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.
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
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.
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
Loss, a New Book and a Royal Visit
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“.
- 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.
- 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
- Quote from Historic Stones. JSS “settled in Edinburgh after her marriage”, said the Evening News, 27 Aug. 1924. ↩
- 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). ↩
- At Hill’s Gallery, which was started by Alexander Hill, brother of David Octavius Hill. By 1868 Alexander’s son was running the gallery. ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 27 August 1924, looking back to her work in the 1860s ↩
- At Crombie’s Land, described in Historic Stones ↩
- Aberdeen Journal, 3 December 1925 ↩
- Scotsman, 2 Dec 1925 ↩
- Glasgow Herald, 10 March 1898 ↩
- 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. ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 31 March 1915 ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 19 April 1915 ↩
- Retired dressmaker, born c1859 ↩
- 72 Argyle Crescent, Portobello ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 27 Aug 1824 ↩
- Edinburgh Evening News, 17 June 1932 ↩