Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Miss Annie Chambers (1788-1858), wearing white muslin dress with gold decoration 

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of Miss Annie Chambers (1788-1858), wearing white muslin dress with gold decoration, John Smart
Watercolour on ivory
Oval, 89mm, (3.5in.) high
The sitter and thence by descent.
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This exquisite work is one of John Smart’s most accomplished portrayals of a young sitter and was, until recently, in the collection of the descendants of the sitter.

Miss Annie Chambers was born in Calcutta, India, on 16th October 1788 and was the youngest child of Sir Robert Chambers and Frances Wilton. Sir Robert Chambers departed for India in 1774 with his family to undertake his new role as second judge of the Supreme Court of judicature in Bengal. He later went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1791 and died in 1803, four years after returning to England. He was buried in the Temple Church in London and Joseph Nollekens, the famous eighteenth-century sculptor, produced a monument in his memory which was sadly destroyed in the 1941 London Blitz. Annie’s mother, Frances Wilton who was described as ‘exquisitely beautiful’ by Dr Johnson, was the daughter of Joseph Wilton, sculptor and founding member of the Royal Academy, whose national monument to General Wolfe can be seen today in Westminster Abbey. Frances married Robert Chambers when she was only just sixteen years old.

In 1792, three-year-old Annie and her mother returned to England from India where they would spend the rest of their lives. Letters written during Annie’s childhood and after her father’s death suggests she was an intelligent and lively young girl, however, tragically, this was not to last. As she grew older Annie developed a mental illness and became increasingly dependent on family members and lived with her mother and carer on Cumberland Terrace until her mother’s death in 1839. Four years later, in 1843, a statute of lunacy was taken out against Annie and she was placed in the care of her sister Frances who had married John MacDonald, the son of Flora MacDonald, who famously aided Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape from the Outer Hebrides following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Annie Chambers died on 1st April 1858 and was described by one biographer as being ‘perhaps crossed in love…a hopeless invalid and spinster long before her death in 1858.’

The early life of John Smart remains shrouded in mystery, a rather surprising fact given his prominence as one of Britain’s most celebrated portrait miniaturists of the eighteenth century. Recent research by Philip Mould & Company has uncovered mention of ‘John’, son of Philip Francis and Ann Smart, in the baptism records of St. Anne’s Church, Dean Street, suggesting that he was born in London sometime before June 1741. His name then re-emerges in a list of applicants for an under-fourteens art competition hosted in 1755 by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in which the budding artist’s pencil and chalk drawings achieved second prize, only to be beaten by his future rival Richard Cosway. In 1756 Smart became an apprentice to William Shipley, the Principal of the Society located in St Martin’s Lane, where he secured first prize for his drawings in all three subsequent competitions, finally exhibiting his work there in 1762.
In 1763 ‘Mr John Smart of Dean Street’ and ‘Miss Marianne Howard’ married at Coleman Street Church and it is believed that the pair had three daughters: the first, Maria-Sophia, possibly died prematurely, Anne-Maria and finally Sophia, with the artist fathering two further children, John Smart Junior and Sarah, both of whom were illegitimate. His early successful years working in London, from his premises in Dean Street, Soho, instilled him with confidence and ambition, and having built a loyal client base [Mrs. Russell, 1781, Edgar Corrie, 1775, both previously with Philip Mould & Company] was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Artists (FSA) in 1765, then director in 1772, Vice-President in 1777, and finally President in 1778, a position he held until the society’s liquidation.

In 1785 Smart left for Madras, India in pursuit of superior fame and fortune, accompanied by his wife Anne-Maria and joined by Sophia his daughter. Smart was aware that the prosperous merchants, British aristocrats and officials, as well as Indian courtiers such as Muhammad Akli Khan, Prince of the Carnatic, previously with Philip Mould & Company, presented abundant demand for his small, portable portraits. His delicate and meticulous style, although more restrained than the virtuoso style of Cosway, soon won him celebrity for remarkable clarity and naturalism whilst retaining an unmistakable generality of appearance which became so symptomatic of his style. His detailed anatomical knowledge combined with the fineness of his brushstrokes, often achieved using a single hair in a brush, generated a distinctive, almost photographic, end result. He worked in India for ten years producing a significant corpus of work and in the later years of Smart’s career on the Indian sub-continent, began to paint larger ivory miniatures in cut gold frames, using a more muted palette with less use of the jewel-bright tones so prevalent in his 1770s and 1780s works, for example Miss Byron, [Philip Mould & Company].

Following the death of his youngest daughter and his wife leaving him for another man, Smart returned to his London residency in Mayfair in December 1795 and rapidly re-established himself, honing his style industriously to produce both oils and sketches to satisfy his impressive client base, who now favoured the latest Neoclassical tastes. In 1804 he moved to the affluent Fitzrovia and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy right up until his death, following a short illness, on 1st May 1811 at the age of seventy.

There also exists a preparatory drawing for this miniature by Smart which was sold by Christie’s in 1936 by Mrs Busteed, great-granddaughter of the artist, and is now believed to be in the Ford Collection. This drawing provides excellent insight into Smart’s meticulous working methods and offers an interesting comparison to his highly finished portrait miniature of Miss Annie Chambers.
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