THOMAS SMITH (1799-1864)
Thomas Smith was born on 10 November 1799 near Coventry and at an early age joined his uncle's firm of cotton merchants Joseph Smith & Bros. in Manchester. He spent a large part of each year between 1819 and 1827 in the United States, based primarily in Charleston, the main cotton exporting port, and occasionally in New York, buying cotton and extending the business which dealt largely in the long fibre cotton of the Carolina Sea Islands. Returning to England he left Joseph Smith & Bros. joining a new firm, Benjamin Smith & Sons, which had offices in Liverpool. He continued in the Lancashire cotton business, the 'pace making industry of the Industrial Revolution', until his retirement in 1850. A man of great business ability, Smith was also a managing director of the Bank of Liverpool and one of the first directors of the London and Birmingham Railway (later incorporated into the London and North Western Railway). On his retirement he settled in Kent, buying the estate of Colebrook Park, Tonbridge in 1851. He died in 1864 and was buried in Southborough Churchyard near Tunbridge Wells.
The present album of watercolours and a handful of letters written to his uncle from Charleston and New York record his his travels in America between 1819 and 1827. The letters concentrate on his business, keeping his uncle alerted to cotton prices in Charleston and the market in general, but also provide a few glimpses of life in Charleston, of his 'rambles in the woods on the Banks of Cape Fear': he gives a postal address of 'R. Maxwell's, Charleston, S.C.' in February 1819, records the early southern Spring 'the weather has become abt as warm as June in Engld Thermom:r 70. The peach trees are coming into blossom', and the discomforts of summer in May the following year (now writing from 'Mrs Munroe's' in Charleston): 'the weather begins to be very warm, at night the terrific hum of the mosquito is heard but what is still worse you are obliged to endure his sting - '. In spite of the mosquitoes 'Charleston wh[ile] it is abt on a par with other markets is certainly the best placed in which to act for convincing safety & comfort'.
He takes the new steam ship in May 1820 up the coast to New York, staying a week in Philadelphia with 'Uncle Tom' before arriving in New York on 14 June. In New York he waits for cotton prices to fall before returning to South Carolina to buy. He signs off one of his letters from Charleston to his uncle: 'I must conclude but not withstanding that the Sun of prosperity may soon break through the thick clouds which have so long obscured his glory (here's an American simile for you! old as the snows of the Appallachian peaks) and once more lighten the hearts of the Cotton dealers and fustian Manufacturers with his inspiring refulgence'.
THOMAS SMITH'S AMERICAN SKETCHES, 1820-1826
Smiths's album of watercolours begins with views along the Atlantic seaboard from Charleston in the South up to New York which were presumably taken on his various commutes between his bases in Charleston and New York. The album concludes with a series of views taken in New York State, beginning with a fine view of New York Harbour from Weehawk, before he takes a cruise on the Hudson river, and continues up to Niagara and Canada.
Smith is unrecorded as an artist but his views are close and contemporary parallels to those of Joshua Shaw and William Guy Wall. At leisure in New York in the summer of 1820, his tour up the Hudson may have been exactly contemporary with William Guy Wall's which resulted in the latter's now famous The Hudson River Portfolio serially published between 1821 and 1825. The present album adds Thomas Smith to the early travellers and 'genteel tourists' who, armed with Joshua Shaw's U.S. Directory, advising them where to stay and what to see, set off 'in search of the picturesque': 'Travellers at the end of the eighteenth century were aware of the dangers of the wilderness, but a decade later these had diminished sufficiently so that the wilderness was a source of pleasure for the naturalist poet. Shortly thereafter, natural attractions in rugged areas began to be visited by ordinary tourists ... The wilderness clearly had been subdued. No longer a source of loathing or fear, it was a place for reflection and meditation. Its sublimity, in effect, became picturesque, something to be enjoyed and admired by genteel tourists. Following that change, it emerged as a subject for art.' (E.J. Nygren, Views and Visions, American Landscape Painting before 1830, Washington, 1986, p. 39.)
The present album, completely unrecorded, adds Thomas Smith to the roll of artists active in the early 1820s whose work first charted and classified the picturesque sights of the great waterways of North America's eastern seaboard.