James Smetham (1821 - 1889)

Lot 297: James Smetham (1821-1889)


February 19, 2003
London, United Kingdom

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Description: Christ at Emmaus oil on panel 193/4 x 153/4 in. (50.2 x 40 cm.) PROVENANCE Mr Winders in 1856. Anon. sale, Christie's, London, 10 December 1963, lot 196. Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read, London. with The Fine Art Society, London, from whom acquired by the present owner. LITERATURE Sarah Smetham and William Davies (eds), The Letters of James Smetham, London, 1891, p. 16. Morchard Bishop and Edward Malins, James Smetham and Francis Danby: Two 19th Century Romantic Painters, London, 1974, p. 40. Susan P. Casteras, James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate, Aldershot, 1995, pp. 103-5, 156(?), 164(?), illus. pl. 25 and in colour following p. 116. EXHIBITION London, Royal Academy, 1852, no. 23. Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art: The Handley-Read Collection, 1972, no. A47. Paintings, Water-Colours and Drawings from the Handley-Read Collection, 1974, no. 74. The Royal Academy (1837-1901) Revisited, 1975-6, no. 62. The Pre-Raphaelite Era, 1976, no. 3-15. The Art of Seeing: John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye, 1993, cat. pl. 11. New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, James Smetham, 1994. London, Christie's, James Smetham, 1995, no. 14. A Brush with the Millenium, 2000, no. 5. NOTES The picture is one of Smetham's most important early works, and certainly the most important to have survived. Painted in 1849, when he was twenty eight, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy three years later, the second time that he had been represented on its walls. The subject is Christ's miraculous appearance to two of his disciples following the Resurrection (St Luke, ch. 24, v. 13-35). Sitting at supper with them at Emmaus, He remains unrecognised until He blesses the bread in emulation of the Last Supper and suddenly 'their eyes were opened'. In Smetham's picture one disciple is already experiencing the revelation while the other looks on with a degree of scepticism, still awaiting englightenment. The picture cannot be understood fully without an appreciation of Smetham's deep religious faith. Born and brought up a Methodist, he remained intensely alive to the spiritual dimension throughout his life. Yet while religion was a driving force and a constant source of inspiration to him as an artist, it also contributed to the morbid sensitivity and chronic sense of inadequacy that dogged his career and eventually led to his mental and physical breakdown. The picture was painted before Smetham moved to London in 1851, taking up a post at the Weslyan Normal College, a Methodist teacher training institution in Westminster, that he was to hold for twenty-six years. As a youth, he had been articled to the Lincoln architect E.J. Willson, who had encouraged him to make a detailed study of the Cathedral. There is perhaps a reflection of these experiences in the picture, with its strong architectural forms and a hint of a Gothic arch in the background. While living in Lincoln, Smetham had met the painter Peter De Wint. This had fired his ambition to be an artist, but the real sense of direction had come through reading Ruskin, who had published two volumes of Modern Painters by 1849. The picture probably betrays Ruskin's influence in its careful attention to naturalistic detail and the total sincerity with which the scene is envisaged. The impact of Pre-Raphaelitism, however, is hardly yet apparent, even though the picture was shown at the RA the same year as such masterpieces as Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd (Manchester) and Millais' Ophelia (Tate Gallery). Smetham in his persona as one of the most interesting associates of the Pre-Raphaelites did not emerge until he had met Ruskin and Rossetti in 1854. The picture was the most important of several Smethams that belonged to Charles and Lavinia Handley-Read, who between them did so much to pioneer the Victorian revival in the 1960s. Their self-inflicted deaths late in 1971 was an ever-to-be-lamented tragedy, depriving the movement of two much-loved and respected gurus and themselves of the opportunity to see the fruits of their labours. For other pictures from their collection see lots 34 and 156.
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