Left: James Smetham, Saul “hiding among the stuff”, 1866, pen and brown ink, watercolour and gouache with gum arabic on cream wove paper, signed and dated J. Smetham 1866, lower right, 511/16 x 51/8 inches (14.4 x 13 cm). Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Right: James Smetham, Saul Hiding, date unknown, oil on wood, 37/16 x 37/16 inches (8.8 x 8.8 cm). Collection of the Tate Britain. Click on images to enlarge them.
Smetham is now best remembered as an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, primarily through his friendships with D. G. Rossetti, F. M. Brown, and F. J. Shields. Although Smetham had likely met Rossetti earlier, their friendship was rekindled when Smetham became a student at the Working Man’s College in 1854. Their friendship was at its height in the 1860s and from 1863-68 Smetham would paint all day every Wednesday in Rossetti’s Cheyne Walk studio. It is therefore not surprising that this watercolour dating from 1866 is one of the most Pre-Raphaelite of Smetham’s works. His Pre-Raphaelite period lasted only a short period of time, however.
This watercolour seems to have been influenced by Rossetti’s works from the 1850s and Simeon Solomon’s watercolours from the 1860s. Smetham’s watercolour is also very reminiscent of the work of The Ancients, in this particular case Samuel Palmer more than William Blake. Rossetti was aware of these influences when he wrote of Smetham in the 1880 edition of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake:
a painter and designer of our own day who is, in many signal respects, very closely akin to Blake; more so, probably, than any other living artist could be said to be. James Smetham’s work – generally of small or modest size – ranges from Gospel subjects, of the subtlest imaginative and mental insight, and sometimes of the grandest colouring, through Old Testament compositions and through poetic and pastoral themes of every kind, to a special imaginative form of landscape. In all these he partakes greatly of Blake’s immediate spirit, being also often nearly allied by landscape intensity to Samuel Palmer. [428-429]
The landscape and the figures in the background of Saul hiding among the stuff seem particularly Palmeresque.
Smetham was the son of a Wesleyan minister and a man of deep religious convictions. It is not surprising therefore that Biblical subjects figure prominently in his oeuvre. The obscure subject of this watercolour is taken from the Old Testament, the first book of Samuel, chapter ten, verse 22, when Saul tries to hide from his destiny to become King of Israel. “Therefore they enquired of the Lord further, if the man should yet come thither. And the Lord answered, Behold he hath hid himself among the stuff.” The elders of Israel had gone to the prophet Samuel saying they wanted to be like other nations and to be ruled by a king. God revealed to Samuel that Saul would be appointed the first ruler of a united Israel. Samuel anoints Saul as king in secret. When the people were electing a king by casting lots, Saul concealed himself, perhaps out of modesty or because he didn’t covet the honour being forced upon him.
In addition to the Tate Britain version, there is at least one other of this subject in oil.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of Blake. Volume 1, London: Macmillan and Co., second edition, 1880.
Last modified 2 July 2021