James Smetham and Frederick James Shields – A Photographic Gift to a Friend


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Photograph of a Portrait Painted by Frederick James Shields: Inscribed in ink by hand: To J. Smetham from his friend F J.S. Backing paper: Blue Ingres, laid. Presented in a clear archival acid-free polyester sleeve.

Sheet: 4 1/16 x 2 1/2 in. (10.4 x 6.3 cm.)
Backing paper: 10 5/8 x 8 5/16 in. (27 x 21 cm.)

Provenance: The artist’s family by descent.

Included in the sale is a transcript of a letter written in 1878 by the artist’s daughter to her mother, with a passage explaining why the cover of the album is black instead of the green her mother requested.


This photo was the first item to be pasted in the album, after the title page.

Smetham sustained a straightforward, artist-to-artist relationship with Frederick J. Shields, whom he met in 1866 and about whom he wrote to his brother the next year. ‘I have recently met in the pagan circle of Art with one man of real painting power who is also a true Christian – Shields of the Old Water Colour. This is the first time for 20 years that I have not been quite lonely in the following out of my whole plan of life’. The two men managed an extensive correspondence for several years even though Shields lived most of the time in Manchester. Like Smetham, Shields was a very pious, conscientious individual with a masochistic, overtly Calvinistic bent fuelled by ‘strenuous work and rigid self-denial’. He too kept a sacred routine and a diary (filled with cryptic annotations like W.P.B.B. – ‘wash, prayer, Bible, breakfast’) and nurtured some degree of guilt about producing art rather than sermons. Tragically, Shields also had psychological problems and in 1866 had a breakdown, followed by chloral addiction (like their mutual friend Rossetti). His later biographer remarked that ‘His Vitality was astonishing, but the intense nervous tension of years of overwork, and underfeeding, his terrible depressing views on on life, left him little strength to cope with the everyday distractions of town life.’ Noticeably indifferent to worldly success, Shields nonetheless tried to help his friend by putting him in touch with potential patrons. He and Smetham shared a common dislike of the exhibition system, of corrupt art and critics, and time-wasting. At times Smetham commiserated with Shield’s overworked, under-appreciated status, writing in 1871 that ‘I sympathise with your long toil. I see you exhausted on the 8th, and know what it means: that occult, reiterated, breathless labour which is appreciated by one man in 20000 – even of the intelligent. That having things “right” at the “price of blood”. Still it tells in the long run, and you will come out the Conqueror.’ Over the years Shields was generous with his advice and assistance with the sale of Smetham’s pictures, and towards the end suffered from a hypersensitivity to noise that seemed eerily parallel to Smetham’s own shutting out of the world as well as to his anxieties about noise expressed in his poems and other writings. As Rossetti wrote after seeing Shields at Manchester, ‘he has got such a pass now that he can only work occasionally and then stuff ears with cotton to shut out the singing of the birds’.

Even before his friend’s mental collapse, Shields expressed his admiration directly to Smetham. After extolling his ‘little oils’, he remarked to Smetham that these were ‘painted with the mind and there is very little indeed of the sort done’. He also commented the following year in a letter to Rev. R.P. Downs, editor of Great Thought: ‘It’s a blind thing if any work of Smetham is hung off the line. The managers of exhibitions ought to perceive for themselves the unique qualities of his poetic landscapes and their intrinsic value as admirable paintings – priced with the modesty which attends the want of recognition by the public. They stand alone in present Art in their unity of the action with the landscape in which the figures move emotionally. He observed that public figures like G.F. Watts and Ruskin had ‘spoken in the most unhesitating way of their rare merits … [and that Rossetti] did not know, among all the great minds … more than half a dozen of Smetham’s calibre of brain. And yet this gifted man has suffered in England a long life of neglect – though when dead, and fifty years pass by, his pictures will be raked from oblivion and life after life of him issued to an eager generation, who will be dealing just the same emphatic measure to some gifted soul of their time.’ On another occasion Shields defended his friend on different grounds, describing him as an authentic impressionist and asserting that he was one ‘long before that awkward word defined a school who have no little relation to such true powers as his’.

James Smetham Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate – Susan P Casteras, pages 79-80.


Shields, Frederic James (1833-1911)

Frederic James Shields was born in Hartlepool on 14 March 1833, the eldest of four children of Georgiana Storey (d. 1853) a straw hat maker and John Shields (c.1808–1849) a bookbinder, stationer, and printer who ran a circulating library. Baptised Frederick, he later adopted the spelling Frederic. The family moved to London in 1839 and Shields attended St Clement Danes parish school until he was fourteen. His father was a skilled draughtsman and gave Shields his first drawing lessons, and the boy went on to study engraving at evening classes at the London Mechanics' Institute, winning a drawing prize aged thirteen. In October 1847 he was apprenticed to a firm of lithographers. His father's business failed in 1848 and the family moved back north where Shields joined them. He was brought up in extreme poverty, and as a young man was employed on hack-work for commercial engravers. He managed to study art briefly at evening classes in London and then in Manchester, where he settled in about 1848. He spent much of his artistic life in Manchester, and it was there that his drawings and watercolours were noticed and appreciated. On 15 August 1874 in Manchester, Shields married Matilda Booth (b. 1856), known as Cissy, a young girl who used to be his model. Her family and Shields's friends had been concerned about the relationship between the 18 year old girl and forty one year old man but the marriage was considered surprising. Shields soon left for a trip to Europe and in 1875 left his new young wife at a boarding school in Brighton run by Margaret Alexis Bell and Mary Bradford. He had been a regular visitor to their previous school Winnington Hall with other Pre-Raphaelite artists. Matilda's little sister Jessie (b. 1870) was adopted by the Shields family soon after their marriage and sent to school for several years. The marriage was not successful. They did not have children and much of the time lived separately, Cissy eventually leaving him in 1891. Shields died on 26 February 1911 at Morayfield, Kingston Road, Merton, Surrey. He left an annuity to Cissy but the bulk of his fortune to missionary societies. He was buried in Merton Old Church, Merton, London SW19.

Smetham, James (1821-1889)

James Smetham produced over four hundred paintings during his lifetime. Like his good friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a major influence on his art, Smetham was a poet as well as a painter. He also wrote criticisms and recorded fascinating details on many celebrated personages of his day. His paintings ranged from portraits to Biblical interpretations, arcadian vignettes and landscapes. Smetham had great hopes and complicated theories about how audiences would understand and buy his art, but he was sadly disappointed with critical response. However, he received praise from some eminent contemporaries like John Ruskin, George Frederick Watts and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who hailed his friends' paintings as "the flower of modern art". Smetham was born in Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire on September 8, 1821, the son of a middle-class Methodist preacher and attended school in Leeds. In childhood Smetham said he "formed the desire of becoming a painter" and afterwards "never had a thought of being anything else". He was originally apprenticed to an architect before deciding on an artistic career. In 1843 he entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, but this lasted only a few months. Partly due to health reasons. Smetham did not return to London until 1851 when he began exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and elsewhere. That same year Smetham was hired as a drawing teacher for students training to be teachers at the Wesleyan Normal College at Westminster, and he retained this job until his final collapse in 1877; in 1854 he married Sarah Goble, a fellow teacher at the school. They would eventually have six children. Torn by his devout Methodist beliefs and bouts of mental illness, Smetham led a life that was ordered according to a strict daily regime of activities, including painting, reading the Bible, 'squaring' it's contents in tiny pictographs, walks, and church related duties. He chose to isolate himself in rural Stoke Newington and rejecting what he called "studio life in its widest sense - haunting the clubs, sketching clubs, lecture rooms - the company of dealers and patrons, things utterly revolting and impossible to me" yet ironically "necessary to that growing murmur of influence that is preliminary of fame". Smetham worked in a range of genres, including religious and literary themes as well as portraiture; but he is perhaps best known as a landscape painter. His "landscapes have a visionary quality" reminiscent of the work of William Blake, John Linnell, and Samuel Palmer. Out of a lifetime output of some 430 paintings and 50 etchings, woodcuts, and book illustrations, his 1856 painting The Dream is perhaps his best-known work but his signal work is The Hymn of the Last Supper a very ambitious subject for him to undertake but one which worked out magnificently. His choice of subject was sometimes somewhat bizarre; one of his best paintings is The Death of Earl Siward which depicts the dying earl, dressed in full armour, standing up and being supported by his servants as 'He did not wish to die lying down like a cow'. He was also an essayist and art critic; an article on Blake (in the form of a review of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake), which appeared in the January 1869 issue of the Quarterly Review, influenced and advanced recognition of Blake's artistic importance. Other Smetham articles for the Review were "Religious Art in England" (1861), "The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds" (1866), and "Alexander Smith" (1868). He also wrote some poetry. In one of his notebooks he attempted to illustrate every verse in the Bible. (Smetham habitually created miniature, postage-stamp-sized pen-and-ink drawings, in a process he called "squaring." He produced thousands of these in his lifetime.) In the fall of 1877 he succumbed to a final debilitating attack after which he withdrew from the world, became delusional and virtually ceased talking. His loyal friends, including Rossetti organized an exhibition and sale of his work. After more than a decade of emotional and psychological anguish, Smetham died on Febuary 5, 1889. The inscription on his tomb in Highgate Cemetery is as follows, "I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness." Smetham's letters, posthumously published by his widow, throw light upon Rossetti, John Ruskin, and other contemporaries, and have been praised for their literary and spiritual qualities. His surviving journals and notebooks show that Smetham practiced an almost stream of consciousness type of writing that he called "ventilating," as a method of religious self-analysis. These writings delineate the depression that came to dominate Smetham's outlook. Lit: Susan P. Casteras, James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate, Aldershot, U.K., Scholar Press, 1995: James Smetham, The Letters of James Smetham: With an Introductory Memoir, Sarah Smetham and William Davies, eds., London, Macmillan, 1892.