Page:Dictionary of National Biography. Sup. Vol I (1901).djvu/24
Memoir of George Smith
its services were sought by him who was to prove the century's greatest art-critic and one of its greatest artists in English prose—John Ruskin. It was in 1843, while Smith was still in his pupilage, that Ruskin's father, a prosperous wine merchant in the city of London, introduced his son's first prose work to Smith, Elder, & Co.'s notice. They had already published some poems by the young man in 'Friendship's Offering.' In 1843 he had completed the first volume of 'Modern Painters, by a Graduate of Oxford.' His father failed to induce John Murray to issue it on commission. The offer was repeated at Cornhill, where it was accepted with alacrity, and thus was inaugurated Ruskin's thirty years' close personal connection with Smith, Elder, & Co., and more especially with George Smith, on whose shoulders the whole responsibilities of the firm were soon to fall.
The public were slow in showing their appreciation of Ruskin's earliest book. Of the five hundred copies printed of the first edition of the first volume of 'Modern Painters,' only 105 were disposed of within the year. Possibly there were other causes besides public indifference for this comparative failure. Signs were not wanting at the moment that, ambitious and enlightened as were many of the young firm's publishing enterprises, they suffered in practical realisation from a lack of strict business method which it was needful to supply, if the publishing department was to achieve absolute success. The heads of the firm were too busily absorbed in their rapidly growing Indian business to give close attention to the publishing branch; managers had been recently chosen to direct it, and had not proved sufficiently competent to hold their posts long. Salvation was at hand within the office from a quarter in which the partners had not thought to seek it. A predilection for the publishing branch of the business was already declaring itself in young Smith, as well as a practical insight into business method which convinced him, boy though he was, that some reorganisation was desirable. With a youthful self-confidence, which, contrary to common experience, events showed to be justifiable, he persuaded his father late in 1843—a few months after the issue of the first volume of 'Modem Painters,' and when he was in his twentieth year—to allow him to assume, temporarily at any rate, control of the publishing department. Under cautious conditions his father acceded to his wish, and Smith at once accepted for publication a collection of essays by various writers on well-known literary people, edited by the somewhat eccentric and impracticable author of 'Orion,' Richard Hengist Horne. The enterprise called forth all Smith's energies. Not only did he supervise the production of the work, which was adorned by eight steel engravings, but, in constant interviews with the author, he freely urged alterations in the text which he deemed needful to conciliate public taste. The book appeared, in February 1844, in two volumes, with the title 'The New Spirit of the Age,' and Smith had the satisfaction of securing for his firm fair pecuniary profit from this his earliest publication. Another edition was reached in July. His second publishing venture was from the pen of a somewhat miscellaneous practitioner in literature, Mrs. Baron Wilson, who had contributed to Miss Sheridan's 'Diadem'