In his memoir of Smetham, which prefaces the volume of his letters co-edited with James's widow Sarah Smethan, William Davies introduces and quotes in full a letter from Smetham to John Ruskin, in which Smetham introduces himself at some length. This part of the memoir has been transcribed, with some added links and paragrpah breaks, and page numbers in square brackets, by Jacqueline Banerjee.

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ames Smetham was born at Pately Bridge, in Yorkshire, on the 9th of September 1821. The account of his origin and early years will be best given by himself in a letter written in answer to a request from Mr. Ruskin, dated 16th November 1854. It is as follows:

"DEAR SIR It is kind in you to show such an amount of interest in my scribblings, and to express so much sympathy in my pursuits. I fear you overrate the work, and that my desires and your approbation will not be justified by anything worthy of permanent regard.

"I have, however, a great love for art and all that concerns it, and have devoted my life to its pursuit; nor can I resist the opportunity of informing you what has been the course of my history: not so much because I look on it as at all remarkable, but because you are, I am persuaded, capable of understanding without a long explanation why I should find pleasure in telling it at all.

"Beginning at the beginning, I must inform you that I am the son of a Methodist preacher, who spent his life in periods of two or three years in various towns of the kingdom with only one object in view. My first awakening to consciousness, as far as I can remember, was in a valley in Yorkshire, outside the garden gate of my father's house, when at the age of two years. I have a distinct remembrance of the [2/3] ecstasy with which I regarded the distant blueness of the hills and saw the laurels shake in the wind, and felt it lift my hair. Then I remember thinking my elder brother one of the cleverest lads alive, because he drew a horse and a bulldog in water-colours; and also at four years of age running away on the nearest heath that was at Nantwich, in Cheshire and delighting in the little pools, which were called pits. At eight I recall a moonlit night, when the moonlight had the effect of enchantment on me, and I listened softly to the noises of the night. I took to drawing about the same age with a box of water-colours which ought to have cost fourpence, but which, by my frequent asking the price, the good woman let me have for threepence. That was at Congleton, in Cheshire. From that time I formed the desire and design of becoming a painter, and afterwards never had a thought of being anything else, and made my father promise to let me be one.

"At eleven, from Leek, in Staffordshire, I went to a boarding-school at Woodhouse Grove, in Yorkshire, where the sons of Methodist preachers are educated, or ought to be; and where I ought to have learned more than I did. There I copied Raphael's cartoons from the Penny Magazine. What time was not consumed in drawing was spent in prowling about the Grove, and slipping away to Calverley Wood, and inventing ghost-stories to fit old Calverley Hall. On leaving school I was articled for five years to E. J. Willson, of Lincoln, a Gothic-architect, who wrote the literary part of Pugin's Examples of Gothic Architecture. His office was at the Castle, in a round tower; and there I ought to have learned more architecture than I did, but I was always drawing Comuses and Satans [3/4] and Manfreds. Mr. Willson was very fond of painting, and very kind. He scolded me before my face, and praised me to my fellow-clerk behind my back; and at length, to effect a compromise, set me to draw all the figures about the Minster. I spent a grand solitary year at this work. With a key to myself I poked about every comer at all hours, and twice a day heard the organ-music and the choristers' singing roll about among the arches. I sat on the warm leads of the roof, and looked over the fens, and dreamed and mused hours away there, and then came down over the arches of the choir and drew the angels drumming and fiddling in the spandrils. I made a large and careful drawing of the Last Judgment from the south porch, and had a scaffold up to it to measure it. But I fretted my soul because I wanted to be a painter, and at length boldly asked Mr. Willson to cancel my indentures, who said decidedly that he would not, and that Dewint, the painter, who was coming down shortly, would put that and other foolish notions out of my head; for painting was precarious, and few excelled in it or could live by it. This he meant, I doubt not, in great kindness. When Dewint came, he said he could sympathise with me, having been in similar circumstances himself, and advised Mr. Willson to let me go, which he did at the end of three years, my father's approbation having been previously secured by myself.

"I was thus thrown on the world by my own act and deed, and with very little practice announced myself in Shropshire as a portrait-painter, getting employment at once; working when I wanted money, strolling to Buildwas and Wenlock and Haighmond Abbeys, and scrambling to the top of the Wrekin, and [4/5] wandering in lane and meadow and woodland. I went on after this fashion till 1843, when I came to London and entered as a probationer in the Royal Academy, having previously drawn a little while at Gary's. I made no doubt that getting into the Academy I should keep in, and drew, I suppose, carelessly, for at the end of three months I did not get the student's ticket. I went to Jones to see how I ought to have done my work, taking some drawings with me. He told me not to be anxious, for in or out of the Academy I should succeed. I sent in another draw- ing as probationer, and got in again, intending to look about me more, but was suddenly called away into the country.

"I went into the neighbourhood of Bolton Abbey, where my father then resided ; and here you will understand me when I speak of the great change which came over my life. The death of my brother (a Wesleyan minister in London) cast a great shade over my wild dreams and extravagant ambitions. I did a great deal for his approbation, and when he had gone my spirit followed him. I perceived that to attain to him was not a matter of fancy or speculation, and 'the commandment' came to me. A complete uproar and chaos of my inward life followed, and I fell into the 'slough of despond.' The beauty of nature mocked me, my fancies became ghosts. I felt my discordances with the spiritual universe; and it was not till my father also died that my soul was stilled and set in order. I had worked on (except for one dreadful period of four months, when I could not work at all, though in perfect health) wearily and painfully; but now I resumed my pursuits with new [5/6] zest, and devised the plans of study, some of the results of which you have seen. My views of art were changed in some particulars, and I think enlarged, but I dared no longer strive on my old principles and impulses. A salutary fear shut me up in a happy seclusion, and I could not precipitate myself into the battle of life; so I went on painting portraits and interspersing them with fancy pictures, gaining money enough to keep me, and then snatching a month or two for study; now in a large town, now in a little one, now in a remote farm painting the farmer and his family, and roaming in his fields and by the edge of his plantations; then in London.

"I exhibited in Liverpool first in 1847; at the Academy in 1851, -2, -3, and -4, but the last two years my best picture was returned and the portraits put in.

"I ought to mention another feature of my life. While studying I became so impressed with the importance of form as an universal language, that I was boring all my friends with its utility, and inveigled young men to tea that I might talk myself hoarse in persuading them to draw everything. But they did not profit, and I longed for some sphere where I could advance the cause of drawing as an element of education, and demonstrate my own theories. My fever was allayed by a request that I would undertake the instruction in drawing of a hundred students, who were in course of training to be teachers, at the Wesleyan Normal School, Westminster. I accepted it ; and for three years one of my happiest duties has been the fulfilment of my task of four hours a week there. I teach model and freehand drawing and perspective. The staff of teachers then became my circle, the objects [6/7] of the institution part of my life; and I completed the connection six months ago by marrying the teacher of one of the practising schools there, who still retains her position. Our united salaries make us for the present independent of painting as a means of livelihood, and I have five days in the week for picture- making.

"This sums up, I believe, all I need care to tell you of my history. Of my purposes, perhaps, I had better say nothing; of my works, nothing.

"There is a passage in the second volume of Modern Painters, p. 136, §2, 'Theoria the Service of Heaven,' which I have half chanted to myself in many a lonely lane, and which interprets many thoughts I have had. I love Art, and ardently aspire, not after its reputation (I think), but the realisation of its power on my own soul and on the souls of others.

"I don't complain of want of employment, or anything of that sort; for I have found it easy to earn money when I have set about it, but I have felt the dearth of intercourse on the subject of my occupations, and am pleased with this opportunity of writing to you. With artists generally I have not felt much drawn to associate. In my own associations there is on the part of others little true sympathy with my work. I have to spin everything out of myself; and yet I would not at all be understood to complain; scarcely, all things considered, to wish that things were otherwise.

"I have made my letter quite long enough already, and will only reiterate, my thanks to you for the kind spirit in which your note was written. I am, dear sir, sincerely yours, JAMES SMETHAM."


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.

Created 14 April 2021