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James Smetham calls on the Ruskins.


smethamsp-sqON A DUSKY winter’s evening early in the year 1855 the residents of 163 Denmark Hill in southeast London, received a visitor. Mr and Mrs Ruskin and their renowned son, John, welcomed into their home an aspiring artist called James Smetham. The Ruskin family had been living in their imposing three storey house since 1842. The only disruption to their settled and, by all accounts, tranquilly cultured existence had been the marriage of young John to Effie Gray in 1848 which had seen the newly-weds move out to start up their own home. By 1853 John was back at Denmark Hill, once more a bachelor and with his marriage annulled in poignantly cheerless circumstances. A year later, fuelled by a characteristically fervent desire to plunge himself into the practical application of his critical teachings, the better to fend off the demons of personal introspection, John Ruskin began to conduct art lessons at the newly established Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square. It was here, sometime around November 1854, that the thirty-three-year-old Smetham attended one of his classes. After showing a book of his drawings to Ruskin who duly praised them for their display of ‘talent, industry and thoughtfulness’, Smetham, soon after, received an invitation to pay a personal call on the celebrated author of such contemporary best sellers as Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice.1  The little known artist’s impressions of that encounter would later be the subject of a singularly evocative letter written to his friend, the poet and author, William Davies; an account which, by virtue of Smetham’s finely tuned descriptive skills, succeeds in briefly arresting the varied trajectories of each man’s fortunes to focus the reader’s attention on a single evening they spent absorbed in each other’s company.

By inviting Smetham to Denmark Hill, Ruskin was admitting to his circle of acquaintances one of the most intriguing and curious actors to feature on the outskirts of the whole Pre-Raphaelite pageant.

By inviting Smetham to Denmark Hill, Ruskin was admitting to his circle of acquaintances one of the most intriguing and curious actors to feature on the outskirts of the whole Pre-Raphaelite pageant. Although Smetham’s art along with his facility with an evocative phrase have largely been mislaid by posterity, his talents both as painter and correspondent are long overdue for critical reappraisal.2 At the time he visited the Ruskin household, Smetham was establishing a modest name for himself as a landscape artist of spiritually infused scenes which are reminiscent of Samuel Palmer’s early work filtered through a Victorian homiletic painterliness. Having started out as an architect’s apprentice before briefly studying at the Royal Academy, Smetham had spent some years as an itinerant portraitist before channelling his energies into producing more elevated subjects intended to raise his profile amongst the more discerning quarters of the Victorian art world. Already, in the early 1850s, he had begun to exhibit his work in places such as the Liverpool Academy and the British Institution as well as working as a teacher at the Methodist Westminster College, Smetham’s Methodist faith being an integral aspect of his character albeit one which, at times, he saw as significantly hindering his prospects as an artist. Even so, the Methodist circles he moved in would, in the latter part of his troubled career, come to his aid both personally and financially. In so doing they would ameliorate to some extent the traumas of Smetham’s final years in which he suffered acutely from a prolonged process of mental collapse.

All that was in the future. Back in 1855, from his account of their evening together, the occasional mental fragility that Smetham and Ruskin experienced from time to time and which, in both men’s cases, would ultimately overwhelm them, was nowhere in evidence. Instead, Smetham’s encounter with the leading art critic of the day, as set down for his friend Davies’ benefit, is a captivating mixture of wryly observed character studies and confessional exchanges.

SMETHAM BEGINS HIS ACCOUNT of the evening’s events with ‘one or two gossiping details’.3 He describes how, through wintry weather and with the light failing, he approaches a ‘large house…full of grand rooms glittering with pictures’. Soon he is shown in and there is a brief mention of some visitors already present, ‘two gentlemen, two ladies and a boy’. Relatives of the family, Smetham vaguely speculates, transitory aspects of Ruskin’s home life, and ‘if all came to all, I daresay he has a cat – but let that pass’.

Of more importance, and for the reader the point at which this social gathering starts to come to life, is Smetham’s encounter with Ruskin’s parents. Old Mr Ruskin, John James, the diligent businessman whose hard work and commercial acumen had allowed him to provide his wife and only son with a large, comfortable home and yearly tours around Europe, strikes Smetham as a ‘fine old gentleman’. Instead of the imposing paterfamilias, encrusted in the solemn pride of his accomplishments, we are introduced to a convivial figure with bushy gray hair and unkempt eyebrows who has a comfortably forthright way about him. Somewhat less approachable, Ruskin’s mother, Margaret, is described as ‘dignified’ and ‘richly dressed’. If not as candidly congenial as her husband Mrs Ruskin is, nevertheless, in Smetham’s estimation, ‘evidently a good old lady’. For both parents, their son John is anything but the formidable cultural prodigy he is fêted as outside the family home. Whilst John James considers his son’s works to be ‘pretty good’, Ruskin’s mother seems somewhat less impressed with her offspring’s opinions and has no qualms about flatly contradicting him from time to time, something which the increasingly influential art theorist appears to endure with reverent good grace. Indeed, rather than Ruskin being the evening’s natural centre of attention, his parents seem particularly keen to make Smetham the focal point of their esteem. They have been shown their visitor’s drawings prior to his arrival and Smetham is amused by the way Ruskin père feels the need to make the hopeful artist fully, and vehemently, aware of how good they are, going so far as to ‘threap’ him down about them.4 Brooking no protestations of modesty, John James wonders at the foolhardiness of their guest in allowing his drawings to be loaned out so heedlessly – ‘”I wonder you would trust them with John: you paid him a great compliment to send them at all. / wouldn’t. I have not let them come down out of the study for fear wine or anything should be spilt on them’. Suitably chastened, Smetham is at once both heartened and humbled by the old man’s resounding estimation of his talents.

By now Smetham seems increasingly enthralled by Ruskin’s humble demeanour. This is not the lionized arbiter of Victorian taste. This is not the inspirational star turn of the Working Men’s College, whom George Elliot claimed she venerated.

It is at such an awkward, if kindly meant, impasse that Mrs Ruskin scolds her son for not showing their guest more of Denmark Hill’s art collection. John has ‘heaps of things’ to bring to Smetham’s attention; that is, as she earnestly stipulates, on the understanding that there guest is not pressed for time. Obedient to his mother’s wishes, John, meanwhile, has already begun retrieving various works to bring to their visitor’s attention. By now Smetham seems increasingly enthralled by Ruskin’s humble demeanour. This is not the lionized arbiter of Victorian taste. This is not the inspirational star turn of the Working Men’s College, whom George Elliot claimed she venerated. Instead, this is the hovering, attentive product of his parent’s careful rearing; someone ‘half-timid’ and ‘chivalrous’ as Smetham puts it, for whom nothing is too much trouble in his efforts to welcome a guest into his private artistic labyrinth. They proceed to wander through the house, the pair of them, Ruskin occasionally stopping to descant on some picture he has temporarily unhooked from the wall before moving on to the next one before, at last, they end up in the study. Here, with the winter wind swirling outside, the two men settle down to speak about things which, by Smetham’s frank admission, ‘I should be sorry to open my heart concerning to scarcely any.’ It is at this point that the account of that evening turns from a meandering narrative of family dynamics into several esoteric snatches of fragmentary dialogue between, as Smetham has it, ‘J.R.’ and ‘J.S.’.

‘And did you pray during that time?’ asks J.R., to which J.S. replies, ‘No, I ought to have done so, but I was obstinate and discouraged’. Although there is no context given as to what preceded this exchange, it is reasonable to suppose that such talk of prayer and its renunciation could refer to an incident Smetham had previously described to Ruskin in a letter of 1854. Here the artist speaks of a crisis of faith he underwent during the eighteen forties brought on by the deaths, in quick succession, of his brother and father who were both Wesleyan ministers. He recounts how this plunged him into a ‘chaos of my inward life’.5 However, out of such ‘discordances with the spiritual universe’ Smetham would eventually find himself reconciled to his faith with a renewed energy which also infused his emerging artistic ambitions.6 A readiness to discuss such issues with those he respected and felt able to exchange confidences with was a significant aspect of Smetham’s disposition: one that contrasted sharply with his otherwise guarded character. Such meditative habits were part of a larger programme of acute self-analysis which saw the artist document in exacting detail and over a number of years, transitory impressions and emotions. Smetham termed this process Monumentalism because, as he put it, ‘instead of letting ideas die I build to each a lasting monument’.7 In practice, Monumentalism mainly divided up into two distinct pursuits.‘Squaring’ involved Smetham populating many journals and notebooks with hundreds of small, framed sketches depicting his daily life or adding visual marginalia to illustrate scenes in the books he read whereas ‘ventilation’ was the act of writing down spontaneously extemporised passages to give out to friends.8

With Smetham attentively observing his host’s shifting moods, he notes how Ruskin bemoans the ‘incompleteness of life’ such that ‘when man finds out what he is fit for, and is able to do it, he dies’.

IN MANY WAYS, Smetham’s traits as a correspondent were an extension of his Monumentalist project, particularly in terms of his ability to mine a scene for its essential ambience and convey it with a deft regard for the telling detail; a facility which, on the posthumous publication of the artist’s letters in 1891, earned the book several admiring reviews. Back in the study, and with Smetham attentively observing his host’s shifting moods, he notes how Ruskin bemoans the ‘incompleteness of life’ such that ‘when man finds out what he is fit for, and is able to do it, he dies.’. Smetham counters such despondency by maintaining the need for the individual to prepare for the next life by progressing through this one whilst ‘promoting the advancing civilisation of the race’. Unappeased, Ruskin asks why all encumbrances should not, instead, be thrown away and the individual allowed to live on bread and milk whilst contemplating the life to come. But what are the practicalities of achieving such a state, Smetham asks, to which Ruskin (with a smile, we are told) advocates becoming a shepherd or agriculturalist. They are ‘free, happy and simple’ and could even be holier than the rest of us. For all that Ruskin may be toying with his guest’s finer sensibilities here or initiating a game of romantic posturing, Smetham’s account of the conversation suggests he is aware that there may be an element of playful artifice. Even so, Ruskin then plays a puckish trump card by remarking that ‘I don’t know but that art—painting, poetry—are devices of Satan.’ Smetham, the committed Methodist who would spend the best part of twenty years ‘squaring’ scenes from the bible, sputters back that he should be sorry to think so, can’t think so, believes he is doing his right work, which he is happy in, etc. As much as Ruskin’s remark might tally with sentiments he expressed elsewhere about the ethical legitimacy and moral function of art, and leaving aside any plain old mischief involved, in offering his speculations on art’s intrinsic animus in such terms Ruskin was challenging head on the foundational motives of an artist who saw the value of his work as inextricably bound up with its potential to invigorate Christian souls.

How this particular exchange played out to a conclusion is not known (and Smetham seems reluctant to dwell on it, ending the fragment with a dismissive ‘etc.etc.’). However, the next reported snatch of dialogue finds both men in much more agreeable territory. They contemplate a copy Ruskin has made ‘ ‘from Tintoret, a Doge in his robes adoring the infant Saviour’.9 Smetham recalls a statement Ruskin made a couple of years earlier in which he maintained that the Pre-Raphaelites, in portraying so many of their figures in modern day apparel rather than dressing them up in antiquated costumes were, in effect, truly the historical painters of their day, the inference being that by dispensing with the worn out props of bygone times the Brotherhood were creating a lasting record of the society they inhabited.10 By that token, Smetham ponders whether, were he to attempt a contemporary version of Tintorretto’s picture, he should replace the Doge with a depiction of the former Prime Minister, Lord John Russell dressed in ‘surtout’ or frock coat with his top hat placed on a pedestal beside him. Ruskin, amused but adamant, maintains that this would indeed be the right course of action regardless of how ridiculous the world might think the scene. Smetham admits that the only problem he could foresee with producing a picture of this beetle-browed elder statesman worshipping a Madonna and Child would be that ‘I could not do it for laughing’. Even so, Ruskin insists, that is the way it must be done. If the finer points of what made cultured Victorians giggle are somewhat lost in such reported banter, there is, at least, a sense here of both men feeling relaxed enough in each other’s company to reframe and play with Ruskin’s precepts in ways that usefully bait their authoritative claims.

Eventually it is time for Smetham to go. At the door he bids farewell to his hosts who, as one, earnestly invite him to call again soon. Suddenly Ruskin grasps him by both hands and gently murmurs something which Smetham doesn’t quite catch. He thinks it may have been ‘The Lord be with you’. Whether this was Ruskin’s way of expressing contrition for his earlier ruminations on Satan as superintendent of all things artistic or simply Smetham projecting a roseate glow of religious endorsement on this meeting we’ll never know. In any case, the artist, thrilled with the evening’s events and not wishing to outstay his welcome describes how he runs, or ‘chevies’ home ‘in a sort of soft dream’. Afterwards the memory lingers such that, in writing up his account for Davies days later, the fragrance of the experience ‘has not left my spirit yet’.

kingsbridalWHAT FOLLOWS MIGHT HAVE BEEN the story of how Smetham, following this celebrated evening, went on to be one of the most renowned and successful of the Pre-Raphaelite fellow travellers. In such a scenario Ruskin’s admiration for this artist’s work soon brings it to the attention of connoisseurs and the art buying public alike. Smetham is acclaimed for his lyrical style and respected for his uncompromisingly devotional subject matter. He becomes, in effect, a Victorian version of William Blake without all the suspiciously antinomian tendencies.11 Sadly, no such maidenly star twinkled in the firmament over Smetham’s destiny. Paintings, engravings and illustrations were produced and sold at a rate which more or less kept his head above water, thereby allowing him to maintain his family, (redoubtable wife Sarah and their six children), balanced on the precipice of economic security in deepest Stoke Newington. Long lasting artistic friendships were forged, most notably with Frederic Shields, Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the latter, with characteristic generosity, regularly welcoming Smetham into his home and allowing him to use his studio. Ultimately, however, for all his orbiting of the Pre-Raphaelite sphere Smetham’s failure to establish himself on anything like the same terms as his better known contemporaries, slowly but surely wore him down. The bouts of mental illness which he had been susceptible to from his youth closed in on him more and more until, from the late eighteen seventies up until his death in 1889 he retreated into total anguished silence.

As for Smetham’s acquaintance with Ruskin, although they maintained contact of sorts after that memorable evening together in 1855, their relationship weathered into one of polite solicitations and even politer benefaction. Yes, of course Ruskin will allow Smetham to quote his approval of the artist’s efforts in case it helps to shift a few more pictures. Not that it did much good. All of Smetham’s intricate schemes and grandiose projects for launching himself on an appreciative public came to nothing. He continued to scrape by; made a living; just about. By 1873, with no sign of an upturn in his fortunes and beset by a smouldering dread about that perilous future which would soon enough consume him, Smetham writes to his friend J.S. Budgett, in terms that are weighty with nostalgic sadness:

18th September 1873.

‘I quite envy you your first reading of Ruskin. Ruskin is a revelation of a new world; and it only wants the remove of a century to show him in his colossal proportions. I shan’t soon forget the silent farms and solitary ways where I first drank in The Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and The Seven Lamps, and would give a good deal to have it all over again. I have not read anything of his for years’.12

Mark Jones is from Manchester. In his day job he works as a civil servant. ‘By night he transforms into a soi-disant art historian with an MA under his belt and a few articles published here and there’.

More: Mark Jones on Samuel Palmer’s difficult son, Herbert, and his relationship with the V&A’s Martin Hardie and the 1926 Palmer exhibition.


  1. William Davies and Sarah Smetham, Letters of James Smetham with an Introductory Memoir, (Macmillan and Co.:London, 1891. Reprinted in 1892 and 1902), p.26.
  2. The only book-length biography of Smetham to appear in recent times has been Susan P. Casteras, James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate (1821-1889), (Scolar Press: Aldershot, 1995).
  3. William Davies and Sarah Smetham, Letters of James Smetham with an Introductory Memoir, (Macmillan and Co.:London, 1891 and 1892), p.61. In what follows all quotations from the letter dated 5th February 1855 which describes Smetham’s visit to the Ruskin household are taken from the version which appears on pages 61 to 66 of the 1902 edition of this book.
  4. ‘Threap’, an antiquated term, meaning, in this context, to scold.
  5. William Davies and Sarah Smetham, Letters of James Smetham with an Introductory Memoir, (Macmillan and Co.:London, 1891and 1892), p.6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. William Davies and Sarah Smetham, Letters of James Smetham with an Introductory Memoir, (Macmillan and Co.:London, 1891 and 1892), p.158.
  8. The main Smetham archive containing several documents illustrating his Monumentalist activities can be found in the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History at Oxford Brookes University. Further examples of Smetham’s archive can also be found in the John Rylands Library, Manchester and at the Queen Mary University of London.
  9. Possibly Doge Alvise Mocenigo and Family before the Madonna and Child, 1573, Jacopo Tintoretto, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
  10. See Lectures on Architecture and Painting Delivered at Edinburgh in November 1853. Lecture IV ‘Pre-Raphaelitism, paragraph 129.
  11. Smetham was a devotee of Blake’s illustrative work and contributed an essay on him to the second edition of Alexander Gilchrist’s biography. Rossetti called Smetham’s essay ‘no less than a masterpiece’. (Quoted in Dear Mr. Rossetti: The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Hall Caine, 1878-1881, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p.195).
  12. William Davies and Sarah Smetham, Letters of James Smetham with an Introductory Memoir, (Macmillan and Co.: London, 1891 and 1892), p.315.
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Gillian Davies
Gillian Davies
8 years ago

My initial curiosity was a result of discovering he was a very distant relative – & as a Victorianist I was curious. I just wanted to see what I could find & it turned into a PhD! I hope you are you going to do more work on Smetham.

Mark Jones
Mark Jones
8 years ago

Gillian I’m delighted you liked the article. I nearly did a PhD on Smetham last year and although I haven’t seen your work on him I was very aware of the input you had to Ms Casteras’ book. I’d be interested to hear more about how you stumbled across Mr Smetham.

Gillian Davies
Gillian Davies
8 years ago

I enjoyed this account of Smetham’s visit to Ruskin very much. Thank you. As Mark Jones says, JS is sadly neglected. In fact I wrote my PhD on him 30 years ago (extensively used by Susan Casteras in her 1995 book).Smetham’s annotated books & original letters were wonderful to see, though many now in private collections.

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