Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John Thomas (1766-1833)

620727Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53 — Smith, John Thomas (1766-1833)1898Robert Edmund Graves

SMITH, JOHN THOMAS (1766–1833), topographical draughtsman and antiquary, son of Nathaniel Smith, a sculptor who afterwards became a printseller at the sign of Rembrandt's Head in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane, was born on 23 June 1766 in a hackney coach in which his mother was returning home from a visit to her brother in Seven Dials, London. His father was then chief assistant to Joseph Nollekens, R.A., the sculptor, whose studio young Smith entered in 1778, but left it in 1781 to become a pupil of John Keyse Sherwin [q. v.], the mezzotint-engraver. At the end of three years he gave up engraving and found employment in making topographical drawings of London for Mr. Crowle, and others in the neighbourhood of Windsor for Mr. Richard Wyatt. He had thoughts of going on the stage, but eventually settled down in 1788 as a drawingmaster at Edmonton. In 1791 he began the compilation of his favourite work, ‘Antiquities of London and its Environs,’ which was finished in 1800. He returned to London in 1795, and for some time practised as a portrait-painter and engraver. In 1797 he published ‘Remarks on Rural Scenery,’ with twenty etchings of cottages by himself, and in 1807 the ‘Antiquities of Westminster,’ for part of which the descriptive text was written by John Sidney Hawkins [q. v.]; but a disagreement having arisen between him and Smith, it was continued by the latter, who prefixed an ‘Advertisement’ describing the dispute. Smith's statement was challenged by Hawkins in a ‘Correct Statement and Vindication’ of his conduct, which was answered by Smith in a ‘Vindication’ (1808), to which Hawkins issued a ‘Reply’ (1808). ‘Sixty-two additional Plates’ to this work were published in 1809. There followed ‘The Ancient Topography of London,’ begun in 1810 and completed in 1815.

In September 1816 Smith was appointed to succeed William Alexander (1767–1816) [q. v.] as keeper of the prints and drawings in the British Museum, and retained that office until his death. His official duties did not interfere with the continuance of his literary work. In 1817 he published ‘Vagabondiana, or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London,’ illustrated with portraits of notorious beggars drawn and etched by himself from the life; an introduction was written by Francis Douce [q. v.] His last and best known work was ‘Nollekens and his Times,’ issued in 1828. This has been said to be ‘perhaps the most candid biography ever published in the English language,’ and was probably influenced by the smallness of the legacy left to him by Nollekens, who appointed him co-executor of his will with Sir William Beechey and Francis Douce. A new edition, with an introduction by Mr. Edmund Gosse, appeared in 1894. After Smith's death there appeared his ‘Cries of London’ (1839), with plates etched by himself, edited by John Bowyer Nichols [q. v.]; his entertaining and discursive ‘Book for a Rainy Day’ (1845, new edit. by W. Whitten, 1905); and his ‘Antiquarian Ramble in the Streets of London’ (1846), edited by Charles Mackay [q. v.]

Smith died at 22 University Street, Tottenham Court Road, London, from inflammation of the lungs, on 8 March 1833, and was buried in St. George's burial-ground in the Bayswater Road.

A three-quarter portrait was painted by John Jackson, R.A. A drawing by the same artist was engraved by William Skelton [q. v.] and prefixed to the ‘Cries of London,’ 1839.

[Smith's Book for a Rainy Day, 1828; Memoir by John Bowyer Nichols, prefixed to Smith's Cries of London, 1839; Short Account, by Edmund Gosse, prefixed to Smith's Nollekens and his Times, 1894; Gent. Mag. 1833, i. 641–4; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School, 1878; Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, ed. Graves and Armstrong, 1886–9, ii. 508.]

R. E. G.