Life and work
Smirke was born at Wigton near Carlisle, the son of a clever but eccentric travelling artist. In his thirteenth year he was apprenticed in London with an heraldic painter, and, at the age of twenty, began to study at the schools of the Royal Academy. In 1775, he became a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists, with whom he began to exhibit by sending five works; he showed works there again in 1777 and 1778. In 1786 he exhibited "Narcissus" and "The Lady and Sabrina" (from Milton's "Comus") at the Royal Academy; these were followed by many works, usually small in size, illustrative of the English poets, especially James Thomson.
In 1791 Smirke was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, in which year he exhibited "The Widow", and became an academician in 1793, when he painted as his diploma work "Don Quixote and Sancho". His last contribution to the academy, entitled ‘Infancy,’ appeared in 1813, but he continued to exhibit occasionally elsewhere until 1834.
In 1804 he was nominated to succeed Joseph Wilton as keeper to the Royal Academy, but George III refused to sanction the appointment on account of the artist's revolutionary opinions; the appointment went instead to Henry Fuseli.
Smirke's pictures were usually of small size and painted in monochrome, as being best adapted for engraving. He designed illustrations for the Bible, ‘The Picturesque Beauties of Shakespeare’ (1783), Johnson's ‘Rasselas’ (1805), ‘Gil Blas’ (1809), the ‘Arabian Nights’ (1811), ‘Adventures of Hunchback’ (1814), ‘Don Quixote,’ (translated by his daughter, Mary Smirke, 1818), and the British poets, especially Thomson. His works are characterised by good drawing, refinement, and quiet humour. ‘The Pedagogue,’ engraved by Joseph Goodyear for the ‘Amulet’ of 1830, is an excellent example of his style. Of equal interest are ‘The Rivals,’ engraved by William Finden for the ‘Keepsake’ of 1828; ‘The Secret,’ engraved by James Mitchell for that of 1830; and ‘The Love Letter,’ engraved by Alfred W. Warren for the ‘Gem’ of 1830.
Smirke painted also some pictures for John Boydell's "Shakespeare Gallery" and for Bowyer's ‘History of England.’ These works included ‘Katharine and Petruchio,’ ‘Juliet and the Nurse,’ ‘Prince Henry and Falstaff,’ and ‘The Seven Ages.’ A large commemorative plate, with fifteen medallion portraits, of ‘The Victory of the Nile’ was engraved by John Landseer, A.R.A., from his design. In the Guildhall Art Gallery, is a picture by him representing ‘Conjugal Affection, or Industry and Prudence,’ and a series of scenes from ‘Don Quixote’.
In 1815 the British Institution upset many British artists by a preface to the catalogue of their exhibition of Old Masters, implying rather too strongly that British artists had a lot to learn from them. Smirke is generally accepted as the author in 1815–16 of a series of satirical "Catalogues Raisonnés", which savagely lampooned the great and the good of British art patronage.
Of his sons, Richard Smirke (1778–1815), was a notable antiquarian artist. Robert and Sydney both became accomplished architects and were both elected members of the Royal Academy. His fourth son, Edward was a noted lawyer and antiquary.
There is a portrait of Smirke by John Jackson taken from an original picture by Mary Smirke, engraved by Charles Picart. Sir William John Newton painted several miniatures of him.
- "Smirke, Robert (1752-1845)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Robert Smirke". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Robert Smirke online (Artcyclopedia)