John Thomas Smith and the Invention of Investigative Social Reportage II: Republican Palaces

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

-3)  Republican Palaces

-4)  Digression I: Blake’s Cottage


3) Republican Palaces

Remarks on Rural Scenery is Smith’s shortest publication. It consists of a sequence of twenty etchings that were all made “after nature” and depict the most various kinds of rural housings for the poor on the periphery of the exploding metropolis of London. The places are specified as precisely as possible, and in two cases even the names of the residents are mentioned. Furthermore, it includes an introductory essay by Smith dealing with – as the subtitles states –“Some observations, and Precepts relative to the Picturesque”.

The correspondence between Smith and his student John Constable reveals that the latter was not only actively interested in the development of this book on dwellings of the poor, but also fervently engaged in studies on the theme. Smith himself was concerned with documentary truthfulness and the creation of greatest possible atmospheric density; he therefore analysed the extensive collection of Dutch landscape prints in the possession of his father, the print trader Nathaniel Smith, which included works by artists from the era of 1640s plein air drawing, such as Anthonie Waterloo, Jan Both and above all Rembrandt, whose highly detailed engravings of thatched-roof peasant cottages on the Amstel decisively inspired Smith’s Cottage project.

Rembrandt, Cottages under a stormy sky, ca. 1635 (Vienna, Albertina)

J.T.Smith, Remarks on Rural Scenery, London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)

J.T. Smith, Remarks on Rural Scenery, London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)

J.T.Smith, Remarks on Rural Scenery, London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)

But Smith went beyond these Dutch models as regards both the precision of the topographic specifications and the diversity of graphic structures. In the nervous, shimmering layers of lines into which he dissolved the cottage sceneries in some of the depictions, one seems to sense the London air filled with dense particles of soot. Although Smith’s gloomy suburban sceneries are far removed from John Constable’s idyllic universe in Suffolk, their documentary realism and atmospheric, pre-Impressionist style do provide the key to the artistic conception of his student. The fact that young Constable is listed with two reserved copies in the subscribers’ list is therefore not surprising. A William Blake, also listed, is probably not the artist-poet but a collector of the same name. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe that the artist William Blake was not only familiar with the Cottage book but also dealt with it in artistic terms. William Blake most likely continued to follow the work of Smith even after the death of his brother, Robert, who was Smith’s friend, because Blake, like Smith, had worked during his entire apprenticeship as a reproduction engraver for the Society of Antiquaries.

Smith paid unreserved respect to the mastery in printed graphics of his artist colleague, who was ten years his elder. However, he stated that he barely delved into the complex contents of his subsequent poetry and will therefore have missed the fact that it conveyed a number of socio-critical commentaries. While this aspect of Blake’s works remains symbolically enigmatic, it becomes quite manifest in Smith’s Cottage book. In his study on the cultural effects of political repression during the coalition wars, John Barrell analysed several highly allusive passages in Smith’s introductory essay and could only presume under which high pressure the author must have stood while writing it. The openly egalitarian tone that Smith already adopts in the opening passage, and would have been entirely to the taste of an angry republican like William Blake, is therefore all the more surprising: “Palaces, Castles, Churches, Monastic ruins and the remains … of our feudal and ecclesiastical structures  have been elaborately … described, …while the objects comprehended by the term cottage scenery have by no means been honoured with equal attention.”

Smith’s Remarks on rural scenery was the first publication dedicated to the dwellings of the poor with such a broad and informative range of depictions. Only fifty years later did a publication reach a comparable level: George Godwin’s illustrated reportage, London Shadows. A glance at the homes of the Thousands, showing the hygienic conditions in the urban slums of London’s East End.

George Godwin: London Shadows, A glance at the homes of the Thousands. London 1854 (MePri-Coll.)

Smith’s call for a “low- comedy landscape”, for a plebeian type of landscape art propagating the state of decay and dilapidation as a sublime aesthetic category, was an outright attack against the loyalist scenery art of the times, which in the depictions of cultured pastoral landscapes evoked Merry Old England. Just a few years earlier, the radical journalist and poet John Thelwall had published a political travel guide, The Peripathetic, exposing the reallocated and consolidated landscape ideal of the day as an aesthetics of tyranny and exclusivity. In Thelwall’s opinion, such a flawless topography that in the cottages of the poor saw only malformations, “warts” which must be cauterised, legitimised the injustice of violent evictions and thus fostered the ever growing social divide.

Smith followed Thelwall’s criticism in that he adopted individual categories from loyalist propaganda literature, their judgments concluding the character of the dwellers from the bad condition of their houses, but inversed them. For example, the derelict hut of a Mrs Battey is raised to the residence of a Dame Battey, and in the title of the last sheet of the sequence of etchings, The Palace of Lady Plomer, he ultimately falls back on the revolutionary antagonism of palace and hut, with which he began his essay.

J.T. Smith,  Lady Plomers Palace, in:  Remarks on Rural Scenery, London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)

This last etching of the Cottage cycle, Lady Plomer’s Palace, sets itself off from the preceding ones already on account of its almost format-filling size. While the motifs of the other works of the series remain within the narrow limits of Dutch landscape graphics, going beyond them only in the concrete indication of the places, this depiction entirely steps out of the generalising context of the picturesque landscape motif through a moment of temporality that flares up. One could regard Smith’s reversal of poor and rich here as a fairy-tale-like fancy of the author, if it weren’t for the disturbing expression of the elderly, which is absolutely not conciliatory but angry and full of hatred.

J.T. Smith,  Lady Plomers Palace (Detail), London 1797 (MePri-Coll.)

The aggressive atmosphere of the Lady Plomer scene coincides with a moment of surprise and startle. Being stared at by the old people, the viewer suddenly feels entrapped in a tensional situation. It is this incursion of the instantaneous into the contemplation of landscape depictions that ultimately lends Remarks on Rural Scenery a psychological tension and severity. Like a time capsule, Lady Plomer’s Palace rises from the mist of the poetry of nature and historical remoteness as a harsh vision of equalizing the conditions of huts and palaces.

4) Digression I: Blake’s Cottage

The intertwinement of temporal, topographic and political components at the end of Remarks on Rural Scenery remained unique in the landscape art of the times. In William Blake’s illuminated oeuvre, one can find a work created just a few years later that possesses comparable suggestive power and an inherent moment of surprise, giving rise to the assumption that Blake was not only familiar with Smith’s Cottage cycle but that it also inspired him. At first sight, the assumption may come as surprise that it was a mythomaniac like Blake, of all people, possessing a sensorium oriented to interior contemplation, who proved to be most receptive to the innovative stimuli of his subsequent biographer’s social reportage. However, Blake’s adaptation of Lady Plomer’s Palace is not a superficial adaptation of the Cottage theme, but a penetration of all the hidden aspects in the act of reporting.

Three years after Smith’s Cottage publication, the artist-poet left the metropolis with his wife Catherine and moved to the small town of Felpham on the southern English shoreline. In several letters to his acquaintances in London, he praised the advantages of the small, thatched-roof cottage they had rented. “Our cottage is beautiful, if I should ever build a palace it would be only my cottage enlarged,” he wrote to the collector Thomas Butts, and in another letter to his artist colleague John Flaxman, which was later included in John Thomas Smith’s autograph collection, he called the rural estate “a perfect model for cottages and, I think, for palaces of magnificence.”

William James Linton, Blake´s Cottage at Felpham, in: Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, London 1863 (MePri-Coll.)

The two-year sojourn on the coast was overshadowed by one event that was to link his subsequent spiritual perspective ideally and politically to this rural piece of land. During the course of a dispute with royal soldiers, who had been acting rudely in the front yard, he was forced to violently make use of his householder’s rights. In the explosive climate of the time, he was charged with high treason for this, and during the trial managed only with great effort to refute the life-threatening suspicion of sympathising with the revolution.

William Blake, Milton a Poem, London 1804-10 (Pl. 36, Detail)

The picture Blake’s Cottage at Felpham is on plate 36 of his epic poem Milton, in which the events during his stay in Felpham are analysed from a spiritual point of view. The work is a solitary in Blake’s oeuvre, for it is the only depiction possessing a descriptive, documentary character. It is Blake’s only piece that shows a definite location, a “real view”. It forms the visual core of his mystic spatiotemporal speculations..

Allen Ginsburg in front of Blake’s cottage at Felpham. November 1979. (photo: Chris Schwarz)

Blake’s Cottage at Felpham shows the moment in the early morning when in face of the presence of a heavenly messenger the secrets of Creation are revealed to the poet. This moment coincides with the actual narrative time of Milton, amounting to a split second, the “pulse beat of an artery[KH1] ”. All previous and future events lie enfolded in this Cottage moment like in a spatiotemporal capsule. The plot of Blake’s Milton consists in a visionary analysis of the particular, the unmistakable individual moment, the level, then, that forms the starting point of Smith’s art-critical considerations. For Blake, however, the particular exists not in the possibility of becoming concrete in time and space, which the sensualist ideology of retinal art of a John Thomas Smith and other artist colleagues assumed. Blake saw only one possibility of a concretization of time and space, and he grasped this creation of spatiotemporal entities or particles as the most complex and fragile phenomenon conceivable, as an ongoing creative effort in a state of permanent ecstasy. The epic poem Milton describes the genesis of such a spatiotemporal moment, of a minute particular, in the form of a travel movement, an odyssey. It is a re-portage, a bringing back, that lands precisely at the point of physical concretion from which Smith and his retinal artist colleagues wanted to depart. But not only the initial co-ordinates were opposites, but also the axial specifications of the routes.

Blake’s attempt at staging his Felpham incident as a breakthrough of the instantaneous lasting a split second found an ideal model in Smith’s charged Cottage depiction of Lady Plomer’s Palace. But he had to fundamentally revise it in terms of topography, since the starting point of his poetry was the vision a four-dimensionality grasped as organismic. From the perspective of a vertically descending travel route through the dimensions, the mode of depicting a three-dimensional view of an event, a “real view”, could therefore only lie in a plane projection avoiding any illusion of depth. The act of reportage is a matter of such complexity that it cannot find a fundament in a simple localization of time and space – that seems to be Blake’s hidden message to the artists of sensualist documentarism. As long as the account of an event remains untouched by its emotional content and, especially, as long as it remains detached from the viewer’s inner resonance chamber, it is deceptive and irrelevant.

Towards the end of the poem, Blake’s ecstatic spatiotemporal vision from the idyllic valley of Felpham extends beyond the hills of Surrey to then come to rest as a gloomy cloud of anger over London. The “cry of the poor man” can be heard in it. In these last lines of Milton, which the poet had begun in 1804, he once again enters into the sinister sphere of urban reality. Already a decade earlier, in the illustration of his poem London (1791), Blake had captured the social misery of the metropolis in the symbolic figure of a blind old beggar: “… In every cry of every man, / In every Infant’s cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban, / The mind – forg’d manacles I hear. / How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every black’ning Church appalls;/  And the hapless Soldier’s sigh /  Runs in blood down Palace walls. /  But most thro’ midnight streets I hear / How the youthful Harlot’s curse /  Blasts the new-born infant’s tear, /  And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.”

London is an acoustic poem that echoes with the “cries” of enslaved creatures. In the “cries” of London, Blake had prophetically sensed the dimension of class struggle in the industrialised age. Smith, on the other hand, meticulously documented this dimension in his subsequent works, passing it on to posterity.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794  (Pl. 46, Detail)

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