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…”
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.[ref]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.[/ref]
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.[ref] Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh, James Grant, Cassell 1881[/ref] 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.[ref]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.”[/ref] The next year, 1839, he was in a partnership called Smith & McFarlane.[ref]See National Portrait Gallery page on artists’ suppliers.[/ref] 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. [ref]Caledonian Mercury, 23 November 1848 and 24 June 1850[/ref]
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.[ref]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.[/ref] [ref]John Stewart, Alexander William and their sister Mary Jessie were the main beneficiaries.[/ref]
John Stewart Smith
Mr Smith succeeded his uncle, and for many years carried on a business in Frederick Street as carver, gilder, and picture dealer.[ref]Scotsman, 23 May 1921[/ref]
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.”[ref]Scotsman, 23 May 1921[/ref]
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