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metham was a long-term admirer of Pre-Raphaelite art. In his 1862 article on contemporary sacred subjects he argued:

The pre-Raffaelite [sic] movement has been as startling and influential on English art as the Reformation on religion. At present its objects and aims are but little understood by the general public, or even by many lovers of painting. Its accidents are mistaken for its essence. There can be no doubt that the executive qualities of the British school have improved greatly since it first announced itself; and that a more pure and earnest love of nature has been kindled in many minds.” [Smetham, London Review, 64]

Smetham is now best remembered as an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, primarily through his friendships withD. G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and Frederic James Shields. Ford Madox Hueffer in his book on his grandfather mentions the importance of these three friendships to Smetham: “Retiring, tranquil, intensely religious by nature, and somewhat mystic in the subjects of his pictures, he met with all too little appreciation, but sometimes effected a sufficient number of sales to maintain him for a considerable period. ‘One man’s board and lodgings does not need a nation to know of his wants. Half a dozen good friends, will serve a man for life’ – as he puts it – ‘and the good solid knocks at the plug by my three friends, Rossetti, Brown, and Shields, turned the frozen tap, and that was enough’” (289). Although Smetham had likely met Rossetti earlier, their friendship was rekindled when Smetham became a student at the Working Man’s College. Rossetti had started teaching drawing there in January 1855. Their friendship was at its height in the 1860s.

From 1863-68, following Rossetti’s move to Tudor House at 16 Cheyne Walk, Smetham would paint all day in Rossetti’s studio every Wednesday. The evenings were spent at the studios of various members of Rossetti’s set, or with artistic and literary friends at Rossetti’s house, and Smetham would then remain at Rossetti’s house in Cheyne Walk until the next morning. In the evenings Smetham met many members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle including William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, William Holman Hunt, William Bell Scott, Arthur Hughes, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, George Price Boyce, Frederic William Burton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Alexander Munro and Algernon Swinburne.

This arrangement of Smetham spending Wednesday with Rossetti ended in 1868 when problems with Rossetti’s eyesight led him to temporarily abandon his studio for the country. In a letter of June 16, 1872 from Smetham to T. A. [? Thomas Akroyd] he recalls the importance of his visits with Rossetti’s friends: “Good art is stimulating: bad is depressing. When I go to some of my art friends I come away in a wet blanket. Going to D.G.R., to Brown, Burne-Jones, Boyce (appetising Boyce, he has a charm of his own), Shields, the Linnells – all is charm and zest, and appetite, kindling pleasant electric shocks of life. None of these men can touch paper, pen, lead pencil, chalk, or brush, but something fresh, natural, powerful, oozes out at their finger ends” (Smetham and Davies, Letters, 302). Smetham mentioned his appreciation of his association with Pre-Raphaelite painters in one of his so-called “ventilators” of December 8-9, 1865 that he sent to Rossetti: “Professionally I should be very glad of a niche in the charmed circle where you are fixed. For want of it – since 1855 – life has been a scramble instead of a joy” (Fredeman, Correspondence, letter 65.176n1, 358). Rossetti worked tirelessly to promote Smetham’s work, both before and after his death, in order to help his family. Rossetti interested patrons and dealers in Smetham’s pictures and even worked on some of Smetham’s unfinished paintings so as to better fit them for the art market.

As previously noted Smetham’s other best friends within the Pre-Raphaelite circle were Ford Madox Brown, the Manchester artist F. J. Shields, and the art critic John Ruskin. In a letter to C.M. [? Charles Mansford] of June 6, 1875 Smetham talked about Madox Brown as “a delightful man, cram-full of all that makes my mental life sweet and pleasant. A visit to him is like a walk on a breezy shore.” Madox Brown, in turn, praised Smetham’s artistic talents: “I think your colour is exceedingly fine, and that for poetry of conception you are perhaps second to no artist in the country, so that along with the progress you are constantly making I cannot but believe you are on the eve of some great success. I hope this may be so, but at any rate I feel certain that like Blake, Crome, and others, you will leave behind you works that will be of great value to your country and your world” (Grigson, 333). Despite Smetham’s diffidence and their individual problems in the art world, the two men sustained a mutually supportive friendship until Smetham’s death (Casteras, 91). In 1866 Smetham met Frederic Shields, who also became his life-long friend. Both men were intensely religious which probably fostered their bond. In a letter of May 27, 1867 from Smetham to his brother Richard he writes: “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 [Society]. 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.” Shields genuinely admired Smetham’s work and helped introduce Smetham to potential patrons. He later assisted Rossetti in trying to sell Smetham’s paintings after Smetham’s mental breakdown in 1877.

William Michael Rossetti, who would have known Smetham well through his brother, had these comments on Smetham and his art in his Reminiscences:

These were mostly of a religious or idyllic order: not strong in execution, but with genuine qualities of thought and invention, and of imaginative feeling…The closing period of his life was of the most melancholy kind. Pondering his narrow fortunes, Bible in hand, and brooding over frequent Old Testament promises that Jehovah would amply provide for the worldly well-being of the devout, he came to the conclusion that he must too truly be a reprobate, exposed to the divine displeasure in this world and the next. He totally broke down under this strain upon his mind and feelings” (324)

After Smetham’s death he was greatly mourned by his friends within the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Ruskin wrote: “one of the most deeply mourned losses to me among the few friends with whom I could take ‘sweet council’” (Works, 14: 461).

The duration of Smetham being influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement lasted only a short period of time during the 1860s period. As Casteras has noted: “In terms of Smetham’s own adaptation of Pre-Raphaelite style, this was a fairly short-lived phenomenon of his career. While there were some derivative signs of the stylistic exactitude and bright colouration of classic Pre-Raphaelite handling – and also some indebtedness to specific compositions – Smetham did not adhere to this experiment for long” (96). In 1904 a writer for The Art Journal stated about Smetham: “Perhaps, on the other hand, it was because instinctively he was a synthesist, on whom the overbearing influence of pre-Raphaelitism operated, after a moment of stimulation, as a disintegrating influence. ‘Uniformity of minuteness has degraded nine-tenths of even the best pictures,’ and though pre-Raphaelitism romanticised detail, that was not Smetham’s pictorial way, probably” (Art Journal, 1904, 281).


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.

Grigson, Geoffrey. “James Smetham.” The Cornhill Magazine, 163 (Autumn 1948): 323-46.

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

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Chelsea Years, 1863-67. Ed. William E. Fredeman, Volume 3. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

Rossetti, William Michael. Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti. Volume 2. London: Brown Langham & Co. Ltd., 1906.

Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn Vol. 14. London: George Allen, 1904.

Smetham, James. The Letters of James Smetham: With an Introductory Memoir, Ed. Sarah Smetham and William Davies. London: Macmillan, 1892.

Smetham, Sarah: Family Letters and Memoranda, with Some Additional Letters of James Smethan, 2 Vols. Unpublished and undated, Smetham family collection.

Created 23 March 2022