Rata and Colin Lovell-Smith were leading artists of the Canterbury School, a regionalist movement which expressed a growing awareness of a local identity and harboured aspirations for a distinctive New Zealand art. Colin Stuart Smith was born in Christchurch on 26 March 1894, the 10th child and youngest son of William Sidney Smith, a printer, and his wife, Mary Jane Cumberworth. In 1908 the family name was altered to Lovell Smith (later hyphenated). Colin grew up in a Methodist household, shaped by a tradition of intellectual nonconformity and social reform, with a commitment to women's political rights and a belief in women's active and purposeful role in the world. In the 1880s Kate Sheppard became a close friend of Colin's parents, and from 1904 she was an influential presence living permanently in the family home.
Colin was introduced to art through his father's printing business, and in 1908 he won a scholarship from Riccarton School to the Canterbury College School of Art, where he was a full-time student in commercial art and general subjects in 1908–9. He then joined the family firm, Smith and Anthony, working as a commercial artist and attending part-time classes at the school. He enlisted at the end of 1914, and served at Gallipoli with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and as a draughtsman to a survey company of the Corps of Royal Engineers on the Balkan front; from 1918 he was with the Corps of New Zealand Engineers in France. This time away sharpened his appreciation of the special nature of the New Zealand landscape.
On his return to New Zealand in 1919 he resumed his career as a commercial artist. He also broadened his skills by enrolling for classes in life drawing and painting, and landscape and figure composition with Richard Wallwork, Leonard Booth and Archibald Nicoll at the School of Art. It was here he met Rata Alice Bird.
She was born on 24 December 1894 in Christchurch, the eldest daughter of Alice Emily Cox and her husband, Alfred Louis Bird, an engineer. She was educated at Christchurch Girls' High School and attended Christchurch Training College, taking drawing classes at Canterbury College School of Art in 1911 and 1912. She worked as a primary school teacher, and pursued her artistic ambitions by returning part time to the School of Art from 1917 to 1923 as a student of Booth and Wallwork. Her contemporaries included Ngaio Marsh, Evelyn Polson (later Page) and Rhona Haszard. Rata belonged to a generation of women who asserted their independence by taking advantage of increased opportunities to teach and work as artists. When she married Colin Lovell-Smith in Christchurch on 8 February 1922 she was 27 years old with a firm sense of her identity, and after the birth of their two sons she retained her commitment to painting. The Lovell-Smiths established a personal and professional relationship in which they painted and exhibited together, and shared responsibility for supporting the family.
From the mid 1920s Rata and Colin embarked on regular painting expeditions into the back country. Rejecting romantic traditions of scenic grandeur, they developed a distinctive imagery focused on marks of settlement and physical features that typified the region. They had inherited a vigorous landscape tradition in Canterbury, which combined with the arrival of post-impressionist influences to stimulate their new approach to the representation of their surroundings. Their work was praised for its modern, poster-like qualities and was well-suited to the portrayal of 'New Zealand scenery with its sharp contrasts and absence of fine tonal nuances'. Colin's training as a commercial artist gave him a special understanding of simplification and design, and it is likely that he played the leading part in the initial development of their style. However, it was Rata who went on to realise its potential and gain greater critical recognition. Her representation of the Canterbury landscape in paintings such as 'Hawkins' (1933) and 'Bridge, Mt Cook Road' (1934) influenced later artists, including Rita Angus and William Sutton. During this period the Lovell-Smiths' artistic interests broadened: Colin developed rural life themes and subjects from Maori mythology, and from 1935 Rata specialised in still-life paintings of flowers. In later life her closely observed floral studies, painted with precision and elegance, complemented an increasing inwardness and religious turn of mind.
Like many New Zealand artists of this period, the Lovell-Smiths fitted their painting within the need to earn a living, and from 1926 they worked as teachers at the School of Art. Here their careers are studies in contrast. Rata was appointed temporarily to the staff and employed for many years as a part-time teacher of English and arithmetic to junior classes. Colin, a visiting art master at St Andrew's College from 1926 to 1945, gained a permanent appointment in 1927 to the School of Art as an instructor in general and commercial art subjects. After gaining a diploma in fine arts in 1930, he became life master and lecturer in artistic anatomy, and, in 1945, acting director. His experience as a painter and commercial artist meant he was well suited to continue the school's traditional emphasis on design and fine arts. He was its director from 1947 to 1960.
Both Rata and Colin Lovell-Smith were working members of the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1921 and exhibited regularly at the main art societies. Colin played a more prominent part in public life than Rata, serving on the Council of the Canterbury Society of Arts from 1936 to 1952 and as president from 1953 until 1955. In 1951 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. They were both represented at the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art in 1940. Rata exhibited with more progressive organisations: the New Zealand Society of Artists in 1933–34, and from 1935 to 1964 with The Group, an association of artists known for an experimental and modern approach to art. In 1939 she gained the Bledisloe Medal for landscape painting.
In 1949–50 Colin and Rata made a short study trip to England and the Continent. During the 1950s Colin faced ill health and a succession of difficulties, not least the challenge that the arrival of modernism presented to a conservative institution. He had contracted tuberculosis on war service, and developed lung cancer in 1951; he died in Christchurch on 10 June 1960. Later that year Rata converted to the Roman Catholic faith. She continued to paint still lifes and landscapes, including some Australian scenes on visits to a friend in Queensland in 1961 and 1963. Rata died at Christchurch on 28 September 1969, survived by the couple's two sons.