Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, James (1775-1839)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

SMITH, JAMES (1775–1839), author and humourist, born in London on 10 Feb. 1775, was elder brother of Horatio Smith [q. v.] Like his brother, he received his education at Chigwell, but, instead of being sent to business, entered his father's office and succeeded him as solicitor to the board of ordnance in 1812. Like Horatio, James greatly preferred theatrical and literary amusement to the dry details of business, but, like him too gave business an attention particularly exemplary under the circumstances, and eventually attained considerable eminence in his profession. His first production was a hoax, being a series of letters descriptive of alleged natural phenomena which imposed upon the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ He was closely connected with his brother in his literary undertakings, writing in particular the larger and better portion of the metrical imitations of Horace, which appeared in Thomas Hill's ‘Monthly Mirror,’ and were subsequently collected and published under the title of ‘Horace in London’ (1813). To the ‘Rejected Addresses’ (1812) he contributed Nos. 2, 5, 7, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18 [see under Smith, Horatio]. James Smith's contributions to these famous parodies were perhaps the best, though not the most numerous, but he appeared contented with the celebrity they had brought him, and never again produced anything considerable. Universally known, and everywhere socially acceptable, ‘he wanted,’ says his brother, ‘all motive for further and more serious exertion.’ He produced, however, the text for Charles Mathews's comic entertainments, ‘The Country Cousins,’ ‘The Trip to France,’ ‘The Trip to America’ (1820–2), and the two latter brought him in 1,000l. ‘James Smith,’ said Mathews, ‘is the only man who can write clever nonsense.’ He also produced much comic verse and prose for periodicals, not generally of a very high order, but occasionally including an epigram turned with point and neatness. His reputation rather rested upon his character as a wit and diner-out; most of the excellent things attributed to him, however, were, in the opinion of his biographer in the ‘Law Magazine,’ impromptus faits à loisir. He was less genial than his brother, ‘circumscribed in the extent of his information, and, as a natural consequence, more concentrated in himself,’ says a writer in the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ When in his office ‘he looked as serious as the parchments surrounding him.’ Keats, after dining with both the Smiths and their friends, left with a conviction of the superiority of humour to wit. James Smith, nevertheless, was a general favourite, and tempered his powers of sarcasm with much good nature. He died, unmarried, at his house in Craven Street, Strand, on 24 Dec. 1839, and was buried in the vaults of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. His ‘Comic Miscellanies’ were edited in 1840, with a memoir, by his brother (London, 2 vols. 12mo).

A portrait by Lonsdale was bequeathed by him to the Torrholme family. Smith also figures in the ‘Maclise Portrait Gallery’ (ed. Bates, p. 277).

[Memoir by Horace Smith, 1841; Law Mag. vol. xxiii. February 1840; New Monthly Mag. vol. lxxxvii, 1849; Rejected Addresses, edited by Percy Fitzgerald, 1890.]

R. G.