Smetham, James

Artist and writer, born on 9 September 1821 at Pateley Bridge, the son a WM minister of the same name (1792-1847; e.m. 1812), and younger brother of John Smetham, whose probation was cut short in 1842 by ill health. He was educated at Woodhouse Grove School and became a painter, known for his prodigious output, his 'squarings' (miniature visual jottings) and also his 'ventilations' (penning of passing thoughts). He was the first drawing master at Westminster College. John Ruskin, whom he met in 1854, was an important influence on him. An associate of D.G. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, his adherence to Methodism distanced him from the mainstream of artists and he never achieved the success he might have done. Four substantial articles, which appeared originally in the London Quarterly Review, were reprinted in his Literary Works (1893) edited by William Davies, along with a number of poems. They were on 'Religious Art in England' (1861), 'The Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds' (1866), 'Alexander Smith' (1868) and 'William Blake' (1868). During his closing years he suffered from severe mental illness, exacerbated by the inner conflict between his art and his Methodist allegiance. He suffered a final breakdown in 1877 and lived in seclusion until his death at Chipping Ongar on 5 February 1889. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery.


'[Benjamin Gregory II's] old school-fellow, James Smetham, the poet-painter, lived within ten minutes' pleasant walk of our house [at Stoke Newington]. Those were golden days. Mr. Smetham was a frequent though erratic visitor. He would come usually to supper - brimful of talk, and would often keep us convulsed with laughter as he described in the style of his more humorous "ventilators" the extraordinary people he had met in or on a 'bus, the wonders of Essex Road at night time, the curiosities of church meetings, the casual talks with remarkable men - and they were all remarkable if he talked to them! At other times he would come in the depth of depression, in moods which fore-shadowed the darkness which came to him in life's early eventide. Gradually the gloom would vanish as old Grove stories were told and retold, and he would depart right merrily. At other times again he would bring William Davies with him, and the talk would be fast and on my father's side, sometimes a little furious as varied heresies, literary or theological, reared their heads. But James Smetham never came whether in joy or sorrow, in gloom or gladness, without knowing that no friend was more welcome, none more loved than he.'

Arthur E. Gregory, in Benjamin Gregory, Autobiographical Recollections (1903) pp.424-5

  • James Smetham, Letters, ed. W. Davies and S. Smetham (1891)
  • William G. Beardmore, James Smetham, painter, poet, essayist (1906)
  • A.L. Drummond, 'James Smetham: Christian Artist', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, July 1943, pp.207-18
  • Susan P. Casteras, James Smetham, Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate (1995)
  • Peter S. Forsaith, James Smetham, Wesleyan Pre-Raphaelite in PRS Review, vol. 24 no.3, Autumn 2016, pp.55-65
  • Oxford DNB