Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smetham, James
SMETHAM, JAMES (1821–1889), painter and essayist, son of a Wesleyan minister, was born at Pately Bridge, Yorkshire, on 9 Sept. 1821. From a very early age he resolved to be a painter, and received his father's promise that he should be one; but, after some years' schooling at the school for Wesleyan ministers' sons at Woodhouse Grove, near Leeds, he was placed with E. J. Willson, an architect at Lincoln, which perhaps was considered much the same thing. His master, who himself was fond of painting, compromised with the youth by turning him loose in Lincoln Minster, where Smetham spent his time as Blake had spent his in Westminster Abbey, and eventually consented to cancel his indentures. Smetham began by painting portraits in Shropshire, came to London in 1843, and studied at the Royal Academy, where he did not distinguish himself. Unfortunately for his worldly success, he wished to be a painter and something more. ‘You comfort yourself with other things,’ wrote Rossetti, ‘whereas art must be its own comforter, or else comfortless;’ and the distraction of his mind between art and literature probably prevented him from following his profession with the unremitting industry and exclusive devotion requisite for eminence. Merit he must have had, for Rossetti, an excellent and impartial judge, said of one of his works, ‘This is a little picture, but a great one;’ and, when his pictures were exhibited after he was disabled from the further pursuit of his art, classed some of them with ‘the very flower of modern art.’ He also had warm and appreciative friends in Ruskin, Madox Brown, Shields, and Professor Parker, and a genuine patron in Mr. J. S. Budgett, but could make no way with the public or the critics, and was glad in 1851 to become teacher of drawing at the Wesleyan Normal College, Westminster. He exhibited from time to time at the Royal Academy (1851–4) and at Liverpool. His principal work, however, for several years, after an unsuccessful attempt at book illustration, was the production of etchings or drawings illustrating his own conceptions, which were sometimes highly poetical. In 1854 he married, first settling in Pimlico, and, after the birth of a son, at Stoke Newington. In 1869 he braced himself up for a determined effort to establish his position. Unfortunately the four pictures on which he relied—‘Hesper,’ ‘The Women of the Crucifixion,’ ‘The Dream of Pilate's Wife,’ and ‘Prospero and Miranda’—were each and all rejected by the academy. All hope and energy were crushed out of him, and his biographer implies that his despondency had much to do with the cloud which settled upon his mind in 1877, and never departed until his death on 5 Feb. 1889. He was buried in Highgate cemetery.
Like Haydon and other unsuccessful painters, Smetham has won commemoration by his writings, and chiefly by those to which he himself attached least importance. The essays and poems published in 1893 as ‘The Literary Works of James Smetham’ (London, 8vo) have much merit; the memoir of Reynolds is admirably arranged and proportioned, and the study of Blake, first published in the ‘Quarterly Review’ in 1868, and afterwards as an appendix to Gilchrist's biography, was considered by Rossetti the best essay on the subject which had till that time appeared. Smetham's familiar letters (published with a memoir, London, 1891, 8vo; 2nd ed. 1892), nevertheless, possess a higher interest. They are to a certain extent prepared compositions, owing to his habit of noting down his thoughts for future use, but this does not interfere with their ease and freshness. Written from a full heart on the wide range of subjects which interested him, they have the first qualification of good letter-writing—vitality.
A portrait of Smetham, painted by himself, was reproduced in his ‘Letters’ (1891).[Memoir prefixed to his Letters (1891) by Mr. William Davies (cf. ‘Anti-Jacobin,’ 12 Dec. 1891).]