James Smetham was one of the most interesting members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. A close associate of Rossetti and others, he combined something of their pictorial intensity with a visionary quality which reflected both his religious convictions and his admiration for William Blake.
Born in Yorkshire in 1821, Smetham was the son of a Wesleyan minister, and remained a devout member of that sect throughout his life. He began his career by painting portraits in Shropshire, but in 1843 he came to London and entered the Royal Academy Schools. Finding that photography was destroying his livelihood as a portraitist, he took up the post of drawing master at the Wesleyan Normal College, Westminster, in 1851. The same year he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and he continued to show there until 1876 while also supporting the British Institution and the Society of British Artists. Torn between the practice of art and literature, he attained little recognition during his lifetime, although a small circle of discerning friends, including Ruskin and Rossetti, thought highly of his work.
Increasingly a prey to mental illness, Smetham chose to isolate himself by living in rural Stoke Newington and rejecting what he called 'studio life in its widest sense, haunting the clubs, lecture rooms, the company of dealers and patrons, things utterly revolting and impossible to me'. After more than a decade of psychological anguish, he died on 5 February 1889 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. He is remembered today not only for his painting but for his letters (published 1891) and critical articles. His essay on Blake, published in the Quarterly Review in 1868, is particularly remarkable as a pioneering attempt to establish the great visionary's importance.
The present Bible is one of the most substantial examples of Smetham's technique of 'squaring', a method he hit upon in February 1848 and utilised for more than twenty-five years. 'It introduced me to a new life', he told his friend and biographer William Davies, and Susan Casteras, in her recent life of Smetham, observes that the statement 'is not hyperbole, for squaring...became one of his most indelibly ingrained habits and lifelong obsessions'.
'Squaring', Casteras continues, 'was a deliberate and engaging act of selection, thought and artistic labour, by which the artist produced small drawings, usually in the margins of books, and then enclosed them in small rectilinear 'squares'. The majority of the squarings were quite tiny in scale, typically the size of a small stamp, and usually rendered in ink. Some were quite finished in detail, while others were sketchy and almost telegraphic. Often the squarings jostled among one another on a single, crowded page of text, and in one volume with this technique over 8500 were tabulated. The chief books which Smetham chose to square were the Bible, the Wesleyan hymn book, some exhibition catalogues, tomes by Shakespeare, Gilchrist's Life of Blake, and Tennyson.
In addition to being concrete symbols of his private experiences and thoughts, squarings were an organic, visual and non-linear form of journal-keeping. Squaring also served as a conscious release from various tensions and as a useful form of emotional catharsis; accordingly, he (wrote) in 1873 (that) 'To allay the Imagination by a square is a sort of bliss. It preserves the otherwise fugitive conception as in amber. Yet it consumes no time, and wastes no money, and piles no unfinished canvases against the wall. Indeed by simply GOING ON, squaring has become so glorious that I can't help prating about it'. While he was perhaps misguided that the absorbing activity took 'no time' (in truth he devoted at least a half-hour daily to the task), it is manifest from such remarks that the process, if not the results, were quite therapeutic for the artist.
Casteras describes our Bible as follows:
'Between the years 1847 and 1877 Smetham squared three volumes of Bible studies, often with larger-than-usual squarings, and used these for teaching purposes in his weekly Methodist classes. One of these notes for Bible lessons at the Stoke Newington Sunday School in 1865 contained over 2000 squares'. Sarah Smetham wrote of Smetham's Bible Studies that the three volumes 'made between the years 1847 and 1877...were originally drawn in common exercise books, and in this form were shown to Mr Ruskin'. They remained in this state until 1866, when fellow Methodist 'Mrs M.C. Taylor came to visit us, and kindly took to the mounting of them in a thick volume...which he named his "Year Book". This book I divided into three, and had them bound in their present form in 1896' with illustrative scriptural quotations added in her hand.
The Bible inscribed 'to James Allen as a gift in 1856' included notes by Rev. Allen and pictorial squarings by Smetham. Visually annotated over several years, the three volumes are now consolidated into one and typically contain dozens of images per page. Volume one featured myriad drawings, mostly pen and ink, from Noah and the flood (related to a subject Smetham tackled in his etchings) to the circumcision of Ishmael, the Shulamite and the Book of Kings. The second volume lists squarings for 19 psalms, for example, and one drawing for psalm number 19 shows a man alone amidst the stars, while 'The Lord is my Rock' depicts a solitary figure in armour on a precipice with the sun in the background. Here, as in other squared texts, Smetham periodically noted both the date and the precise time of day, for instance 'Sept. 20th, 1876 at 1:50 P.M.' or 'March 18th, 1877 at 4 P.M.', sometimes adding the word 'pressure' to reflect his mental state (as on 'June 6, 1875 at precisely 7:35 A.M.'). The third volume tended to have larger squarings, with some drawings tipped in and some watercolour highlights; one of these is a pen and ink drawing of Counting the Cost, a variation on an 1855 painting which Smetham contributed to the Royal Academy exhibition. A page from his Life and Teaching of Jesus is by contrast very densely covered with images from Ephesians.
Such outpourings, visual and spiritual, constituted a vehicle of devotional exercise and even penance, a way to prove and preserve as well as immortalize Smetham's faith; it also enabled the artist to reread and re-experience his spiritual insights, and the drawings cannot help but strike late twentieth-century observers as devotional acts, a form of prayer made visible and permanent through the unique act of squaring.