:36
    Matt Smith work with sculptures in Bristol and the Black Lives matters. Campaign has kind of really swelled up and I'm just interested in how
  35. 00:08:37 - 00:08:40
    Matt Smith emotionally important material culture still is to us and how,
  36. 00:08:42 - 00:08:46
    Matt Smith how we use it, defined who we are what's important to us as a nation
  37. 00:08:46 - 00:08:50
    Carmen Pryce and you're ahead on that. In some respects with this installation, right
  38. 00:08:50 - 00:09:12
    Matt Smith is interesting. Looking back, while I might be in a couple of years ahead from the Black Lives Matter campaign, the negotiation of sculpture has a huge and long history, and there were Punch cartoons where sculptures of Queen Victoria were being re carved to show Mahatma Gandhi underneath and
  39. 00:09:13 - 00:09:17
    Matt Smith Saddam Hussein's sculptures being torn down there’s
  40. 00:09:18 - 00:10:02
    Matt Smith history of Lenin's sculptures being taken down or defaced in the former Soviet Union. I think for whatever reason, sculpture seems to be something that viscerally is incredibly important to people and incredibly contested and I think, the best use for the sculpture in Bristol was to pull it down, that it spoke so much about the strength of feeling and the need for change on the need for broadening the agreed narrative. Actually that that statue was doing next to nothing except causing harm, whereas by an act of violence which I wouldn't necessarily want to condone. But I think in this case was absolutely justified and needed to shock us out of
  41. 00:10:03 - 00:10:05
    Matt Smith established ways of thinking.
  42. 00:10:06 - 00:10:08
    Matt Smith I'm just really delighted
  43. 00:10:09 - 00:10:22
    Matt Smith more voices, are coming into the debate and more ways of seeing history of being heard on that we can start having a more nuanced imbalance view of what British history is and has been.
  44. 00:10:22 - 00:10:26
    Carmen Pryce I want to move on slightly now and think about this project,
  45. 00:10:26 - 00:10:33
    Carmen Pryce this lock down podcast and what you see in your mind's eye when you think about the Fitzwilliam museum, what have you come up with?
  46. 00:10:34 - 00:10:54
    Matt Smith What I did end up coming back to for this project is Gallery six and Gallery six in the museum is on the top floor, and it has is the Italian art from the 14th to the 16th century. So it's one of those galleries that has a huge wealth off incredibly beautiful and incredibly important objects,
  47. 00:10:55 - 00:11:00
    Matt Smith but actually objects in that gallery and not the things that really drew me in.
  48. 00:11:00 - 00:11:10
    Matt Smith Well, they're sublime. What really worked for me and works for me in that museum, which they keep coming back to, is the walls within the gallery
  49. 00:11:11 - 00:11:32
    Matt Smith and the wall coverings have obviously been in place for decades, and as the pictures have been moved or changed or shifted around, you can see the memories of where they're being in the walls have faded a different speeds because of the effect of light on them and, you're left with patches of lighter and darker walls
  50. 00:11:33 - 00:11:33
    Matt Smith and
  51. 00:11:34 - 00:11:40
    Matt Smith using only light and time. There's this beautifully rich and subtle
  52. 00:11:41 - 00:11:56
    Matt Smith record of what the museum has been doing, what work has been placed and with where changes and different ideas have come along over time. And I was particularly interested in this because museums, to a large extent
  53. 00:11:57 - 00:12:05
    Matt Smith they try and erase the passage of time and the effect that it has on objects. These huge conservation teams, which
  54. 00:12:06 - 00:12:12
    Matt Smith try to stop damage happening and trying to remove the effects of damage on objects over time,
  55. 00:12:13 - 00:12:16
    Matt Smith you know, taking the stains away from clothes that people have worn
  56. 00:12:17 - 00:12:59
    Matt Smith or repairing the chips that people have made when they've knocked objects over. And I really appreciate that there was this honesty within the museum that these walls shows something that we seldom see on the in the objects on display. They show you the marks of use in the passage of time and I was interested in how the use of light to record temporary moments, whether intentionally or not could be used in my practise and how I could use this as an artist to somehow speak to the fading on the gallery walls and it lead me to do some experiments with early photographic process? I've never worked in this way before, but it just seemed appropriate that
  57. 00:13:00 - 00:13:08
    Matt Smith if we're talking about the passage of time and we're talking about the effects of light, then an early photographic process might be the right thing to do.
  58. 00:13:08 - 00:13:10
    Carmen Pryce Can you describe the process?
  59. 00:13:10 - 00:13:30
    Matt Smith The process is called Cyanotype It's a really simple process that works really well in lock down. All you need is paper light and two chemicals. Ferric ammonium citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide. When these two mixed together, you get
  60. 00:13:31 - 00:13:36
    Matt Smith a chemical level term paper a really beautiful, rich, saturated blue colour.
  61. 00:13:37 - 00:13:37
    Matt Smith And
  62. 00:13:38 - 00:13:55
    Matt Smith by marking off areas of the paper when you expose it to light the areas that don't get light, stay white, and the areas that are exposed to light. Go blue, soon end up with these quite, atmospheric and quite soft portrait's of objects placed on paper.
  63. 00:13:56 - 00:14:05
    Matt Smith I mean, they are very very lush and traditionally cyanotypes, so often used for flower prints. Quite often, people put ferns on them,
  64. 00:14:06 - 00:14:07
    Matt Smith and I was interested in
  65. 00:14:09 - 00:14:24
    Matt Smith would they somehow link this idea of doing some prints using flowers? Would it link the Italian gallery walls with the flower paintings in the room to two rooms away in Gallery 19 the Flower Painting gallery?
  66. 00:14:24 - 00:14:29
    Matt Smith I was kind of quite keen on linking the flower painting gallery because it's
  67. 00:14:30 - 00:14:33
    Matt Smith it's a collection of paintings that aren't particularly
  68. 00:14:34 - 00:14:36
    Matt Smith linked to contemporary taste.
  69. 00:14:37 - 00:14:48
    Matt Smith It seemed like a really lovely opportunity to try and look at that gallery afresh one Five of the paintings in the Flower Painting Gallery are by an artist Rachel Ruysch,
  70. 00:14:49 - 00:14:53
    Matt Smith for who was born in 1664 died in 1750.
  71. 00:14:54 - 00:15:00
    Matt Smith And art history has this habit of really privileging male artists over female artists.
  72. 00:15:00 - 00:15:16
    Matt Smith There are notable historical exceptions that Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the really famous ones. But Rachel Ruysch and I'm hoping I’m pronouncing her name right? It was a completely new name to me
  73. 00:15:17 - 00:15:20
    Matt Smith in her day. Her paintings were selling more than Rembrandts were,
  74. 00:15:20 - 00:15:35
    Matt Smith and there are these incredibly gifted female artists that were incredibly important in their day, and somehow they've fallen out of the canon of the art history. But they just waiting there to come back in and to be given their rightful place.
  75. 00:15:36 - 00:16:08
    Matt Smith I was really excited in that aspect of the paintings, but the second thing that really drew me to them was who gave them to the Fitzwilliam and they were, they were given by the second Lord Fairhaven. Now I'm sure he was a lovely man, but I'm not that interested in him. But I am interested in his brother, the first Lord Fairhaven. Why? Why will he bought and lived in Anglesey Abbey, which is now a national trust property near Cambridge and a few years ago, I worked with the National Trust in
  76. 00:16:09 - 00:16:21
    Matt Smith looking at how LGBT histories could be discussed and interpreted and Anglesey Abbey was high on my list. I think when you go around that this house has a huge
  77. 00:16:22 - 00:16:29
    Matt Smith queer aesthetic that isn't talked about hugely. But there's just something slightly uncanny about.
  78. 00:16:30 - 00:16:30
    Matt Smith And
  79. 00:16:31 - 00:16:38
    Matt Smith the first Lord Fairhaven was incredibly good friends with the then director of the Fitzwilliam, Karl Winter
  80. 00:16:38 - 00:16:57
    Matt Smith And Karl Winter was one of the three gay men who gave evidence to the Wolfendon committee, which paved the way from the 1967 repeal off prosecution for homosexuality in the UK. So there's this kind of very odd, tangential link from
  81. 00:16:57 - 00:17:02
    Matt Smith a 1660s Dutch female painter
  82. 00:17:02 - 00:17:18
    Matt Smith through to the decriminalisation of homosexuality through the Fitzwilliam. And that's the sort of stuff I love about museums goes through objects. We start pulling together these disparate histories that tell us so much about who we are,
  83. 00:17:19 - 00:17:26
    Matt Smith how history is made up, how biased it is and how we have to really kind of scratch beneath the surface or or just let
  84. 00:17:27 - 00:17:40
    Matt Smith look in the shadows to find out the histories. Maybe that we need to find out much more than the dates and it was painted or how it's painted or what it was painted with. For me, it's much more about the intimacies that go with those objects and
  85. 00:17:41 - 00:17:49
    Matt Smith and for me, this was such a gift to start unpick ing these paintings and their links to both Lord Fairhaven and an incredibly important
  86. 00:17:50 - 00:17:55
    Matt Smith history of female painting, which is kind of falling out of the populist art canon.
  87. 00:17:55 - 00:18:01
    Carmen Pryce So you're using an old school photographic technique to produce the work for us and you've gone big right?
  88. 00:18:01 - 00:18:14
    Matt Smith One of the blessings of being locked down in the countryside is for once I have a lot of space and, so it gave me a chance to go much bigger in scale than I would do if I was working in the urban setting
  89. 00:18:15 - 00:18:19
    Matt Smith and so it gave me the chance to produce these cyanotype prints, that
  90. 00:18:20 - 00:18:21
    Matt Smith of round
  91. 00:18:21 - 00:18:24
    Matt Smith a metre and a half by three metres in size.
  92. 00:18:25 - 00:18:39
    Matt Smith And the process for making the cyanotypes is after you mix the two chemicals, you paint them onto the paper and you leave it in a sealed space overnight, somewhere dark where light isn’t going to hit it
  93. 00:18:39 - 00:18:50
    Matt Smith in the morning. You bring them out, you place them out in the light and I harvested weeds plants that are out of place from the garden where I am
  94. 00:18:50 - 00:19:05
    Matt Smith and place them on the paper and exposed them from about 10 minutes to the light before washing the paper for about 10 more minutes in a bath to remove the excess chemicals and then pin the paper up to dry out on a clothes line.
  95. 00:19:05 - 00:19:06
    Matt Smith And
  96. 00:19:07 - 00:19:18
    Matt Smith I was interested in using weeds, particularly rather than cultivated plants since for me there was this really lovely metaphor, the Chinese with a metaphor in the museum that
  97. 00:19:19 - 00:19:22
    Matt Smith sometimes it's it's the things that have been overlooked all
  98. 00:19:23 - 00:19:31
    Matt Smith kind of crept in despite the best intentions of the curator or the gardener. That's where the real interest is.
  99. 00:19:31 - 00:19:32
    Carmen Pryce And are you happy with the result?
  100. 00:19:32 - 00:19:38
    Matt Smith As an artist, you often get asked, Are you happy with your work on and the answer is
  101. 00:19:38 - 00:19:41
    Matt Smith usually a qualified yes.
  102. 00:19:41 - 00:19:46
    Matt Smith When I started as an artist, a lot of it was about control and
  103. 00:19:47 - 00:19:53
    Matt Smith making material do what you wanted it to do. Suddenly, with working with clay
  104. 00:19:53 - 00:19:57
    Matt Smith within the kiln, it can distort quite a lot. And a lot of
  105. 00:19:57 - 00:20:14
    Matt Smith the skill involved in clay is how you stopped the clay behaving the way it wants to behave on. Make it behave the way you is. An artist want it to, and I think this time's gone on. In my practise, I've got more and more comfy with work being a dialogue between
  106. 00:20:14 - 00:20:26
    Matt Smith me and the clay and allowing both of us t have a voice that it becomes a conversation rather than either of us shouting at the other. So the quick answer Am I happy with the work? Yeah,
  107. 00:20:26 - 00:20:26
    Carmen Pryce I'm really
  108. 00:20:26 - 00:20:42
    Matt Smith happy with it. I think the main answer to that is I've just been really grateful to have this opportunity to work in a way that’s unfamiliar and that lockdowns forced me to see the world a bit differently and take time to work in, in a way that I wouldn’t normally work
  109. 00:20:42 - 00:20:45
    Carmen Pryce Well, it sounds wonderful, and I look forward to seeing it.
  110. 00:20:45 - 00:20:47
    Matt Smith Yeah, I will photograph it and get it over to you.
  111. 00:20:47 - 00:20:50
    Carmen Pryce Matt Smith, thank you for talking to me today.
  112. 00:20:50 - 00:20:52
    Matt Smith It's an absolute pleasure. Thanks for inviting me
  113. 00:20:53 - 00:21:05
    Carmen Pryce For images of Matt’s cyanotype, Rachel Ruysch’s flower paintings on where to find them on display in the museum, visit the Fitzwilliam Museum website. You'll also find, in my mind's eye details and transcripts.
  114. 00:21:06 - 00:21:16
    Carmen Pryce Well, that's it for this series of in my mind's eye. But if you missed a bit or you just want to listen to it all over again, subscribe to Fitzwilliam Museum podcasts and download the whole series
  115. 00:21:17 - 00:21:20
    Carmen Pryce In my mind's eyes. Made possible by the support of the Belvedere Trust,
  116. 00:21:21 - 00:21:31
    Carmen Pryce the series was produced by me common price with audio production by Nick Harris. The background music is “Call to Adventure” by Kevin McCloud on his licence on for Creative Commons agreement.

Object in focus

Where paintings have been – Matt Smith

About the object

Of uncertain origin, bought by Lord Fairhaven before 1952

Acquisition and important dates

  • Method of acquisition: Bequeathed
  • Dates: 1975


  • Production date: AD 1690


Identification number

A portrait of Matt Smith
A portrait of Matt Smith

Matt Smith is an artist, ceramicist and curator who works in response to museum collections including the Pitt Rivers Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and The Fitzwilliam Museum where in 2018 he curated the exhibition Flux:  Parian unpacked. He holds a PhD in Queer Craft from the University of Brighton, is Professor of Craft: Ceramics and Glass at Konstfack University of the Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. In 2016, he was Artist in Residence at the V&A and in 2018, he was awarded Work of the Show at Collect at the Saatchi Gallery.

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