SMETHAM, James (1821-1889)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Letters written by James Smetham, 1853-1877, mainly to William Davies, concerning his work, schemes to raise money and his religious beliefs. Smetham called his letters "ventilators" and they often took the form of handmade notebooks with their contents resembling diaries or commonplace books. Other correspondents include Rev Thomas Akroyd, Quintin Hogg (1845-1903), Charles Mansford, Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti (1828-1882), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Frederic James Shields (1833-1911). Also letters to Sarah Smetham, his widow, from William Davies, 1889-1895.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Smetham was born in Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, in 1821 and educated in Leeds. He began his career apprenticed to an architect but left to make his living painting portraits in Shropshire. In 1843 he went to London and entered the Academy School but left before completing the course and returned to itinerate portrait painting. In 1851 he became drawing teacher at the Wesleyan Normal College, Westminster, where he remained until his final illness. He married Sarah Goble, another teacher from the College, in 1854, and they had six children. In 1877 he suffered a final breakdown and lived in seclusion until his death in 1889. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery. His early work has been compared to William Blake and he was a Pre-Raphaelite associate numbering John Ruskin and Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti among his admirers and friends. Religion was as important to him as art, he regularly attended Saturday and Sunday services and was a Methodist class leader. After his death his widow collaborated with William Davies (c1830-1897), a lifelong friend of Smetham and his family, on an edition of her husband's letters.


The letters are arranged in two series: letters by Smetham and letters about Smetham; each series is arranged chronologically.

Conditions Governing Access

Users are asked to book an appointment in advance of their visit. For more information about the Archives see the website or contact the College Archivist to book an appointment: College Archivist, Main Library QMUL, Archives, Mile End Rd, London E1 4NS, telephone: 020 7882 7556, email:

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Dorothy Moore for Westfield College in 1971.

Other Finding Aids

Draft detailed list by Brenda Weeden, (c1980).

Separated Material

Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Department of Western Manuscripts holds letters from and concerning Smetham, 1861-1911 (Ref: MSS Eng c 5315); Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library holds letters from GCD Rossetti, 1861-1879.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopying at the discretion of the Archivist.

Appraisal Information

This is a small and random survival of the letters collected and published by Sarah Smetham and William Davies.