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Auckland Museum Applied Arts Collection of Printed Textiles
William Mason | Blanche Wormald | May Smith | Louise Tilsley

May Smith was a well known New Zealand painter who also worked with textiles during the 1940s and 1950s. The May Smith fabrics held by the Applied Arts collection were donated by design historian Douglas lloyd-Jenkins.

May Smith was born in India in 1906 and educated in New Zealand. She attended Elam School of Art at Auckland University; going on to London's College of Art where she graduated in 1931 with a Diploma from the engraving school. She became interested in painting and during this time met expatriate painter Frances Hodgkins.

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May began exhibiting her painting in small galleries. "It was during the depression," May recalled, "and no-one was interested in art or artists. I was mainly concerned with earning a living so I concentrated on textiles."

May printed using wood and lino-cut blocks and supplied London houses such as Heal and Son and Peter Jones.

She returned to New Zealand in 1939 where painting became her priority but with the shortage of fabrics created by the war it seemed an opportune time to return to fabric printing. She was a member of the Auckland Society of Arts and worked on commissioned fabric prints and murals.

In 1946 she married Philip Hardcastle and moved to Gisborne where she and her husband set up as commercial fabric printers, but this enterprise was short-lived.

As May explained at the time: "The hand-printer has a wealth of very good mass-produced work to compete with. An artist can spend years perfecting his work but it's still a matter of luck whether he'll attract attention - especially in textile designing in Auckland".

May felt that fabric design was undervalued and suggested in a newspaper article that in order to get more people interested, fabric designing needed to be included in the Elam Fine Arts syllabus: "If more hand block work were being produced," she explained, "a demand might easily grow from here."

She returned to Auckland and when her marriage ended she took up teaching at Epsom Girls' Grammar in 1952. She also taught textile design at the Auckland Teachers Training College in the '50s.

Although principally a painter, she exhibited her fabrics in group shows with the artist/poet A.R.D. Fairburn and her work sold in a number of Auckland shops.

In 1967 May moved to Coromandel and exhibited her painting until the early 1980s. She died in 1988.

Examples of A.R.D.Fairburn's work can be seen on: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/fairburn/

From information held by the research library at the Auckland City Art Gallery and conversations and correspondence with Dr Deidre Airey and Jean Clarkson July 2002.