James Smetham (1821-1889) was an artist, poet, and teacher. He was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin, and others in Pre-Raphaelite circles, especially William Davies, who would go on to edit his poems and letters.
What set Smetham apart from many of his Pre-Raphaelite peers was his devout religious faith. He came from a strongly Methodist family in Yorkshire – his father, uncle, and brother were all Wesleyan ministers, and Smetham led a Bible Class in Stoke Newington, London. His beliefs were fundamental to his life and art.
The Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History is home to the largest number of Smetham’s original artworks outside of private ownership, and several significant manuscripts relating to the artist. It is the latter that we are choosing to showcase in this Spotlight.
Smetham’s Inner Circle
Smetham was friends with a number of leading Pre-Raphaelites, especially D. G. Rossetti, and produced well-regarded works such as The Mandolin (1866) in Rossetti’s London studio. He once remarked that ‘Rossetti has done me more artistic good than all other art influences put together.’ A point on which they differed, however, was religion. Smetham’s staunch Methodist faith set him apart from his bohemian peers, and he was discomfited by behaviour that did not align with his religious beliefs. On 10 December 1865, Rossetti wrote to Smetham that, ‘I had better tell you frankly at once that I have no such faith as you have.’
In 1874, Smetham drew up his ‘Orrery of Personal Responsibility’. This diagram was inspired by three-dimensional, mechanical models of the Solar System. In Smetham’s version he placed himself at the centre of a series of concentric circles that represented his family, friends, and connections in the Methodist Church. The individuals that Smetham identified in the innermost circles of the orrery were people that he felt he had the closest relationships with, and the greatest sense of responsibility toward. Smetham was not explicit in his writings about the meaning or intention behind the orrery, so it remains open to interpretation.
Smetham’s most characteristic and idiosyncratic creative output were his ‘squarings’. These ink sketches, usually no bigger than a postage stamp (and often even smaller), appear in various contexts – sometimes to annotate texts, or as a form of pictorial journal. At one time, Smetham set himself the challenge of ‘squaring’ the entire Bible (an uncompleted project). Some years after his death, Smetham’s widow described her late husband’s ‘squarings’ as being ‘in no sense drawings’, adding that he would return to them time and time again, sometimes at intervals of months and years, embellishing and improving them.
Death & Legacy
Prone to depressive episodes throughout his life, Smetham suffered a final debilitating illness in 1877. For the last twelve years of his life he produced no further artworks. For long periods of time he would not speak and even had difficulty taking food. His needs became so acute that permanent lodgings and care were eventually found for him away from the family home. During this difficult time, and after, Smetham’s wife Sarah promoted her husband’s artistic legacy and encouraged those interested in his work. This included the composition of volumes of family letters and reminiscences, and the fine rebinding of Smetham’s Bible Studies.
Following Smetham’s death in 1889, his wife Sarah and friend William Davies published well-regarded volumes of his letters, critical essays, and poetry. Attempts to reprint these in the twentieth century, however, faltered on several occasions. So began a long period during which efforts to bring Smetham to wider attention frequently foundered. In the 1970s, the author Morchard Bishop prepared an edition of the Smetham family letters and reminiscences, and the project was sufficiently advanced that it was advertised as a forthcoming book. But, permission for publication seems to have been rescinded by the family at that time, and this edition never appeared.