www.meltonpriorinstitut.org - 15.10.2014



John Thomas Smith and the Invention of Investigative Social Reportage II: Real Views

by Alexander Roob

Terra Incognita I

Abriged version. For footnotes please see the more detailed German version.

- 1) Introduction

- 2) Real views


1) Introduction

The beginnings of investigative social reportage are usually sought in the Victorian age, in the 1840s, the founding period of illustrated magazines dedicated to daily politics. But graphic social journalism had already been formulated decades earlier in the work of one artist. He created a number of complex and artistically striking reportages on pauperism, some reprints of which were present until the late 1870s. They not only served as blueprints for subsequent graphic depictions, but also inspired early urban ethnographies and photographic social documentations. It is the author, engraver and graphic historian John Thomas Smith.  

J. Jackson / W. Skelton, Portrait of John Thomas Smith. Late Keeper of the Prints in the British Museum, 1839 (MePri-Coll.)

Due to its interdisciplinary character, his work has remained largely unfamiliar. Posterity remembers him foremost as an author of artist’s biographies. His extensive descriptions of the life of the classicist sculptor Joseph Nollekens are marked by unchecked anecdotal richness. This artist’s biography as well as his own memoirs and literary surveys of the urban history of London provided urban and mentality historians ample material to reconstruct the living conditions in the English metropolis around the year 1800. As the first biographer of the painter-poet William Blake, his testimonies of the befriended artist are invaluable. It later turned out that Smith’s analysis of Blake’s work, familiar only to closest artist friends, was astoundingly acute and clairvoyant. In his capacity as a private drawing teacher, his intuition regarding his student John Constable was no less seminal. Smith’s teachings had a shaping influence on the development of this future pioneer of atmospheric landscape painting. Moreover, Smith can be regarded as the first British artist who used the new technique of lithography in the context of book art.

J.T. Smith, Inside of the painted Chamber (lithographed version), in: Antiquities of Westminster, London 1817 (MePri-Coll.)

The interdisciplinary gesture in Smith’s work, in which scientific ambition and artistic achievement constantly mingled, by no means complied with the prevailing romantic artist ideal that made a universalist claim but was anti-discursively oriented. Which 19th- or 20th-century posterity revering the genius would have appreciated an artist who began his career as an engraver and – due to his profound media-historical knowledge – ended it as the curator of the British Museum’s graphic collection?

On account of the many references underlying his social reportages, one soon gains the impression as if Smith had deduced this promising medium from the analysis of different pictorial lines of tradition, as if his investigative social reportage were above all an aesthetic construction springing from the economic scheming of a graphic entrepreneur searching for a market niche. However, this impression of a calculating mind is contradicted by the great empathy that his depictions of members of London’s underclass convey. Smith was indeed one of the very few fine artists at the time who directly faced the pressing urban problems associated with the rapidly increasing population density in the cities. But what can hardly be ignored is that the laconic and deterministic quality of his art was more inclined towards the reactionary theorems pessimistic of progress advocated by his contemporary Robert Malthus than the idealistic maxims of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Paine, whose utopias had fuelled the emblematic image worlds of radicalism.

Smith’s analytical mode of operation makes the historical development of social reportage in the writings of its founder as transparent as possible. He left behind a huge number of references that can be used to reconstruct the genesis of this picture-journalistic medium in a layered manner, so to speak, divided into an objective topographic, a sentimental picturesque and a caricatural perspective.


2) Real Views

Already with his first publication, Antiquities of London and it’s Environs, issued in twelve instalments from 1791 to 1802, Smith had joined the long tradition of topographic art in Great Britain in a very self-confident manner. The work included several copies after engravings by Wencelslaus Hollar (1607-1677). The Bohemian engraver Hollar had learnt his trade in the workshop of Matthäus Merian and developed a today still amazing documentary realism based on his engagement with Dürer’s drawings and Dutch prints. He had arrived in London in 1637 with the entourage of the English diplomat Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, where he then provided a multifaceted documentation of the state of the English metropolis during the time of the English civil war in hundreds of engravings, architectural views, portraits and illustrations of events. For Smith, Hollar was the epitome of topographic objectivity as the fundamental principle of pictorial journalism.

Wenzel Hollar,  The Tower of London, London ca. 1660

Wenzel Hollar: The true Manner of the Execution of Thomas Earle of Strafford, the 12 th of may, 1641. London 1641. Radierung (MePri-Coll.)

In response to the devastations caused by the civil war and puritan iconoclasm, a wave of antiquity research had already commenced during Hollar’s lifetime and was institutionalised with the foundation of the influential “Society of Antiquaries” in 1707. Smith’s early publications mainly addressed its members.  

J.T. Smith,  A Front View of the Watch Tower, 1793, in: Antiquities of London and it's Environs, London 1791 - 1801 (MePri-Coll.)

J.T. Smith,  The Old Fountain in the Minories, 1798, in: Antiquities of London and it's Environs, London 1791 - 1801 (MePri-Coll.)

Smith’s second publication dedicated to the history of the city, Antiquities of Westminster, was published in 1807. The weighty folio is not only an outstanding document of the Gothic Revival, but also expresses the author’s love of experimenting with graphic prints. The 246 picture panels were made or reworked in a variety of techniques by Smith himself, as were most of the etching masters. But there are also several reproduction etchings after works by two artists who are of great interest regarding the evolution of topographic art and visual documentation, Giovanni Antonio Canaletto and Thomas Sandby.

Canaletto, The Old Palace Yard, etched by J.T. Smith, in: Antiquities of Westminster, London 1817  (MePri-Coll.)

Canaletto’s art stands for the influence of Italian veduta painting on British art. In the first half of the 16th century, veduta painting had been brought to Rome by emigrated Dutch artists and it gained attractiveness around 1700 due to the increasing practice of the camera obscura. Around 1800, the use of cameras was common throughout Europe in amateur drawing circles of the nobility and educated bourgeoisie. The precision of pictorial recording was grasped as a substantial contribution to the accumulation of knowledge, and the picture production itself as a scientific-cognitive activity.

As an artist, John Thomas Smith was an harbinger, and as a teacher, the promoter of a generation of sensualistically oriented artists dedicated to the ethos of precisely capturing the retinal image. Thomas Girtin, John Constable, Cornelius and John Varley, as well as John Sell Cotman were among them. Their landscape art and architectural views were essentially based on the knowledge of the camera image. Yet it was less the practice of the camera itself than the insight into the potential of the reproduction of sensory impressions created by apparatuses that was decisive for this new understanding of the image. The view of the camera image was firmly anchored in topographic art around 1800. Already decades before the development of chemical photography, the mode of retinality had therefore crucially determined the appearance of graphic and painterly documentations in England. The peculiar fact that Smith’s social prints remained solitary for decades and found genuine successors only from the 1850s onwards in the photographic documentations of a James Beard and John Thomson has to do with precisely this sensualistic character of British artworks and illustrations around 1800.

The rise of the topographic plein air movement was inextricably linked to the qualities of watercolour painting that allowed working in front of the motif in an uncomplicated and ambulant fashion. In 1804 the watercolour artists seceded from the Royal Academy, because they found that their “small manner” was not sufficiently appreciated in the context of history painting, and founded the Society of Painters in Water Colours. One of the leading secessionists was William Henry Pyne. In his critical writings, the son of a weaver was a leading theorist and chronicler of the watercolour movement that had just started to develop into a popular national phenomenon. For Pyne, it was a foregone conclusion that the triumph of watercolour art mainly owed to the brothers Paul and Thomas Sandby. The peculiar nature of their art had emerged in the late 1840s, when, as official military draughtsmen during the English campaign against the Jacobite rebellion, the two were engaged with mapping the Scottish Highlands and reporting on the events in illustrations. Based on the many watercolour sketches that Paul Sandby made of the Scottish population, it becomes clear that his attention was attracted not only to the specificity of the landscape but equally to the special features of the regional social corpus.

Thomas Sandby, Edinburgh Street Scene: A horse-fair on Bruntsfield Links, ca. 1747-51 (British Museum, London)

The Sandbys were founding members of the Royal Academy established in 1768. John Thomas Smith belonged to the first generation of students. In his memoirs, he acknowledges that he gained his knowledge of the linear perspective, in particular, from them. But his third publication on the city’s history, Antient Topography of London, on which he had worked from 1810 to 1815, reveals that he benefited much more from the Sandbys than just this mastering of a purely technical skill. London’s street life entered into the topographic sceneries; an army of street vendors, beggars and construction workers populated the meticulously rendered architecture grounds. Precisely in scenographic terms, the Sandbys, usually in collaboration, had achieved something exemplary. With his pointed, scenic interludes, Paul Sandby succeeded in lending the architectural views life and concision. He was able to underlay his accounts of street life, as yet untouched by the impact of the subsequent revolutionary tremors, with a distinct sense of social tensions. Smith, in contrast, went on to circumvent any allusion to class differences by leaving the entire urban space to the lower classes, to beggars, pedlars and street workers. The reason for this almost ghostly absence of the bourgeoisie in the streets was an aesthetic one. A basic rule of his artistic teachings, with which he had also confronted his student Constable, was the plausibility of a scenic arrangement, the propriety of place and personage. To avoid the danger of artificiality, the artist was to heed a founded connection between figure and scenic surroundings. Accordingly, homeless people, construction workers and street cleaners were associated more closely to public space than the bourgeois, whose natural environment was his home. With this petty-bourgeois exclusion of the bourgeoisie from public life, Smith evoked a mood that was in line with the restrictive climate of the period, albeit with a prophetic inclusion. Soon after the book was published, the cityscape of London was indeed dominated by the sub-bourgeoisie, by poverty and epidemic homelessness.

J.T.Smith,  Domestic Architecture (depicting William Conway), 1808, in: Antient Topography of London, London 1815 (MePri-Coll.)

J.T. Smith, William Conway: Hard Metal Spoons to Sell, in: The Cries of London, London 1839 (MePri-Coll.)

In stylistic terms, the work was predominantly influenced by the graphics of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who was made an honorary member of London’s  Society of Antiquaries in 1757 mainly for his monumental archaeological work, Antichità Romane.  He not only set new standards in the field of graphics, his extensive commentaries in the book also revealed him as an outstanding expert on archaeological matters, as a top-notch scholar. The main addressees of his effective mises-en-scène of faded Roman magnificence were above all British connoisseurs and patrons. Piranesi’s depictions had an enormous effect on British culture in numerous ways. It catalysed itself with both English horror romanticism and the theorems of the picturesque movement that had begun proclaiming the abysmal and unfathomable as a new aesthetic category.

J.T.Smith,  Sacred Architecture, 1797, in: Antient Topography of London, London 1815 (MePri-Coll.)

The picturesque wave that commenced in the 1780s was foremost a tourist phenomenon. It linked landscape art to an exciting moment of temporality. Places formerly resting in themselves were liquefied to stages of a travel that set themselves off from earlier and later sections through a special kind of accentuation and staging. The term reportage bears this signature of tourism. Etymologically, the need of topographic exactness and the succinct memory of a situation intersect with the claim of expressing the sensation of travelling itself. Reportage implies this moment of shifting, the staging of a transition. John Thomas Smith could identify himself qua birth as the embodiment of the transitory reporter existence. His autobiography begins with the account of his being delivered during a coach ride, and to complete the paradox of an indigenous placelessness, he did not forget to mention that it was a Hackney Coach in which he came into the world, a cheap rental coach that was reputed to be a social space in which the boundaries between the classes were blurred.

In his writings and graphics, Smith often explored the field of tension between the two essential constituents of reportage, topographic precision and picturesque sentiment. A key work in this respect are his Remarks on Rural Scenery, with which he succeeded in taking the crucial step from topographic distance into a concrete picture-journalistic space, albeit one that turned out to be a politically mined terrain.  

J.T. Smith, Near Battle Bridge, in: Remarks on Rural Scenery, London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)