Two hundred years ago, this month, a man who came into the world in the back of a hackney carriage, and once had aspirations to become an actor, was appointed the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. "Antiquity Smith" would hold this prestigious position for the rest of his life. Despite his rather colorful background, an artist himself, Smith was well-connected within the British art world, which would stand him in good stead as he worked to organize and build the collections at the British Museum.
The curious career of Antiquity Smith . . .
John Thomas Smith was born in London, in June of 1766, in a hackney carriage, while his mother was on her way home after visiting her brother. His father, Nathaniel Smith, had been a close friend of the prominent sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, though he did not become a sculptor himself. Nathaniel eventually became a successful print seller, by which trade he supported his family. However, he seems to have had high hopes of a career as a sculptor for his son, since he sent young John to Nollekens’ studio to be trained in that discipline of art. Nollekens took a liking to the young man and frequently took him along on his walks about London, during which the older man pointed out many of the curious architectural antiquities of the metropolis. It is not known whether young John found the work of a sculptor too physically demanding or if he lost interest in it for other reasons. But it is known that he left Nollekens’ studio after only a few years, to train with John Keyse Sherwin, a talented and fashionable engraver as well as a history painter. During the time he was training with Sherwin, young John Smith was also taking classes at the Royal Academy.
After about three years in Sherwin’s studio, John Smith decided it was time to embark on his own career. He seems to have had no interest in engraving and decided that he could support himself with his talents as a draftsman. He particularly enjoyed making topographical drawings, by which are recorded the principal physical and geographic features of a given area. But he soon found he could not make a living by producing such precise and detailed drawings. They demanded a great deal of time and it was difficult to find a market for them beyond the owner of the property depicted in the drawing. Smith soon hired himself out as a drawing master in order to make ends meet. It was at about this same time that he also developed an interest in the theatre and considered becoming an actor.
Then, probably in 1788, John Smith married Anna Maria Prickett. As a married man, he no longer had the luxury of indulging in the harum-scarum daydreams of a young bachelor and needed to find a way to provide for his family. At about this time, John Smith was living and working as a drawing master in Edmonton, in the northeastern part of London. It may have been there that he became acquainted with another Edmonton resident, Sir James Winter Lake, Baronet. Sir James was the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as had been his father before him. However, he was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and an avid collector, not only of objects, but of books and prints as well. Perhaps Sir James and John Smith found they had a common interest in the architectural relics of the metropolis. Mayhap these discussions reminded Smith of his many walks though the city with his one-time mentor, Joseph Nollekens. What is certain is that in 1791, John Smith published his first book, Antiquities of London and its Environs. This profusely illustrated volume, " . . . Containing Views of Houses, Monuments, Statues and other curious remains of Antiquity, engraved from the original subjects . . . " was dedicated to Sir James Winter Lake, Baronet and F. S. A. In this book, Smith was able to indulge his love of detailed topographical drawings and his interest in the architectural relics with which he was so familiar. Though Smith drew a number of his subjects from life, he was also able to borrow drawings and engravings of architectural antiquities of London which had since been demolished or otherwise lost. Each place was accompanied by a brief paragraph of explanation, below the image of the place or monument noted. This book seems to have been very popular with many collectors and others who were interested in the architectural relics of the city, and it sold very well.
Smith followed up Antiquities of London, in July of 1797, with a similar book which captured some quaint examples of domestic architecture on the edge of the metropolis, Remarks on Rural Scenery; with twenty Etchings of Cottages, from Nature; and some Observations and Precepts relative to the Picturesque. This book, as its title suggests, was primarily an album of pictures of some of the more visually interesting and picturesque cottages which could be seen on the outskirts of London. Smith was listed on the title page as the "Engraver of the Antiquities of London," so it seems clear he was hoping to capitalize on the success of his first book. And, his father, Nathaniel, was the publisher of this second book, perhaps hoping to increase the fortunes of both men. Rural cottages had become very popular at that time, though in the introduction, Smith assures his readers that he is not "cottage-mad." Rather, he states that he wishes to present a selection of some of the more interesting and amusing buildings of which he is familiar. Unlike his previous book, there are a series of essays on various aspects of art theory which precede the illustrations. This book had a number of prominent subscribers, including Benjamin West, the current President of the Royal Academy, and Smith’s antiquarian friend, Sir James Winter Lake.
Some time in 1796, probably while he was preparing his drawings for Remarks on Rural Scenery, John Thomas Smith met the young landscape painter, John Constable, while the latter was visiting family in Middlesex. Smith offered the aspiring young painter a wide array of advice on painting, particularly on the drawing and painting of landscapes, something which was very close to his own heart. Yet, curiously, Smith urged young Constable not to give up his place in his father’s corn mill business in order to become a professional artist. One can only wonder if Smith, by then a husband and father, had come to regret going out on his own as a professional artist, instead of joining his father’s business, where he might have had a steady income, though almost certainly at the cost of much less opportunity for artistic expression.
In August of 1800, a major renovation and extension of the Parliament buildings in Westminster was underway. Probably through the efforts of his friend, Sir James Winter Lake, John Smith was granted permission by the Society of Antiquaries to sketch the paintings, murals, stained glass and other relics which were unearthed during construction. However, Smith was only allowed access early in the morning, before the workmen arrived, so as not to interfere with the work. Conscious that much of what he was seeing would soon be obliterated, he worked as quickly as he could. In a number of cases, the architectural features which he had drawn were demolished within days, sometimes hours, after the completion of his sketches. He worked feverishly at this effort for just over six weeks. In September of 1800, the Society of Antiquities withdrew their permission for Smith to draw on the Westminster work site in favor of one of their own members. But by that time, Smith had made a full record of the important antiquities which had been revealed and/or demolished during construction.
Smith had not only made numerous sketches of what he had seen at the Westminster work site, he had also made careful color studies of the various paintings, murals and stained glass which were exposed during construction. Apparently, while still working as a drawing master, Smith spent his free time making detailed drawings of the most important of the antiquities he had seen, and then produced engravings from those drawings with an eye to the publication of a new book. Initially, John Sidney Hawkins, a member of the Society of Antiquities, had offered to write the descriptive text which would accompany the engravings. Sometime after Hawkins had completed the preface and the first 144 pages of text, he and Smith had a falling out over some of corrections which Smith requested. Hawkins refused to continue his work on the descriptive text, leaving Smith to complete that as well as the engravings. This herculean effort took him nearly seven years, for it was not until June of 1807 that he published Antiquities of Westminster; the Old Palace; St. Stephen’s Chapel (Now the House of Commons) & & Containing Two Hundred and Forty-Six Engravings of Topographical Objects, of which One Hundred and Twenty-Two No Longer Remain. Sadly, Smith’s good friend, Sir James Winter Lake, did not live long enough to see the publication of this new book which he had helped to facilitate, since he passed away in April of 1807.
The Antiquities of Westminster was very well received by the wider public and is considered by many to be John Smith’s most important work. It sold quite well, despite, or perhaps, because of, the ongoing public feud of words between Smith and Hawkins which surrounded its publication.This feud began with Smith’s comments about Hawkins at the beginning of the book. Hawkins answered these remarks, which he considered to be pejorative, in a pamphlet he had published and widely circulated. Smith then countered Hawkins’ pamphlet with one of his own, entitled Vindication. After the publication of his pamphlet, Smith had Vindication bound in with a number of copies of Antiquities of Westminster.
Sometime around 1800, it is believed that Smith’s father, Nathaniel, passed away. Therefore, Smith had to find someone else to publish his new book when the manuscript was completed. He settled on Thomas Bensley, the younger, with premises at 6 Bolt Court, just off Fleet Street. Bensley was a noted publisher of books with large numbers of engravings and was the publisher of most of the books written by the prominent landscape designer, Humphrey Repton. Unfortunately, Smith and his family were dealt a costly blow when a fire at Bensley’s printing office destroyed part of the first print run for Antiquities of Westminster. As was often the case at that time, the author of a book bore most of the expenses of publishing and the printed stock was their property. The fire at Bensley’s printing office destroyed four hundred copies of the text block of the book, along with about 5,600 prints. At least 1,000 copies of those prints had already been hand colored and gilt by Smith and his wife, in preparation for their inclusion in a deluxe set of the books intended for generous subscribers. Smith estimated that his losses from the fire came to at least £150, a very considerable sum at the time.
It was after the publication of Antiquities of Westminster, which followed his earlier volume, Antiquities of London, that John Thomas Smith acquired that unique sobriquet which would stay with him for the rest of his life. The majority of people who knew him began to refer to him as "Antiquity Smith," to differentiate him from the many other John Smiths in London, and the name stuck. It is perhaps fitting that he came to have such an epithet, since Antiquities of Westminster was considered his most important work, while Antiquities of London was his personal favorite among all the books he would go on to publish during his lifetime.
Having made his name with the publication of Antiquities of Westminster, in which he had recorded a number of architectural monuments and other antiquities which had been swept away, he seemed to think a similar book which included the whole of the metropolis would also be well received. Smith once again turned his attention to the many ancient buildings around London of which most people were unaware. In 1815, he published Ancient Topography of London; containing not only views of buildings, which in many instances no longer exist, and for the most part were never before published; but some account of places and customs, either unknown or overlooked by the London Historians. This book was divided into three sections, in which were presented images of sacred, public and domestic architecture. Some of the engravings were of drawings which Smith had done himself, before the buildings were demolished. In other cases, he was able to borrow prints and drawings owned by members of the Society of Antiquities of old London buildings which were no more. Though not as successful as the Antiquities of Westminster, his new book, Ancient Topography of London sold well enough to help Smith support himself and his family.
In 1816, the office of Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum became available. That autumn, the Trustees of the Museum offered the position to John Thomas Smith, and he accepted with alacrity. He officially took up his new duties in September of 1816. Such a position would assure him of a steady income, something he had never before had. In addition, the Trustees had no objection to his continued artistic endeavors, which meant he could continue to make drawings for future books by which to supplement his income from the Museum. As Keeper, Smith was responsible for cataloging and maintaining the prints and drawings in the Museum’s collection and mounting displays of those works for the public. He was also responsible for identifying gaps in the collections which he might fill by soliciting donations from affluent collectors. In cases of particularly important works, he could request that the Trustees make the purchase from the Museum’s relatively small fund. For more significant and costly acquisitions, he would have to draw up a proposal to be presented to Parliament to request the necessary funds. Smith was well-suited to his new position, as he had a wide acquaintance among the artists, dealers and collectors of London and was usually aware of most important works that were available on the art market of the metropolis or in the hands of private collectors.
Perhaps Antiquity Smith wanted a change from drawing and engraving buildings when he began to plan his next book. Or, mayhap he spent some time making drawings of the more memorable and noteworthy beggars to be seen in the environs of London as a change of pace while he was working on his drawings for the Ancient Topography of London. What is certain is that within a year of so of becoming Keeper at the British Museum, Smith published two books which focused on the people of London instead of its buildings. The Streets of London: Anecdotes of Their More Celebrated Residents may have actually been in the process of publication when he was offered the position at the British Museum. [Author’s Note: The digital copy for which the link above is provided is to a reprint published after Smith’s death, which does not include any of his engravings.]
It seems likely that Smith had accumulated even more drawings of London street folk that he used in his book, The Streets of London. A couple of years after that publication, Smith collaborated with the antiquarian, Francis Douce, who had himself once served as Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. This collaboration was much more successful than had been Smith’s partnership with John Hawkins. Douce wrote the introduction for Smith’s next book, Vagabondiana, or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London, with portraits of the most remarkable. [Author’s Note: The digital copy for which the link above is provided is also to a reprint published after Smith’s death. However, this edition does include his engravings.] Despite its subject matter, or maybe even because of it, this new book sold quite well and ran to several editions. Though the book focused on those of the lowest classes in the city, perhaps like picture books of creatures in faraway places, there were many members of London society who wished to own a copy of this book.
John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith remained Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum for the rest of his life. During that time, he continued to publish books on a wide range of topics, the sale of which helped to supplement his income. Yet, when he died in 1833, he left his widow with very little. She had to rely on the support of her two grown children after his passing. A selection of Smith’s surviving books can be found listed, with links to them, on this page at the Internet Archive.
Dear Regency Authors, many of Antiquity Smith’s books might serve as useful sources of research. Those filled with his engravings will be particularly valuable to an author who is trying to get a visual sense of how an area in which they are setting a scene might have looked. Or, mayhap a character in a Regency romance has acquired a copy of one of Smith’s books and is using it as a kind of guide book to help them to discover some of "lost" London. Or, are they using his book to locate some secret treasure which they believe was once hidden in one of those old buildings? Then again, might the heroine be inspired by Vagabondiana to try help some of those who appear in the book? Or, could it be that someone hoping to hide from the authorities or repressive family members has disguised themselves as a London beggar? Will their ruse be revealed in the pages of that book on mendicants in the metropolis? Not only his books, but Smith’s life, or parts of it, might serve as the pattern for the life of a character in a story set in the Regency. Could it be that the heroine’s father, after years of publishing various books by which the family ekes out a meagre living, has finally been appointed to a prestigious position at the British Museum? Perhaps she meets the hero there one day, while on a visit to her father. Or, might Antiquity Smith himself find a place in a story set in the Regency? Will that be before, or after, he has become Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum?