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An Artist’s Journey to India: John Smart aboard the East Indiaman Dutton 1785

Fri Jan 29, 2016

By Emma Rutherford

In 2015, Philip Mould and Company purchased a remarkable drawing at auction, portraying a ‘Col. Maxwell’ playing the violin. Dated 1785 in ink on the obverse of the laid paper, it was evident that this was a work by John Smart (1741-1811), an artist who had made the long journey by boat to India in that same year.

Portrait miniature drawing of Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton Maxwell, by John Smart

Colonel Maxwell by John Smart, 1785

In July 1784, Smart was given permission by the Court of Directors of the East India Company to travel to Madras, India. This would not have been a decision he would have taken lightly – he would be leaving behind family and friends, as well as an established career in London.[1] Not only would the journey itself be perilous, but once in India, many Europeans died of diseases that they had no resistance to. Smart may have assumed that his society connections and his reputation as a portraitist would precede him, but there was no guarantee of success. John Alefounder, who also arrived in Madras in 1785, spent nine miserable years in continual failure as a miniaturist, eventually taking his own life on Christmas day in 1794.

The Dutton 1781, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

On the 19th April 1785, John Smart and his eldest daughter, Anna Maria, boarded the East Indiaman Dutton and began a journey that would take just under six months. The captain, James West, records fair weather for the journey in the vellum-bound volume now in the British Library, but nothing can have prepared Smart and his daughter for the uncomfortable tedium of six months on board ship. To pass the time, Smart made drawings on laid paper that may have originally been part of a sketchbook. These included a portrait of Captain West (Cleveland Museum of Art)[2], the quartermaster ‘Baker’, fellow passengers Mr. Dog[h]arty and Dr. William Johnson (whereabouts unknown) and this portrait of Colonel Maxwell.

Dutton's log, British Library

Smart’s working practice was to make annotated sketches in order to paint his meticulous watercolour miniatures on ivory. The unsteady nature of a journey by boat may have made it impossible for Smart to paint miniatures on board, but he amused himself (and presumably his fellow passengers) by sketching the characters that surrounded him. This portrait of Maxwell is unusual in that Smart rarely includes objects or actions in his portraits – certainly the present work is only comparable to the double portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Miss Harriet and Miss Elizabeth Binney, playing the harpsichord, dated 1806.[3]

This portrait of Maxwell demonstrates Smart’s prowess as a draughtsman, and at his most relaxed as an astute observer of life around him. While Smart would go on to relish his ‘deserved estimation’[4] in Madras as an artist, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton Maxwell would enjoy a distinguished military career, ended by his premature death in 1794, the year before Smart was to return to London. It is possible that the two men met again while in India, the long voyage prompting an enduring friendship.[5]

This portrait remained in Smart’s personal collection until his death in 1811 and was eventually inherited by his great-granddaughter Mrs Dyer. It would have served as a memento of a major turning point in his career, as well as a reminder of his six months at sea.

[1] India was clearly a great draw for artists at this time and Smart was joined there in the same year by the miniaturists Ozias Humphry and Diana Hill.

[2] Bequest of Mrs. A. Dean Perry, 1997.79

[3] V&A, P.20-1978

[4] National Art Library, London, Press cuttings, Vol.2, 245 (Madras Newspaper report, 1788)

[5] In her monograph on the artist, Daphne Foskett records a second portrait of Maxwell, dated 1785, current whereabouts unknown (D. Foskett, John Smart; the Man and his Miniatures, (London, 1964), p. 71