Smetham met William Morris and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood while attending classes at the newly established Working Men’s College, all part time teachers there. He became life-long friends with many in the group, especially Dante Gabriel Rosetti who Smetham personally knew well and wrote about in various contexts.
THE ALBUM (NOW DISMANTLED)
Bound in black with gold letters, 229 drawings and watercolours previously pasted to 45 pages, includes one print and one photograph. Compiled by the artist’s daughter, Edie and her siblings in 1878. Inscribed on the frontispiece; Scraps from Sketch Books – Jas. Smetham; variously inscribed throughout the book.
Overall size of album 8 ½ x 4 ½ 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. After a decade of emotional and psychological anguish, he died on February 5, 1889.
Three letters written by his daughter Edie accompanied the album, two of the letters are addressed to Sarah her mother and the other is written and addressed to her grandmother in 1878 (during father’s ill-ness). Smetham was being looked after by Sarah at an address in Malvern, Worcestershire. On Oct-78 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.
A total of 229 works were removed from the album – some pencil, others pen and ink, chalk, watercolour and bodycolor 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. One of Smetham’s prints are included and a photo of a painted portrait given to the artist is inscribed – to J Smetham from his friend F.J.S. – (Frederick James Shields, 1833-1911).
All works by Smetham have been removed from the album and conserved onto sheets of blue laid paper ready to be framed, except for three miniatures (squaring’s) which have been mounted and put into one frame.
Altogether there are 115 sheets. Some will be sold individually while others are to be sold in groups of up to 6 sheets per sale. 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 in the sale. A photographic record has been kept of images and inscriptions found on the backs of pictures and where necessary more accomplished works have been exposed on both sides of a sheet.
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.