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Smoking in art is an ever-present motif in national art collections. Coded messages sing out to us on key themes: power, authority, gender, addiction, privilege and colonialism. This reading focuses on smoking as a functioning tool within the art composition, telling a story that holds a mirror to contemporary society. Here we also consider how art galleries were once places where the public could smoke.

A pale striking face stares back at us from the canvas with piercing attention. Beautiful yet rigid, her features contrast against her relaxed body language. The right arm extends elegantly away from the body, cutting through the background texture. The wrist goes limp as it showcases a cigarette. Erect and piloted by her thumb, it burns a sinuous trail of smoke.

Girl with a Cigarette

Girl with a Cigarette 1942

Frederick William Elwell (1870–1958)

Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

Frederick William Elwell's Girl with a Cigarette from 1942 is a compelling example of what happens when we notice smoking within art. The cigarette is intrinsic not just to the composition, but arguably her identity, glamour and the tension Elwell achieves.

But if you're not explicitly looking for a smoker, chances are they will blend seamlessly into the artwork unnoticed. As in contemporary culture, smoking exists as a backdrop to many lives and social exchanges. Focusing your eye on the smoker, though, rewards us with a fascinating range of symbolism and emotion.

Gender is an immediate example. As initiate as gender constructs are in our culture, so too is the gendering of smoking. Art plays out gender politics to the full, enhanced by smoking. Study for 'Miss Hancock' by Alfred James Munnings sets us firmly within a conversation on femininity.

Study for 'Miss Hancock'

Study for 'Miss Hancock' (recto)

Alfred James Munnings (1878–1959)

The Munnings Art Museum

This figure is cocooned by dappled warm light and a chair. A slender arm extends up past a delicate dress of pastel blue and white, levelling a cigarette to her sculptural face. The proportions of the cigarette mirror her physicality – slight angles traditionally coded as female. She is curated to be as light as the trail of smokes she weaves. Munnings elegantly (or deceptively?) plays into the concept that to be feminine-presenting is to be small, soft, or possibly demure.

Gendering the act of smoking is challenged, though, when we meet avant-garde musician and writer Anna Roslund, as pictured in this portrait by Gabriele Münter.

Anna Roslund (1891–1941)

Anna Roslund (1891–1941) 1917

Gabriele Münter (1877–1962)

Leicester Museums and Galleries

Roslund mirrors the composition of Munnings' figure sat in a blue dress. Again, we find a sitter of slight build looking past us, mid-smoke. Münter, however, frames her in a completely different power dynamic – smoking a pipe. Traditionally thought of as more 'masculine', it's the smoking tool, arguably, that radically changes her gender coding and attitude. No small cigarette accompanies her identity, rather a thick and robust pipe is used in the composition to convey character. Smoking transforms the identities in the work of Munnings and Münter.

The same can be seen in male-presenting images – smoking again reinforces sexuality within the composition. Start, for example, with Portrait of a Man by Job Nixon – it bellows masculinity.

Portrait of a Man

Portrait of a Man

Job Nixon (1891–1938)

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

Our front-facing figure is square-jawed, broad-shouldered and with strong forearms, ending in a cigarette for emphasis. Incidental as a phallic symbol? The mind wanders...

Compare this image to the enclosed, and arguably softer, posture of Francis Cooper, Principal of Dundee College of Art, by John MacDonald Aitkin.

Francis Cooper, DA, ARCA, FEIS, Principal of Dundee College of Art

Francis Cooper, DA, ARCA, FEIS, Principal of Dundee College of Art 1929

John MacDonald Aiken (1880–1961)

University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection

A rakish bow tie leads us down to an expensive suit, crossed legs and our figure sitting jauntily to the left. There is a poised and wistful air to the body language, again emphasised by the angle on the cigarette. It is arguably just as sexual in its depiction of a male form yet conveys a very different message on masculinity.

Power and privilege are also topics to consider on smoking – be that social, physical, or economic. This portrait of Prime Minister Harold Wilson by Ruskin Spear is narratively framed within his pipe smoke.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson exhibited 1974

Ruskin Spear (1911–1990)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The sharp intellect of the sitter is emphasised by the smoke rendering his form almost abstract. The power play is clear – Wilson was often pictured with his pipe, a Labour counterpoint, perhaps, to Winston Churchill's cigar? Smoking equals power. Nicotine is historically weaponised as a symbol of authority, prestige and the accompanying privilege.

This portrait of Charles W. Sax (leader of the Labour group of Letchworth Council in the 1960s and 1970s) by Sylvia Mallow takes the trope even further, with the pipe-smoking so intrinsic to the composition it is practically unavoidable in his characterisation.

Charles W. Sax, OBE

Charles W. Sax, OBE 1980

Sylvia Molloy (1914–2008)

North Hertfordshire Museum

Dignified or smug in his status? The pipe can perhaps be seen as one of the deciding factors.

Contrast this, however, with the contemporary work Happy and Glorious by Sean Read and you'll find a savagely humorous critique on power, privilege and class.

Happy and Glorious

Happy and Glorious 1997

Sean Read (b.1961)

Glasgow Museums

The reigning monarch – symbolically the height of social structure and power – greets us in her ermine-edged dressing gown collecting the morning milk and paper. A cigarette dangles from the corner of her mouth with an expression of wariness. Sean Read carefully combines the trappings of royalty with a visual of working-class domesticity – the cigarette intrinsic in its class dialogue.

Extend conversations on smoking further and we arrive at themes around colonialism.

The mythology of famous smoker Sir Walter Raleigh blurs dangerously into national identity. Pictured here by an unknown artist after Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, Raleigh is framed as being swathed within Elizabethan martial splendour.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618)

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618)

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (1561/1562–1635/1636) (after)

The Box, Plymouth

Favoured by Elizabeth I, Raleigh is popularly associated with the popularisation of tobacco smoking in sixteenth-century England. The tobacco trade was steeped in colonial aggression, profiteering and global expansion. Romantic Raleigh, allegedly laying his expensive coat over a puddle for the queen to walk on, adds that extra touch of aristocratic glamour to smoking. This glamour is picked up on by later sitters, yet it's a glamour that hides a brutal colonial truth.

Contemporary artists increasingly explore smoking in art from the perspective of today's values, health and wellbeing. Deadly Nightshade by Mandy Owen speaks directly to us of the dangers in smoking and Owen's own journey to quitting – viscerally depicted in human lungs sculpted from cigarettes themselves.

Deadly Nightshade

Deadly Nightshade 2004

Mandy Owen

Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University

The cigarette filters (used and unused) mark air channels, whilst the tobacco texture forms the lung shape. This installation is brutally literal, gives off a specific smell, and visually connects our lung health to the act of smoking.

Willy by Sarah Lucas also takes us on a naughty yet uncomfortable romp into smoking symbolism – as we find a garden gnome sculpted from cigarettes.

Willy

Willy 2000

Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

A cheeky pun on the name perhaps – encompassing the phallic and the masculine? Or perhaps, too, a searing connection to the act of smoking and its combined effects.

Smoking is ever-present and functioning within artwork compositions across the country, yet the depiction is not static. It changes and adapts as our values do. It's worth remembering, however, that in the clean, controlled gallery spaces we see today, smoking was once permitted in art galleries. Indeed, it was common. Smoking within art is a subject hiding in plain sight, ready for us to discover.

Jon Sleigh, freelance arts educator