John Smith mezzotint printmaker biography

Early history of mezzotint

John Smith: Mezzotint printmaker

John Smith (1652-1743) was a gifted and ambitious printmaker and publisher whose long career began in the reign of Charles II and closed after the accession of George II. He was born in Northamptonshire and worked in London, specializing in the relatively new technique of mezzotint printing. Between 1683 and 1729 he produced over three hundred prints. Trained as a printmaker he was able to retain a controlling hand when, in the early 1690s, he turned from pure printmaking to printmaking and publishing. The refinement and 'modernity' of his prints brought him fame and then material prosperity and Smith's career, largely independent of interference from outside publishers, must have been an inspiration to William Hogarth (1697-1764) and the next generation of printmakers.

According to George Vertue Smith learnt the technique of mezzotinting from the printmaker Isaac Beckett (c.1653-88) and the Dutch artist Jan Van der Vaart (1653-1727). To begin with he worked for a variety of publishers, among them Richard Palmer who published a set of royal portraits by Smith in the early 1680s (see Charles II, 1683, CS [Chaloner Smith no.] 46). Later, around 1684-86, Smith worked for the publishers Alexander Browne and Edward Cooper. However from 1692 he assumed complete control over the production and publication of all his plates. Some of Smith's commissions came from private individuals ('private plates'), but the foundation of his success came from his association with the portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). Smith worked from rooms at the sign of the Lion and Crown in Russell Street, close to Kneller's studio in Covent Garden piazza, and he came to enjoy a virtual monopoly in the production of prints after the artist, engraving 113 of his works. He engraved Kneller's self-portrait in 1694 (CS 150) and Kneller in turn painted Smith's portrait in 1696 (Tate Gallery). To emphasise the special relationship Kneller depicted Smith holding an impression of his 1694 mezzotint. The collaboration lasted from c.1689 until the artist's death in 1723, with a brief interruption in 1708-9 when Kneller turned to the younger mezzotinter John Simon (1675-c.1755).

Besides his production for Kneller, Smith also reproduced works of a number of contemporary British and foreign artists. These include Michael Dahl and Nicolas de Largillierre; a number of painters of Dutch origin, such as John Closterman, Johann Kerseboom, Godfried Schalcken, Jan Van der Vaart and William Wissing (in particular), and two painters mainly active in Scotland, William Aikman and Sir John Baptist de Medina. Of the English painters there are prints reproducing works by Thomas Gibson, Thomas Hill, Thomas Murray (at least ten), Jonathan Richardson and John Riley. His prints provide useful information on the work of some the less well-known names. In some cases a print is the only record of a lost work. Lettered prints, by providing dates and artists' names, also offer evidence for identifying portraits with now lost identities.

As well as portraits, Smith also made and published 'subject' prints, the blanket term given to subject matter other than portraiture. These prints provide a useful cross-section of the types of paintings being auctioned and collected at the time. So far Smith's subject prints have only been summarily catalogued and they now deserve closer attention. Some are clearly important, such as St George and the Dragon published by Pierce Tempest after a painting by Balthazar van Lemens (1637-1704). This striking image is lettered with a dedication to King James II and can be dated 1685. Another interesting mezzotint of 1707 reproduces a painting by Carlo Maratta of The Holy Family with Angels and gives the collector's name (Richard Graham); this painting, presently attributed to Giuseppe Chiari, is at Calke Abbey. Smith also published in 1709 an important set of mezzotints of the Loves of the Gods, after paintings thought to be by Titian. These belonged to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and hung at Blenheim Palace until they were destroyed by fire in 1861. Smith published a number of quasi-erotic prints and little images of putti etc., similar to those by Bernard Lens II (1659-1725). He also acquired the plates of others, and republished a number of attractive prints by Robert Robinson (active 1674-d.1706) by simply adding or substituting his name to the plate.

Smith ran a profitable print shop. As well as selling single sheets he sold rare proof impressions at a premium, and sets of his prints as oeuvre collections. A number of these collections survive in albums, including a set of three volumes in the National Portrait Gallery. This set was acquired in 1944 and came from the Peper Harrow Library, Godalming, formed by the Brodrick family and sold by the 2nd Earl of Midleton (Hodgson & Co, 8 December 1944, lot 479). At 489 prints, the National Portrait Gallery's set is the largest recorded and it includes a good selection of the subject prints. The set is closely comparable to the Smith albums in the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow. The set of albums in the New York Public Library originated from the collection of the Earls of Derby at Knowsley Hall; its particular importance lies in the handwritten dates and the fine condition of the prints. There are also albums formerly belonging to the Earl of Haddington, now in a private collection, and to Dean Aldrich, now at Christ Church in Oxford. It is significant that Haddington's portrait by Aikman was engraved by Smith (Simon the Dutch Skipper, CS 122), and similarly Smith makes a mezzotint of Aldrich's portrait that can be dated to 1699 (CS 3). It is likely that the remarkably complete and uniform impressions of Smith's prints found in the print rooms of Amsterdam, Paris and Windsor also originated from oeuvre albums.

John Smith's reputation spread across Europe; his prints were acquired by foreign collectors such as the Marquis de Beringhen (1651-1723) in Paris, and good collections of his works may be found in the print rooms of Dresden, Paris and Vienna. Although the most celebrated mezzotinter of his day, by the early eighteenth century there were rivals in London, notably the John Fabers senior and junior and John Simon. These three also worked after Kneller (after Kneller's death), producing lucrative sets of the Kit Kat Club portraits and Hampton Court Beauties.

Some of the grandest Smith portrait prints combine engraving with mezzotint and engraving (e.g. the Earl of Mar, CS 159); in such cases the burinwork sections (usually the border) would have been passed to a specialist engraver. These mixed-media prints resemble the portrait engravings of Robert White (1645-1703), and Smith may have been consciously emulating White's impressive compositions. While the vast majority of Smith's prints are in mezzotint there are also two recorded etchings. One of these, a print of two fencers, is presently known by a unique impression in the New York Public Library. The other etching is after a design by the Flemish artist Frans Snyders (1579-1657).

John Smith died in 1743 aged 90 and he was buried in the church of St Peter Marefair in Northampton. A monument by John Hunt carries the following inscription:
Near this Place, / Lye the Remains of / JOHN SMITH, / Of London Gent / The most eminent Engraver, / IN MEZZO=TINTO, / In his Time.

In his will he stipulated that his plates should be defaced and rubbed out in order that no weak impressions should circulate after his death. However, this instruction was overridden and some of the plates were acquired by one of the most prolific publishers of the late eighteenth century, John Boydell. Some of Smith's prints were advertised in his catalogues of 1773 and 1787, priced at 1s. (or 6d. the smaller ones) each. The plates advertised were mainly of the most famous names such as the early Hanoverian monarchs, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope and John Locke. Later still some of the plates were reworked by Richard Earlom (1743-1822) and sold as 'Boydell's Illustrious and Celebrated Characters in the Reign of James I, Charles I and II and James II after Pictures by Vandyke, Kneller, Lely &c', comprising 28 prints with biographical memoirs by J. Watkins [1805].

Although Smith's prints rarely carry printed dates (this only became a statutory requirement after Hogarth's Act of 1735), they may be dated with particular precision. This is partly thanks to the set of Smith print volumes in the New York Public Library, the pages of which bear dates in Smith's hand. Similarly it is not uncommon to come across loose prints dated in Smith's hand, and there are neatly inscribed impressions (probably from broken up oeuvre collections) in all the major print collections. Lastly, Smith himself drew up a dated list of the prints and this document is now in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum (library shelf mark Tt 1. 3).

More work needs to be done on the subject prints to identify how many of them are scraped and published, and how many simply published by Smith. Until that is done any attempt to quantify the overall number of prints executed by Smith must remain a loose tally. In the meantime however a catalogue has been compiled of the 281 portrait mezzotints by and published by John Smith, and this illustrated listing may be consulted on the Research page of the National Portrait Gallery website.

For the best account of Smith's career and work see the article by Antony Griffiths, 'Early mezzotint publishing in England I. John Smith', Print Quarterly, VI, 1989, pp. 243-57 (this includes an appendix 'The chronology of the plates made by John Smith') and his The Print in Stuart Britain 1603-1689, British Museum exhibition catalogue 1998, pp. 239-243.