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he Ancients were a group of young English artists who formed around the visionary artist William Blake in the last years prior to his death in 1827. Like Blake they were attracted to archaism in art. The group was active for about a decade, mostly meeting at the house of Samuel Palmer in Shoreham in Kent. Other important members of the group included George Richmond, Edward Calvert, and John Linnell. In general the influence of The Ancients, in particular that of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and John Linnell lasted longer on Smetham’s work than that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Dante Gabriel 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. [428-29]

Rossetti was not the only friend to note Smetham’s debt to The Ancients. In a letter from William Davies to D. G. Rossetti of February 24, 1878, following Smetham’s mental breakdown, Davies remarks about Smetham’s works: “There were two or three I thought fit to rank with the best of their kind – with the finest of Samuel Palmer or old Linnell” (Casteras, 90). Davies felt that Smethan was really a painter of an earlier school and that the Pre-Raphaelite influence destroyed his natural manner (Bishop and Malins, 53). Religion was obviously a major influence on Smetham’s work as it had been for Blake. Each day before beginning painting Smetham studied his Bible for inspiration. In Hueffer’s words: “His pictures reflected very much of his own spirit – poetic in the extreme with a sufficiently strong bias towards the religious” (289).


Bishop, Morchard and Edward Malins. James Smetham and Francis Danby. Two 19th Century Romantic Painters. London: Eric & Joan Stevens, 1974.

Casteras, Susan P. James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1995.

Davies, William. "Memoir of James Smetham." In Letters of James Smetham. Ed. Sarah Smetham and William Davies. London: Macmillan, 1892. 1-50. Google Books. Free Ebook.

Forsaith, Peter S. “James Smetham, Wesleyan Pre-Raphaelite.” Pre-Raphaelite Society Review 24 (Autumn 2016): 55-65.

Gilchrist, Alexander. The Life of William Blake. Vol. I, London: Macmillan and Co., second edition, 1880.

Hueffer, Ford M. Ford Madox Brown. A Record of his Life and Works. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1896.

Created 23 March 2022