Clare Woods: English Smile


When a British person is unhappy with their current situation but is too polite to admit it, they put on an ‘English Smile’.  This is how ‘English Smile’ is defined in the Urban Dictionary. No effort to disguise anxiety is made by Clare Woods’ painting English Smile, 2021 – the gaping mouth appears to be screaming. The crooked, yellowing teeth are a far cry from the ‘pearly whites’ of a typical American smile. Both in subject matter and execution, the painting is reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s famous masterpiece The Scream, which he painted in numerous versions between 1893 and 1910. 

For Woods, as for Munch, art is about expressing emotion. Woods paints in an expressive style that is pleasing to the eye yet also embraces an ‘ugly’ aesthetic. Her paintings visit liminal themes and challenging contradictions. When you are seriously ill, how does it feel to receive a lovely bouquet that you know will soon perish? How do you survive lockdown, safe within the four walls of your home but a prisoner of your own thoughts? How does one come to grips with one’s own mortality?

The scale of Woods’ paintings ranges from intimate to huge, her largest canvases stretching several metres tall and wide. For her exhibition at the Serlachius Museum Gösta in 2022, she painted a giant floral composition towering eight metres tall. Originally trained as a sculptor, Woods paints flat on aluminium, the fluid movements of her brush invoking a tangible sense of flow and gravity. Her sculptural training shows in her treatment of theme.  By tilting and pressing down on her brush, she creates abstract waves with the three-dimensionality of a sculpture.

Woods finds material for her paintings in books, online and in magazines, and from her own collection of photos. She owns an archive of thousands of black-and-white photos which she mines for visual inspiration. After selecting a photograph, Woods begins drawing, tracing only the main outlines and eliminating all other details. Drawing is for Woods merely a step in the process of reimagining the source material as a finished painting. Her huge studio is housed in a repurposed factory – it is cold but spacious enough for Woods to paint on a monumental scale

Woods has described her painting process as being very physical. When she paints, she thinks about nothing but paint, movement and the weight of the brush pressing against the canvas. At times her brushwork is quick and intuitive, exuding the confidence of an artist in full command of her medium. 

Woods not only collects photographs but she also keeps a list of potential titles. When she completes a painting, she props it up on the wall and only then decides which of her thousands of existing titles is the most fitting for the work in question. Woods admits that she is not a fan of descriptive titles that tell you exactly what you are looking at, preferring instead to offer an alternative entrance point into her work. Laced with sarcastic humour, English Smile is a title that also mirrors the psychological zeitgeist. The painting seems to inquire: “Beneath your calm exterior, do you sometimes feel like this?” 

The painting English Smile is on diplay at Clare Wood’s exhibition Between Before and After, which is on show at Serlachius Museum Gösta until 5 Mar 2023. The work has been acquired for Serlachius’ collection of contemporary art.

Laura Kuurne
Head of collections and exhibitions

Clare Woods, English Smile, 2021, oil on aluminium, 70 x 70 cm. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation.
Clare Woods, English Smile, 2021, oil on aluminium, 70 x 70 cm. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation.

Translation by Silja Kudel