My Cultural Life: George H Smyth
The surrealist painter on inspiration, what makes an artist and having Fyfe Ewing turning up on his doorstep
George H Smyth is a surrealist painter whose work is inspired by Rene Magritte, Dali, desire, time, seashores, water, all things beachy, the curvature of the female form and in at least one case, an avalanche of panama hats.
Born in Ardglass, Smyth attended art college in Belfast, travelled widely and provided illustrations for Therapy? album covers before devoting himself to his painting and setting up home near Tyrella beach – a location which has majorly inspired and shaped his creativity.
Lighthouses, boats, life buoys, sunshine glancing against sand, women languishing near the tide, clocks carried under the arms of besuited men, landscapes that have an almost photo-real, spacey, graphic precision – his style is distinctive and unashamedly beach-centric.
When did you start painting?
I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember. My father, Ben was a talented water-colourist and was always encouraging me.
Your early work was more figurative compared to the surrealism of your recent canvases. Can you describe why you made this transition?
I was very influenced by German social realism; the Scottish painters Ken Currie and Peter Howson; and local figures such as Rita Duffy and Dermot Seymour.
I think the fact that you could walk into a gallery in Belfast and see paintings of that kind painted by local artists inspired me. Upon leaving college and doing lots of travelling I was able to visit museums and galleries and stand in front of originals by Dali and Magritte – paintings I had only seen before in books. Then, living near the beach for years obviously added to the mix.
You painted album covers for the band Therapy?. How did this come about?
In 1988, I had just moved to Belfast to go Art College. One night my cousin turned up at the door with another guy looking for a place to crash. That guy turned out to be Fyfe Ewing, the drummer in Therapy?. We really hit it off and found we shared similar tastes in art and music. Then I heard their music and was seriously impressed.
They asked me to design the cover of their first, self-financed single 'Meat Abstract'. 'The more surreal the better' was the brief! We were all really pleased with the end result, how it looked and sounded. They then gave me carte blanche with the next two album covers. That was a really fun time hanging out with those guys and watching them get bigger and bigger.
Why has surrealism inspired you so much?
After discovering surrealism there was no going back. It's as if I was introduced to a world of imaginative anarchy. Thought free from the manipulation of reason excited me and I just felt it was the only way to fly.
What themes do you explore in your art and why?
Time, love, cosmic consciousness, death – the major themes. I have always been attracted to the big questions, the ‘why’ of things. I fear mediocrity and become bored in the blink of an eye. As I get older I have become more aware of my own time running out and needing to be sure I'm doing my best.
Which artists have most inspired you and why?
Obviously the surrealists, for the sheer freedom of their expression. Then Lucian Freud, Nicholas Jolly, Peter Howson… any work that makes me want to paint. I think Conor Walton is one of the best artists going at the moment.
What makes an artist?
As a painter, I would say it’s someone who is aware of the rich tradition of painting and by their work, honours and is inspired by that tradition. Also making art your will and testament – pursuing your art to the end and making it a testament to your experiences.
Which of your own works are you most proud of and why?
Probably the paintings that have taken the longest to complete. 'The Poet's Dilemma' took four months, 'Tom Foolery' about three. Perhaps because so much of my time is concentrated into one image, the paintings pack a real punch.
Do you have a favourite book?
The Beach by Alex Garland. It’s a brilliant yarn brilliantly told. It just takes you there. Witnessing the central character unravel as his dream turns into a nightmare pulls you along on a wild ride.
Star Wars. It blew my mind as a child. To be transported to other worlds was the best thing for a young inquisitive mind. It’s a film that still resonates with me.
The Doors are probably my all-time favourite band. I was quietly seduced by Morrison's genius as a song-writer. A good-looking lunatic dressed in leather, screaming at his audience to de-program and look at life differently. It was hard not to want to buy into that.
Which cultural figures from throughout history would you bring to a dinner party?
Salvador Dali, Ozzy Osbourne, Quentin Tarantino and my mum.