Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smirke, Robert (1752-1845)
SMIRKE, ROBERT (1752–1845), painter, the son of a clever but eccentric travelling artist, was born at Wigton, near Carlisle, in 1752. He was brought to London by his father in 1766, and apprenticed to a coach-painter named Bromley. In 1772 he became a student of the Royal Academy, and in 1775 a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, with whom he began to exhibit by sending five works, his address then being ‘At Mr. Bromley's, Little Queen's Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields.’ He exhibited again in 1777 and 1778, but in 1786 he sent to the Royal Academy ‘Narcissus,’ and ‘The Lady and Sabrina’ from Milton's ‘Comus.’ He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791, in which year he exhibited ‘The Widow,’ and he became an academician in 1793, when he painted as his diploma work ‘Don Quixote and Sancho.’ In 1804 he was elected to succeed Joseph Wilton [q. v.] as keeper of the Royal Academy, but George III refused to confirm the appointment, possibly through fear of the influence on the students of the artist's freely expressed revolutionary opinions. His last contribution to the academy, entitled ‘Infancy,’ appeared in 1813, but he continued to exhibit occasionally elsewhere until 1834. His pictures were usually of small size and painted in monochrome, as being best adapted for engraving. He designed illustrations for the Bible, ‘The Picturesque Beauties of Shakespeare’ (1783), Johnson's ‘Rasselas’ (1805), ‘Gil Blas’ (1809), the ‘Arabian Nights’ (1811), ‘Adventures of Hunchback’ (1814), ‘Don Quixote,’ translated by his daughter, Mary Smirke (1818), and the British poets, especially Thomson. His works are characterised by good drawing, refinement, and quiet humour. ‘The Pedagogue,’ which was engraved by Joseph Goodyear for the ‘Amulet’ of 1830, is an excellent example of his style. Of equal interest are ‘The Rivals,’ engraved by William Finden for the ‘Keepsake’ of 1828; ‘The Secret,’ engraved by James Mitchell for that of 1830; and ‘The Love Letter,’ engraved by Alfred W. Warren for the ‘Gem’ of 1830.
Smirke painted also some pictures for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ and for Bowyer's ‘History of England.’ These works included ‘Katharine and Petruchio,’ ‘Juliet and the Nurse,’ ‘Prince Henry and Falstaff,’ and ‘The Seven Ages.’ A large commemorative plate, with fifteen medallion portraits, of ‘The Victory of the Nile’ was engraved by John Landseer, A.R.A., from his design. In the Guildhall, London, is a picture by him representing ‘Conjugal Affection, or Industry and Prudence,’ and a series of scenes from ‘Don Quixote’ is on loan from the National Gallery to the museum of Stoke-upon-Trent. Two other small pictures are in the Sheepshanks collection, South Kensington Museum. Smirke was the author of a satirical ‘Catalogue raisonnée of the Pictures now exhibiting at the British Institution’ for the years 1815 and 1816.
Smirke died at 3 Osnaburgh Terrace, Regent's Park, London, on 5 Jan. 1845, in his ninety-third year, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. He had four sons: Richard (see below), Sir Edward [q. v.], Sir Robert [q. v.], and Sydney [q. v.]; the last two were architects.
There is a portrait of Smirke in the ‘British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits,’ engraved by Charles Picart from a drawing by John Jackson, R.A., taken from an original picture by Mary Smirke, and now in the possession of the family. Sir William J. Newton painted several miniatures of him.
Richard Smirke (1778–1815), antiquarian draughtsman, born in 1778, studied painting in the schools of the Royal Academy, where in 1799 he gained the gold medal with a picture of Samson and Delilah. But his tastes led him to the study of ancient works of art and historical costume, and he became an extremely skilful antiquarian draughtsman. When the wall paintings in St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster, were discovered in 1800, Smirke made a set of beautiful facsimile copies of them in watercolours, on a small scale, which are now in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries; he was afterwards employed by the society on similar work. He gave much time to the study of chemistry, and made some discoveries in the qualities of colour. He died at the Howard Arms Inn, Brampton, Cumberland, on 5 May 1815 (Gent. Mag. 1815, i. 477).
[Gent. Mag. 1845, i. 317–19; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Redgraves' Century of Painters, i. 455; Sandby's Royal Academy, 1862, i. 299; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers, 1886–1889, ii. 506; Royal Academy Exhibition Catalogues, 1786–1813.]