Born On This Day: James Smetham (1821-1889)

How have posthumous artists influenced art today? Our factfile series on seminal artists charts their influences, interpretations and echoes in modern times…


‘Naboth in his Vineyard’ by James Smetham c. 1856.  (Oil paint on wood).  Smetham was a devout Methodist, often choosing to paint religious imagery.  Here, he covers a parable on the sin of covetousness.

Full nameJames Smetham

Born:  9th September 1821, Pateley Bridge (Yorkshire, England)

Died:  5th February 1889

Education:  School career in Leeds followed by an apprenticeship to an architect, then a career as an artist studying at the Royal Academy of Art (from 1843).


Connections:  Dante Gabriel Rosetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England.  John Ruskin – prominent Victorian Art Critic, watercolourist, philosopher, philanthropist and writer.

Influences:  Follower of Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, and also William Blake (Poet and Artist) who’s career he furthered via various published works such as his article in the January 1869 ‘Quarterly Review’.  He showed a penchant for religious art and iconography due to his Methodist upbringing.

Artistic Phases & Genres:-

1843 – Portraiture:  Limited early success (the public preferred new

‘Moorland Edge’ by James Smetham (date unknown). (Etching on paper). Despite his religious predilections and their influences on his subject matter, Smetham was best known for his landscape pieces.

developments in photography).

1857 – Religious art:  Increasing, fanatical interest culminating in the attempt to illustrate every verse in the Bible.

1860 – Landscapes:  His focus faded from figurative subject matter.  Gradually, landscape art becomes his metier.

1861 – Literature:  From time to time, commentaries, art reviews and articles were published in ‘Quarterly Review’.

Notable Exhibitions:-

Posthumous collections are curated by the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago for public view.


Published Works:-

For Quarterly Review:

1861 – ‘Religious Art in England’

1866 – ‘The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds’

1868 – ‘Alexander Smith’

1869 – Review of Alexander Gilchrist’s ‘Life of William Blake’

Notable Artworks:-  

‘The Eve of St Agnes’ by James Smetham c. 1858. (Ink and watercolour on paper). A particularly bold and linear sketch for a later painting exhibited in Liverpool, this piece has modern echoes in Impressionist Art.

1856 – ‘The Dream’

1861 – ‘The Death of the Earl of Siward’

Unknown – ‘The Hymn of the Last Supper’

In Memoriam

Posthumous Publications:-

His wife and family published ‘The Letters of James Smetham: With an Introductory Memoir’ in 1892.  This threw light on his particular style of writing (or ‘ventilating’ as he called it) which was similar to Stream of Consciousness.  Latterly, his writing has been praised for its literary, spiritual and religious self-analysis, along with it evidencing his battle with depression.

Modern Echoes:-

‘The Italian Woman’ by Henri Matisse, c. 1916.  Furthering the linear attributes of James Smetham’s sketching style.

Smetham’s perhaps heroic furthering of other artist’s careers through his reviews – in particular that of William Blake – has only served to increase their influence in modern times.  William Blake’s work has influenced a plethora of writers, lyricists and artists, from U2 (‘The Joshua Tree’) to C.S. Lewis (‘The Great Divorce’), from Bill Watterson (‘Calvin and Hobbes’) to Martin Scorcese (‘Mean Streets’).

Smetham’s own artistic strengths in portraiture (‘The Eve of St Agnes’, for example) can be tracked directly into Impressionist art (see ‘The Italian Woman’ by Matisse c. 1916) and Cubism (Picasso’s drawings of Francoise Gilot c. 3rd quarter of the 20th Century).


[Credits:  Feature Photo – James Smetham ‘Self Portrait’ c. 1855;;;]


Please give generously towards our magazine production costs.

Also, see our Kickstarter campaign to donate to our 2-phased Emporium and Gallery expansion programme...