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James Smetham (1821-1889) is not well known as a painter and writer among the Pre-Raphaelites, although he knew Ruskin and was good friends with Rossetti. I knew little of him before having care of the the ‘Smetham Collection’ of some 60 paintings, etchings and writings from Smetham’s family which are held in the Centre.
In a paper I’ll be giving at the ‘Reading Art: Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry’ conference in Birmingham I’ll be exploring how his Christian religion was the guiding force in his life, expressed in his art and writing. But unlike many of his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, who were strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, Smetham was a Wesleyan Methodist, whose father and brother were both ministers. He taught at the ‘Wesleyan Normal Institution’ (later Westminster College) in London (whose archives are also held by the Centre) and in the Sunday School of his church in Stoke Newington.
Smetham was a prolific painter, yet even more abundant were the thousands of ‘squarings’ and ‘ventilations’ which he produced, miniature expressions of images and thoughts, on a wide range of personal and professional matters. These must be considered as part of his oeuvre, moreover they often express the links between his sometimes conflicting worlds.
This paper will explore some of the tensions between Smetham’s religious beliefs and life and the expectations of his art. In her otherwise comprehensive study, Susan Casteras barely considered this influence, which should be critical to an understanding of him. One of the central features of Methodism was Charles Wesley’s religious verses, many sung as hymns: how did these influence Smetham, both in his paintings and in his writing? How did he navigate the widening gulf between cultural trends and Victorian nonconformity?
Peter Forsaith is Research Fellow of the OCMCH. He will be presenting ‘James Smetham: Wesleyan Pre-Raphaelite’ at, Reading Art: Pre-Raphaelite Poetry and Painting, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Birmingham City University, May 27th – 28th 2016.