James Smetham (1821-1881)
James Smetham (1821-1881)

The Mandolin

James Smetham (1821-1881)
The Mandolin
signed and dated 'JSmetham/1866-' (centre left)
oil on canvas
19 ½ x 16 in. (49.5 x 40.7 cm.)
Acquired directly from the artist by James Englebert Vanner (1831-1906), and by descent to his widow.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 10 June 1970, lot 258, as 'James Smetham, A young lady in exotic costume playing an Oriental lute'.
with J. S. Maas, London, as 'James Smetham and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Lute Player'.
J. Smetham, Letter to William Davies, 7 December 1865.
S. Smetham, List of Paintings, 1919, as 'Irene' and 'The Mandioline' [sic.].
H. Hutton, Copy of Sarah Smetham's List of Paintings, 1937 as 'Irene (The Mandolin).'
J. Maas, Pre-Raphaelitism exhibition catalogue, November 1970, p. 4, no. 18 as 'James Smetham and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Lute Player'.
M. Bishop & E. Malins, James Smetham and Francis Danby: Two 19th Century Romantic Painters, London, 1974, p. 42, illustrated pl. 21, as 'The Lute Player'.
S.P. Casteras, James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate, Aldershot, 1995, pp. 86 & 157.
W.E. Fredeman et al (eds.), The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Cambridge, 2002-10, vol. III (2003), p. 456.
London, J. Maas, Pre-Raphaelitism, November 1970, no. 18, as 'James Smetham and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Lute Player'.

Brought to you by

Clare Keiller
Clare Keiller

Lot Essay

The Mandolin is signed by James Smetham and dated 1866. It may be considered his masterpiece. However, in conception it bears all the hallmarks of Smetham’s friend and supporter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The half-length female figure presented close to the picture plane and lacking background perspective, richly attired and mesmeric in beauty, characterised Rossetti’s oeuvre at this date. Between 1863 and 1868 Smetham was in the habit of spending every Wednesday in Rossetti’s studio in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (Letters of James Smetham, with an introductory memoir, S. Smetham and W. Davies (eds.), 1891). Two of Rossetti’s studio props feature prominently in the picture: the lute is seen in Rossetti’s Christmas Carol of 1867 (Sotheby’s, London, 4 December 2013, lot 48), and the swansdown scarf is included in The Blue Bower of 1865 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham). The model is Ellen Smith who sat to Rossetti in Joli Coeur of 1867 (Manchester City Art Gallery).

The extent to which the picture may be a collaboration between the two artists is a moot point. A note on the reverse, dated 9 January 1933, states that the then owner was informed by Smetham’s widow that the picture was partially painted by Rossetti at the latter’s studio. It continues ‘… when Mr J Smetham went from his home at or near Hackney to continue the painting, Rossetti would point out something he had altered. A comparison of this picture with any other done by Smetham proves that most of this work was done by Rossetti’. The correspondence between the two artists reveals that Rossetti gave Smetham the utmost help and advice at this date, and was concerned for his wellbeing. A postscript to a letter written by Rossetti to Smetham on 18 August 1866 reads ‘I hope the transaction for the mandolin picture turned out of some use’.

Jeremy Maas attributed the picture to both Smetham and Rossetti when he sold it in his exhibition Pre-Raphaelitism (1970, no. 18). However in the light of current scholarship it has not been possible to precisely identify Rossetti's hand in the modelling of the face and the handling of the flesh tones. Perhaps Smetham, inspired and encouraged by Rossetti, produced this masterpiece unaided despite the anecdotal evidence cited above.

While it is interesting to speculate on questions of authorship, collaboration, friendship and assistance what is indisputable is the picture’s quality. Unseen for nearly fifty years it is an exciting rediscovery and an important addition to the Rossettian cannon.

We are grateful to Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn and Charlotte Gere for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

More from Victorian Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

View All
View All