Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John Orrin

SMITH, JOHN ORRIN (1799–1843), wood engraver, was born at Colchester in 1799. About 1818 he came up to London, and was for a short time in training as an architect. On coming of age in 1821 he inherited some money, with a portion of which he bought a part-proprietorship in a weekly newspaper, ‘The Sunday Monitor,’ on which Douglas Jerrold [q. v.] worked as a compositor. The rest he invested in the purchase of houses, the title of which proved bad, and by the time he was twenty-four he found himself penniless.

William Harvey [q. v.], the draughtsman on wood, came to his assistance, and instructed him in the art of wood-engraving. Smith showed great aptitude and soon found employment, the only complaint being that some of the printers of that date declared that his ‘cuts’ were too fine to print. After much hack-work, he was employed by Léon Curmer of Paris to engrave a number of the blocks for his beautiful edition of ‘Paul et Virginie’ (1835). Wood-engraving had not revived at this time in France as it had under Bewick and his successors in England. In 1837 he prepared engravings for Seeley and Burnside's ‘Solace of Song,’ which marked a new departure in wood-engraving. In it high finish, tone, and delicacy of graver work contrast with the crisp, somewhat hard, though admirable work of Clennell, Nesbit, and Thompson. Where, however, there was gain in refinement, there was doubtless a loss in virility.

There followed, besides much other work, in 1839, Herder's ‘Cid,’ published at Stuttgart, and an English edition of ‘Paul et Virginie;’ in 1840 Dr. Wordsworth's ‘Greece;’ in 1840–1 ‘Heads of the People,’ by (Joseph) Kenny Meadows [q. v.]; in 1839–43 Shakespeare's ‘Works,’ with nearly 1,000 designs by Kenny Meadows. Of the last two works Smith was part proprietor with Henry Vizetelly and the artist. In 1842 he took into partnership the eminent wood-engraver Mr. W. J. Linton, with whom, under the style of ‘Smith & Linton,’ much good work was produced for the ‘Illustrated London News.’ Among the books engraved by them was ‘Whist, its History and Practice,’ illustrated by Meadows (1843).

Smith died from a stroke of apoplexy on 15 Oct. 1843, at 11 Mabledon Place, Burton Crescent, London. In 1821 he married Jane Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Barney [q. v.] His widow survived him with four children. The son, Mr. Harvey Edward Orrinsmith (the name is now so spelt), at one time practised wood-engraving, but subsequently became a director of the firm of James Burn & Co., bookbinders.

A portrait of Orrin Smith was engraved for Curmer's ‘Paul et Virginie.’

[Vizetelly's Glances Back; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers; information from Mr. Harvey E. Orrinsmith.]

G. S. L.