Jane Stewart Smith, artist and writer

Jane Stewart Smith, undated photgraph, possibly taken by her husband, who was a leading figure in the Edinburgh Photographic Society for many years.
Jane Stewart Smith, undated photograph, possibly taken by her husband.

As soon as Jane Stewart Smith (c1839-1925) settled in Edinburgh, as a young woman, she started sketching the historic Old Town. More than fifty years later she said she wanted to “catch the reverberating echoes of the past as they linger around the old historic buildings”. 1

Edinburgh’s past had a hold on her imagination all her adult life, but there is nothing to show when this started. Very little is known about her before she married an Edinburgh picture framer and dealer, John Stewart Smith, in 1864. She was Jane Eliza James, a governess aged 24, who had been born in London to William Henry Spinks James, a corn merchant, and Eliza Burnet. 2 She had an older sister, Eleanor Mary, who was married to Edinburgh artist John D. Michie.

Edinburgh, old tiled houses 1860s
Old houses opposite South Gray’s Close, 1868,  Jane Stewart Smith

Her watercolours of Edinburgh’s Old Town were shown in an 1868 exhibition in Princes Street. 3 Even at the time these were seen as a valuable record of areas that might soon be demolished, and their importance was evident to later commentators who had seen many changes in the city centre. The pictures are full of architectural detail as well as atmosphere. While chimneys, stairs and stonework are carefully drawn, so too is life in the street, with closely observed “human” touches: bonnets, baskets, carters, traders, and washing hanging from upper windows.

Drawing and painting these scenes meant rising early to get started before there were many people around. A lady at work in the poorest, most cramped parts of town amongst “the denizens of the closes” 4 was seen as unconventional, even daring. In one notorious spot she bought protection with sixpences given to “the biggest bully among the swarm of rough boys”. 5  Her obituaries called her “an interesting personality”. 6.

Mrs Stewart Smith was a lady of marked intelligence, and had a large circle of friends who took delight in hearing her discussing with a note of originality all the many topics in which she was interested. 7

Victorian Duddingston
Duddingston Loch and Church, undated, Jane Stewart Smith

Her landscape paintings were included in almost every Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) exhibition from 1865 to 1887. As well as scenes of Edinburgh past and present, she painted in Fife and East Lothian, and further afield in Scotland. Other RSA pictures of hers were of Shrewsbury, Chester, Rouen and Genoa. Some were bought by Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who also collected the work of much better-known artists.

A Dream and a Book

In 1891 Jane Stewart Smith twice experienced a dream-like series of historical figures appearing one after another in dramatic scenes “like the moving pictures in a camera-obscura”. The first time followed a visit to Grange House where she speculated the vision arose from “…memories floating in the palpitating air surrounding these old historic buildings”. She was inspired to write a book about the Dick Lauder family who had lived there: The Grange of St. Giles. She took photographs for it as well as drawing and painting illustrations.

Belfry Tower, Grange House, published 1898
Belfry Tower, Grange House, 1890s

This book is full of interest, but it needs to be said that Jane Stewart Smith was not an experienced researcher. She was an artist, not an academic. Her creativity and intelligence shine through her work, but here she left herself open to criticism. Romantic imagination sometimes drowned out historical accuracy.  Nor did she have the solid grounding in history needed for such a project. When The Grange of St. Giles was published in 1898 Edinburgh reviews were polite enough, but one in a Glasgow newspaper was not at all complimentary.

…We are sorry to have to point out these serious blunders, especially when they occur in the work of a lady, and we do so only because they disclose an evident incompetence to the task undertaken, the signs of which are nowadays becoming alarmingly common in amateur antiquarian and historical works. 8

War and Peace

The First World War broke out when the Stewart Smiths had been married fifty years. They helped with fund-raising for the Belgian relief effort through the Edinburgh French Protestant church, with which they were both involved. 9 In 1915 Jane Stewart Smith also arranged an exhibition to raise money for the Red Cross. In a room full of her pictures of Old Edinburgh, one wall was dedicated to a new “symbolic” painting, The Dawn of Peace. She explained that it represented:

…the Mystic roll call of the White Cross warriors who have volunteered from every nation and every clime to fight against the Antichrist – the Demon of Hate and Destruction, whose overthrow they are here being called up to witness… 10 

The exhibition got extra attention after a visit by Lord Rosebery, the ex-Prime Minister, who had been invited by the artist. He was “charmed with the drawings of Old Edinburgh”. 11

Loss, a New Book and a Royal Visit

Bakehouse Close, 1870, Jane Stewart Smith
Bakehouse Close, 1870, Jane Stewart Smith

In 1921 John Stewart Smith died and then, six months later, Jane’s sister Eleanor. The three of them had been living together in Portobello along with a younger friend, Catherine Roberts. 12 The twice-bereaved octogenarian widow decided to produce a new book filled with black-and-white versions of her “Old Edinburgh” watercolours and other illustrations. The text offered historical background, anecdotes and memories of her sketching visits. She dedicated it to “the memory of my dear husband John Stewart Smith in affectionate remembrance of our 59 years of happy wedded life”.

In 1924 Historic stones and stories of bygone Edinburgh was published by the author herself. Newspapers commented favourably on the quality and importance of the illustrations. Later that year Queen Mary visited Jane Stewart Smith’s modest suburban home called Fairyville. 13 After a drive from Holyrood House she drank tea and admired her hostess’ art collection, taking a special interest in her views of 1860s Edinburgh. 14 The next year Jane died: on 1 December 1925.

A few years later Catherine Roberts gave 60 of Jane’s water-colours to the Huntly House Museum:

…a unique miniature picture gallery, which furnishes a record of Old Edinburgh … also a splendid and lasting memorial to the lady whose skill has revealed not only her artistry but a passionate love for the Scottish capital… 15

Some of those pictures can be seen here .

There is a picture believed to be a self-portrait of Jane Stewart Smith here, but without a clear provenance. The company just has a description saying “Self-portrait of Jane Stewart Smith (1839-1925), Scottish painter who worked in Edinburgh“.

Illustrations

  • All pictures on this page are taken from Jane Stewart Smith’s books.
  • The title Old houses opposite South Gray’s Close comes from her 1924 book. On the Edinburgh Museums website it is called Antique buildings opposite Mint Close, Cowgate 
  • The date 1637 on the dormer window in the Belfry Tower picture was not an original feature of the house.

References

  • The Grange of St. Giles, the Bass: and the other homes of the Dick-Lauder family, written and illustrated with pen, pencil, and camera, Jane Stewart Smith, Edinburgh 1898
  • Historic stones and stories of bygone Edinburgh, Jane Stewart Smith, Edinburgh 1924
  • The Royal Scottish Academy exhibitors 1826-1990 : a dictionary of artists and their work in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, Charles Baile de Laperriere, Hilmarton 1991.
  • Dictionary of Scottish art and architecture, Peter J.M. McEwan, Glengarden 2004
  • Birth, marriage, and death records, and censuses available at genealogy websites. (See ‘About’ page)
  • Will of John Stewart Smith, 1 July 1921
  • Street directories from NLS
  • Caledonian Mercury, Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News and other newspapers
  • Marriage notice, Caledonian Mercury, 8 June 1864
  • Obituary, Scotsman, 2 Dec 1925
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Notes:

  1. Quote from Historic Stones. JSS “settled in Edinburgh after her marriage”, said the Evening News, 27 Aug. 1924.
  2. Both Jane’s parents had died by 1864. Her father’s middle name varied between Sprinks and Spinks in different documents. Her mother’s last name appeared as Burnet(t) on both Jane’s and her sister Eleanor’s marriage records. When they died, information supplied by John Stewart Smith’s son-in-law (James Rae) said Cuthbertson was their mother’s surname. There is one reference book which says she was born in Edinburgh, but that book was compiled before digitisation of documents made it clear that she was born in England with a sister born in Clapham (censuses) and came from London (newspapers). 
  3. At Hill’s Gallery, which was started by Alexander Hill, brother of David Octavius Hill. By 1868 Alexander’s son was running the gallery.
  4. Edinburgh Evening News, 27 August 1924, looking back to her work in the 1860s
  5. At Crombie’s Land, described in Historic Stones
  6. Aberdeen Journal, 3 December 1925
  7. Scotsman, 2 Dec 1925
  8. Glasgow Herald, 10 March 1898
  9. John Stewart Smith took an interest in the French Protestant Church in Edinburgh from its beginnings (c1860?), and Jane took part in its social life. She and her husband offered hospitality to young French-speaking visitors to Edinburgh. When her sister Eleanor married in 1867 one of the witnesses was the daughter of the French-speaking congregation’s minister: Lea Sumichrast-Roussy, whose Swiss father Eugen taught French in Edinburgh as well as preaching etc.
  10. Edinburgh Evening News, 31 March 1915
  11. Edinburgh Evening News, 19 April 1915
  12. Retired dressmaker, born c1859
  13. 72 Argyle Crescent, Portobello
  14. Edinburgh Evening News, 27 Aug 1824
  15. Edinburgh Evening News, 17 June 1932

John Douglas Smith & John Stewart Smith

John D Smith's stamp used on the back of a picture frame.
John D. Smith’s stamp on the back of a painting. He was at 33 West Register Street from 1840-1866.

Look on the back of a painting framed in 19th century Edinburgh and you may see John Douglas Smith’s name. He (b. c1795) and his nephew, John Stewart Smith (b. c1832), were carvers, gilders, picture framers, restorers and dealers who also sold artists’ materials. They came from a family of craftsmen. John D. Smith’s father and elder brother were both marble cutters called Alexander Smith. His other brother, Robert, was a cabinet-maker. The younger Alexander was the father of John Stewart Smith, John Douglas’ assistant and, later, business partner.

In his seventies, John D. Smith made a will leaving his business and all its assets to his nephew. He had married twice but had no children. John Stewart had trained and worked with him, and in 1879 the older man wrote that everything business-related should be transferred…

…in favour of John Stewart Smith my Nephew,
presently a Partner with me in the business of Carver and Gilder carried on by me and the said John Stewart Smith at number twenty-one Frederick Street Edinburgh…”

Family genealogy lower down page

Shakespeare Square: The theatre took up most of the space, with taverns, shops and tenement flats tucked in behind and on the sides.
Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh: The Theatre Royal took up most of the square, with taverns, shops and tenement flats tucked in behind and on the sides.

Any story about the Smith family would have a scene set in Shakespeare Square. Most of the Smiths mentioned here lived or worked in the square at some point. John Smith, carver, gave it as his address in street directories for several years from 1827. His mother died there; his nephew lived there as a boy along with the rest of Alexander Smith the younger’s family. R. Smith, cabinetmaker, was there in 1833. 1

1833, and John Smith's address is at 9 Shakespeare Square, the same address where is nephew's family were living in 1841.
1833 directory: John D. Smith’s address was 9 Shakespeare Square, where his nephew’s family were living in 1841.

Shakespeare Square was dominated by the Theatre Royal but it also had taverns, shops and tenement housing around the theatre, which faced outward onto the main street. Over time its reputation went downhill.  The southern and eastern sides were “alike mean in architecture and disreputable in character”, said a commentator after it had all been re-developed in the 1860s. 2 Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses both John Smiths moved elsewhere.

Clearly John Douglas Smith built up a successful business. His own talents were essential, but £190 inherited from Robert in 1838 may have helped. 3 The next year, 1839, he was in a partnership called Smith & McFarlane. 4 Five years later he was trading from his own shop in West Register Street. Five years after that he was appointed to wind up the affairs of Hamilton Wood and his Wood Carving Company. 5

By 1871, in his seventies, he employed nine men and four boys. He was quite comfortably-off and owned rental property as well as his own home and workshop. He died on 15 May 1879, leaving his heirs various properties and nearly £1500 plus the same again in bills supposed to be repaid by a friend to whom he had lent money. 6 7

John Stewart Smith

21 frederick where John Douglas Smith ran his business with his nephew John Stuart Smith. The building is still there but with a later shopfront - now used by Barbour.
21 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, where John Douglas Smith ran his business with his nephew John Stewart Smith from c1867. The building is still there but with a later shopfront and attic extension. 1819 ‘plan and elevation’ with permission of NLS maps.

Mr Smith succeeded his uncle, and for many years carried on a business in Frederick Street as carver, gilder, and picture dealer. 8

John S. Smith kept his uncle’s name on for the business. It appeared in the Post Office Directory until 1885-6.

A little more is known about John Stewart Smith’s personal life than about his uncle’s. In 1864 he married Jane James, now known as Jane Stewart Smith, an artist, with whom he lived in southern Edinburgh before retiring to a house in Portobello called Fairyville. Jane’s sister Eleanor was the wife of Edinburgh artist John D. Michie.

John Stewart Smith was an active member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society, where he won prizes for his photographs and served on the committee. In later life he was one of its honorary presidents at the same time as the architect Hippolyte Blanc.

Another long-term interest of his was the French Protestant Church in Edinburgh. He chaired social and musical events associated with it, and he and his wife acted as hosts to French and Swiss students and visiting clergymen. His kindliness was remembered by the pastor after his death on 16 May 1921 at the age of 89. The pastor also spoke of his continuing “keen interest in his métier, which was art” and said that after his retirement he “still kept up his connection with art dealers, and was much sought after for his advice in art matters.” 9

Family

Alexander Smith, mason in 1790, later ‘marble cutter (foreman)’ (On John S. Smith’s marriage record, and on son Alexander’s death certificate 1873, a “carver” on John D. Smith’s marriage record, died before 1827.) He married Janet Douglas(s) (called Janet on John D. Smith’s marriage record and son Alexander’s baptismal record, but Isabella on son’s death cert. 1873). She died  in 1827, aged 65, “relict of Alexander Smith from 17 Shakespeare Square”.

1. Alexander Smith born 26 Oct 1790 to Alexander Smith and Janet Douglass. He, marble cutter of Shakespeare Square, married Jane Stewart of same place on 5 March 1827. He died in 1873 at 31 Alva Place, address of his daughter Mary in 1881.

1 – Mary Jessie Smith b. c1828, milliner in 1851, died 1901
2 – Alexander William Smith b. c1830, wood carver in 1851, later a singing teacher, m. Isabella Carter 5 August 1863,

1. Alexander Smith b. 1866, became chemistry professor at  Columbia University, d. 1922
2. Isabella Carter Smith, b. 1869

3 – John Stewart Smith b. c1832, carver, gilder, called ‘picture dealer’ in 1911 and elsewhere, m. Jane Eliza James 1864, died 1921.
4 – Catherine Smith b. c1834

2. Robert Smith born c1792. On 23 April 1832, he, joiner in Shakespeare Square, married Margaret  Christie of Canal Street. Described as cabinet maker when his affairs were wound up after his death. He was buried January 1838, age 45, in a grave with his wife.

3. John Douglas Smith born c1795, carver, gilder, picture framer etc. He married in 1826 (1) Margaret McCallum, 9 Shakespeare Square, born 1803 Dunbartonshire, died 1863, and in 1864 (2) Margaret Dodds born 1799 Berwickshire. He died 15 May 1879.

Reference sources and pictures

  • Birth, marriage, and death records, and censuses available at genealogy websites, especially scotlandspeople.gov.uk. (See ‘About’ page)
  • Wills and inventories for Robert Smith (12 Oct 1838) and John Douglas Smith (28 Aug 1879), and valuation rolls.
  • Street directories from NLS
  • Caledonian Mercury and Scotsman newspapers
  • National Portrait Gallery artists’ suppliers page
  • Biographical Memoir of Alexander Smith 1866 -1922, by William A. Noyes, 12th memoir in Vol. XXI for National Academy of Sciences, 1923
  • Theatre Royal picture by John le Conte
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Notes:

  1. When a number was given, e.g. in the 1841 census and some directories, it was often number 9 Shakespeare Square, but John D.. also seems to have worked at no. 13.
  2.  Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh, James Grant, Cassell 1881
  3. On 12 October 1838 an inventory of Robert’s personal estate was “made up and given in by John Smith carver and gilder and Alexander Smith marble cutter both in Edinburgh brothers of the deceased.”
  4. See National Portrait Gallery page on artists’ suppliers.
  5. Caledonian Mercury23 November 1848 and 24 June 1850
  6. The senior Mr Soutter of Soutter’s Bazaar, a souvenir, gift and craft shop in Princes Street which went bankrupt a few years later. Presumably a friend, since there seemed to be little hope of being repaid.
  7. John Stewart, Alexander William and their sister Mary Jessie were the main beneficiaries.
  8. Scotsman, 23 May 1921
  9. Scotsman, 23 May 1921

John D. Michie, artist

JD Michie O whistle
Just whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad, exhibited at the RSA in 1870, uses a Burns song for the title. Its “story” is set in a nostalgic past where even the smoking central hearth doesn’t interfere with the whiteness of the bonnet.

John Douglas Michie (c1828 – 1893) was an Edinburgh artist who exhibited and sold paintings for most of his adult life. At first he was known professionally as John Michie or John M. Michie, and later as John D. Michie. 1

He came from a modest background. His father Henry was an excise officer who had started out as a shoemaker, and died in 1833 when John was still very young. By 1841 John was an engraver’s apprentice, his brother a shoemaker’s apprentice, and one sister a milliner. His other two sisters became trimming makers. They all lived with their mother Elizabeth. 2 Ten years later the census described John Michie as “Painter & Designer assist.”. 3

He called himself a figure painter. Sometimes his figures were part of a scene inspired by Walter Scott (Jeanie Deans), James Hogg (Kilmeny Glen) or other writers. 4 The title might be a line from Robert Burns (Comin’ Thro’ the Rye) or from a song (Bide a Wee).

“Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” by Mr. J.D. Michie, is a pictorial representation of the song named, and the subject is treated in a most humorous fashion. The swain in the picture is evidently just about to steal the kiss alluded to in the poem, the only spectator being a very sagacious looking dog, who, it may be presumed, will not “tell”. 5

Many titles suggest a romantic Scottish past: not just the fictional subjects, but paintings of traditional domestic life too. It was, however, Michie’s paintings of Breton subjects which seem to have attracted the most praise in his lifetime.

Last year Mr. Michie made a hit in his Brittany picture … [This year’s] is very interesting…”Persecuted Breton Royalists celebrating the Mass at Sea in 1794.” … The subject as a whole is remarkably well expressed and the colour and distribution of the light natural and free from exaggeration...[Report of Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) Exhibition 1866] 6

There is no record of his visit(s) to Brittany, but he painted Breton subjects over many years. After a Selkirk journalist met him on board the Scythia in 1879, bound for New York, Michie appeared at the end of a list of “celebrity” passengers:

John D. Michie Esq., Scottish Artist, whose sketches of life in Brittany are now so well known to frequenters of the “Exhibition of Paintings.” 7

In the 1870s he spent a few years living in West London with his wife Eleanor. During this time his work appeared in three exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, which had also shown one of his paintings in 1864. Over Michie’s lifetime he exhibited dozens of works at the RSA, and often contributed to exhibitions elsewhere in central Scotland.

Eleanor’s brother-in-law was a successful Edinburgh picture dealer and framer, John Stewart Smith, and it would be interesting to know if this helped the Michies at all. In 1870 John D. Michie used Smith’s business address to submit paintings to the RSA.

His work was less popular at the end of his life than earlier. In 1893 Michie died suddenly. An obituary of this “very shy and retiring” man said he was well known to some of the “older painters” but not to the younger generation. His work was old-fashioned and “not of outstanding merit” but “invariably pleasing in subject and full of domestic sentiment”. 8 A few months after his death a hundred paintings of his were put on sale and it was reported that “prices were low”. He apparently designed bookplates in his later years, perhaps using his engraver’s skills learnt young. A set for a John S. Martin by J.D. Michie showed a bust of Shakespeare on a pile of books with Edinburgh Castle in the background. 9 He left £1000 for his widow Eleanor.

Eleanor Michie

Eleanor Mary James was born in Clapham in about 1836. Her parents, Eliza and William James, a merchant, had died before she, then a 31-year-old governess, married John Douglas Michie in Edinburgh in 1867. Her sister Jane had settled in Edinburgh three years earlier.

She painted watercolours of flowers and one of her works, Gladioli, was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1878.

At some point after her husband died in 1893 she moved to London. In 1901 she was lodging in the same area where she had lived with him in the 1870s. By 1911 she owned a house in North Hanwell and it seems that her sister and brother-in-law spent some of their time with her there, though later she lived with them in Portobello, Edinburgh. 10 She died in 1921 and her will left everything to “my dear sister Mrs Stewart Smith”.

References

  • The Royal Academy of Arts; a complete dictionary of contributors and their work from its foundation in 1769 to 1904, Algernon Graves, Graves and Bell 1905
  • The Royal Scottish Academy exhibitors 1826-1990 : a dictionary of artists and their work in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, Charles Baile de Laperriere, Hilmarton 1991.
  • Dictionary of Scottish art and architecture, Peter J.M. McEwan, Glengarden 2004
  • Wills of John Douglas Michie, 19 October 1893, and Eleanor Mary Michie, 31 January 1922
  • Street directories from NLS
  • Caledonian Mercury and Scotsman newspapers
  • Birth, marriage, and death records, and censuses available at genealogy websites, especially scotlandspeople.gov.uk (see ‘About’ page). One of the documents that is helpful in tying things together is the record of John Douglas Michie’s marriage to Eleanor Mary James on 21 Dec 1867, giving names and occupations for them and their parents, plus an address for JDM that matches one in the RSA records for John M. Michie.

In the absence of a birth record it is not possible to give John D. Michie’s year of birth precisely. Various censuses and other documents give a range of possibilities from 1826 – 1831. 1828 fits the age recorded at the time of his marriage, and is just one year off the age given by his sister-in-law at the time of his death.

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Notes:

  1. Comparing addresses from lists of exhibitors with addresses in genealogical records etc. proves this is one single person. In the 1840s/50s there may have been another John Michie painting around Kelso.
  2. Elizabeth Heriot, daughter of a nurseryman
  3. In the same year, 1851, a John Michie, lithographer, won a prize at the Edinburgh School of Design for his design for a drawing-room.
  4. Not always Scottish
  5. Dundee Courier, 26 January 1888
  6. Scotsman, 6 March 1866 —And in The Art Journal 1866: “Mr John Michie’s most ambitious work is a picture of ‘Persecuted Breton Royalists celebrating the Mass at Sea’. The artist deserves credit and encouragement for adventuring on a subject specially difficult, and which he has worked out with much ability. Garishness of colour used to be alleged against him, and in this picture he has gone to the other extreme, so that the general tone is a little black; but the drawing and composition are very clever, and the solemnity of the scene is fully impressed.”
  7. Southern Reporter, 26 June 1879
  8. Scotsman, 1 Sep 1893
  9. Journal of the Ex Libris Society, Vol. 10. There is nothing but probability to link him to those bookplates or to the 1851 design prize mentioned in an earlier footnote.
  10. On her 1911 census form this sentence has been struck out: “My sister and brother-in-law generally here – away in Scotland in present.”