Completed Maritime Subjects, South East England: Artists and Subjects 12 Can you confirm the birth date of the naval artist William Smyth?

Perilous Position of HMS. 'Terror', Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the Summer of 1837
Topic: Artist

This naval artist, (eventually Admiral) William Smyth, was some time ago disentangled from his near contemporary and better-known namesake Admiral William Henry Smyth (d.1865) – naval writer and surveyor – and has joined him in the ODNB.

The latter was not a painter, at least in oils, though a nice picture, 'On the Point, Portsmouth' is still attributed to him on Art UK, since the owning collection has yet to respond to this being pointed out. (Art UK note: we have contacted the collection about this, and hope they will review the record in due course).

It too is by the present man, who died on 25th September 1877 while visiting Tunbridge Wells from London, probably to 'take the waters'. He was also buried in the borough cemetery at Tunbridge Wells, where there may still be a monument that gives his so-far unknown exact date of birth. He was baptised in Hackney on 24th January 1800, so it was perhaps 1799.

Not yet having made what would be a special expedition, and other inquiries so far fruitless, I wonder if there are any local Art Detectives at Tunbridge Wells who might like to have a look and see if there is?

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

Edward Stone,

This discussion is now closed. The artist William Smyth was found to have been born on 13th November 1799. His record on Art UK has been adjusted to reflect this, and the change will be visible on the site in due course.

Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.


Osmund Bullock,

No trip to Tunbridge Wells required, Peter! It's actually to be found in Ancestry/London Metrop Archive's online Parish Records (i.e. the ones showing the original registers) - but mis-indexed, so you need to know where to look.

William Smyth was born on 13th November 1799.

There are actually images of two different register books with the relevant entries, and both helpfully give his DOB (one more legibly than the other) as well as baptism date - unfortunately in both cases the middle name of William's father has been taken as his surname, and the son's name indexed as "William Greatrix". I'm attaching them to this.

You are a master at this Osmund: many thanks, though I hope it won't dissuade anyone interested in the exercise of a search through the tombstones of Tunbridge Wells from having a look and posting an image if they find his. I'll let ODNB know so it can slot into his entry.

Kieran Owens,

The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, of Thursday 19th September 1793, published the following notice ' "This morning was married, at Walcot Church, John Greatrix Smyth, esq., in the East India service, to Miss Sarah Grant, niece to Harry Daniel Mander, esq., of this city."

Osmund Bullock,

Whoops, sorry - I meant 'Pieter', Pieter, not 'Peter'.

No problem and thanks also to Kieran for his parents' marrriage information (I didn't have the date or his mother's maiden name). This has gone to ODNB for update of his entry in due course.

I don't think we need to continue this though I hope more oils by Smyth will at some point surface to augment the two fortunately known and on Art UK.

Kieran Owens,

Further to the above, for biographical accuracy, attached are the church registration entries for John Greatrix Smyth's two marriages. The first was to Sarah Grant, a spinster, of the parish of Walcot St. Swithin, Bath (William Smyth's mother), on the 18th September 1793. The second (as her third husband) was to Catherine Myers (neé Winsloe, born in 1764), of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, which took place at St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, Hackney, in London (John's home parish), on the 21st January 1805. Catherine died on the 4th January 1848, aged 84, and is buried in Bath Abbey cemetery.

Kieran Owens,

Additionally, in direct reference to this discussion's painting, the attached short obituary notice might be of importance. It appeared in the 'Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service' of Wednesday 03 October 1877. The painting must have been conceived from first-hand experience of the voyage. The reference to his illustrating 'Back's Narrative' might also add to an understanding of the quality of his work.

Kieran Owens,

And finally, the following appeared on WikiPedia -

"Back as artist:

George Back was an accomplished artist. A watercolor of an iceberg, believed to have been painted by Back following his 1836-37 expedition, sold at auction on 13 September 2011 for $59,600, despite its being unsigned and undated. Experts at the prestigious London auction house Bonhams credited the watercolor to Back, claiming it had been presented by Back to his sister Katherine Pares, and thence descended through her family. The auction house opined that the scene surrounding the towering iceberg appears to match a description in Back's Narrative of an Expedition in H.M.S. Terror (1838) when the Terror was in the Davis Strait (between Canada and Greenland) that reads "in the evening (of 29 July 1836) when the weather cleared ... we observed an enormous berg, the perpendicular face of which was not less than 300 feet high...".

I wonder if in fact this watercolour was by William Smyth. The work that appears on this WikiPedia page, entitled ''HMS Terror' (1839) as drawn by George Back', is in fact credited on the illustration, opposite page 115 of Back's 1838 'Narrative of an expedition in H. M. S. Terror....', as having be drawn by Captain Smyth. There are many other beautiful illustrations, all credited to Smyth, throughout the book.

Thanks Kieran: I'd not seen that one but the only point I don't think I'd picked up elsewhere was that he had the Arctic medal. He is in Sir Clements Markham's 'The Arctic Navy List'

With thanks (including p.p. ODNB) to both Osmund and Kieran, I think this can now wind up as 'query resolved', though it would be good to see what it says on Smyth's tombstone if/ when located at Tunbridge Wells.