The James Smetham Album


Bound in black lacquer with gold letters, the album contained 229 drawings and watercolours along with one print and one photograph previously pasted onto 45 pages. Inscribed on the frontispiece in pencil; Scraps from Sketch Books – Jas. Smetham; variously inscribed throughout the book.

Overall size of album 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 in. (22 x 14 cm.)

Throughout his life Smetham had suffered from bouts of mental illness but it was in the fall of 1877 that he succumbed to a debilitating attack after which he withdrew from the world, he became delusional and virtually ceased talking. Almost a year had passed since his attack when he received the album compiled by his daughter Edie and her siblings. After a decade of emotional and psychological anguish, he died on February 5, 1889.


Three letters written by the artist’s daughter Edie came with the album, two of the letters are addressed to Sarah, her mother, and the third is written and addressed to her grandmother in 1878 ‘during father’s illness’. Smetham was being looked after by Sarah at an address in Malvern, Worcestershire. From the family home in Stoke Newington, and before sending the book Edie wrote a letter to her mother describing how Ted her brother, had mistakenly ordered the album to be bound in black instead of the dark green her mother wanted.

Along with the letters came three typed pages of an exhibition of Smetham’s works. The document starts with a short biography which follows with a comprehensive list of items including letters, books, journals, oil paintings, prints, drawings, watercolours and photographs. Unfortunately, there is no information to say when or where the exhibition was held, but it may have been organised by D. G Rossetti in order to raise funds for the family.


The complete contents of the album have been removed from the album, some pencil, others pen and ink, chalk and watercolour of various sizes. There are studies of animals and botany, portraits and figure sketches and compositions for pictures, including scenes from the tempest and other romantic and fanciful subjects. His love of nature and literature along with his spiritual and scientific interests are evident in these works, but they also give us some insight into the close connection he had with his family and friends. The album Included a photo of a painted portrait given to the artist by his close friend Frederick James Shields (1833-1911).


Most of the works removed from the album have received some form of mild treatment, and have been laid onto blue paper ready for framing. The only exception being three miniatures (squaring’s) which have been framed. All work has been carried out by an accredited paper conservator.

Altogether there are 115 sheets to be sold individually, there can be as many as 15 scraps on a single sheet. Notes have been added to the back of a sheet where information on a particular subject has been found. A transcript of the letter written by the artist’s daughter mentioning the album will be included with each sale. Also a photographic record has been kept of images and inscriptions found on the backs of some pictures, and where necessary more accomplished works have been exposed on both sides of a sheet.


A link to Smetham’s biography is available on each item.

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