John 'Warwick' Smith

Amongst the most famous watercolourists of his day, John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749-1831) was also regarded as a great colourist. While towards the end of his life some were of the opinion that his style was too traditional, most agree that he transformed the use of colour in watercolour painting and that his work was an example of artists’ departure from formal and classical painting. Rudolph Ackermann states in his influential book, Repository of Arts from 1812: ‘it may with truth be said, that with this artist the first epoch of painting in water colours originated’. Between 1784 and 1806 he frequently visited Wales and became increasingly enchanted by the country. The Library’s collections contain 162 of his watercolour works which are based on his travels in Wales.

John ‘Warwick’ Smith

John ‘Warwick’ Smith was born in Irthington, Cumberland on July 26th, 1749. His first tutor was the amateur artist Captain John Bernard Gilpin from Cumberland Castle and it was Gilpin who was responsible for encouraging him to become an art teacher. Whilst in Derbyshire in c.1775 he met George Greville the second Earl of Warwick, the great collector of works of art for Warwick Castle. Greville commissioned John ‘Warwick’ Smith to paint in Italy where he met many famous artists, including the renowned Welsh artist Thomas Jones (1742-1803) who had a great influence on him. The drawings he created whilst out in Italy are regarded as some of his best works, and it is believed that the trip had quite an influence on his style. After five years he returned to England and settled in Warwick. It is believed that his pseudonym ‘Warwick’ came from his new home and from the fact that he received much assistance from the second Earl of Warwick. During this period he traveled extensively around Britain and six of his drawings were engraved as illustrations for Samuel Middiman’s Select Views in Great Britain (1784-5). In 1786 John Murray, the 4th Duke of Atholl, commissioned John ‘Warwick’ Smith to paint 26 pictures of the Isle of Man which are today regarded as the most important illustrative records of the island in existence. He exhibited many of his works with the Royal Watercolour Society and he acted as president, secretary and treasurer of the society before retiring at the age of 74 in 1823. He was an art tutor for many years before passing away at the age of 81 years old. He was buried in St George's Chapel, Uxbridge Road.

John ‘Warwick’ Smith and Wales

Wales became a very fashionable destination for artists during the second part of the 18th century. Due to the Napoleonic Wars people could no longer travel to Europe (especially for the ‘Grand Tour’) and so artists turned their attention to Britain. Wales had a beautiful landscape full of castles, mountains, lakes, and its language and unique myths made it an ideal place for artists to sketch and paint. Peter Lord argues in his work Gwenllian: '...Wales was perceived by English intellectuals as a strange and ancient place with the customs, dress and language of the people belonging to another age, these qualities were considered attractive'. As a result of works such as William Gilpin's (1724-1804) Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. (1782), Richard Wilson’s landscapes (1712/13-1782), Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Wales (1726-1798), John Boydell’s line engravings (1720-1804) and Paul Sandby’s aquatint works (bap.1731 - d.1809), Wales became very popular amongst artists.

All 162 of the Library’s collection of John ‘Warwick’ Smith’s striking watercolours of scenes in Wales, painted between 1784 and 1806, have been digitised. These works give us an illustrative record of all parts of Wales. There are pictures of Dinefwr Castle, Pembroke Castle, Caernarfon Castle and Hawarden Castle to name only a few. We are given views of Wales before it felt the full effect of the Industrial Revolution. His General distant view of Aberystwith & the bay of Cardigan painted around 1790 portrays Aberystwyth as a very small isolated town before the establishment of the railway which transformed the area in the 1860s.

Other notable works are his spectacular pictures of the Parys Mountain copper mines in Anglesey from 1790. Whilst visiting the area he was accompanied by his patron Robert Fulke Greville (1751-1824) and the artist Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817). The perspective of his works give them a dramatic edge as he emphasizes the danger and  vast size of the mines. In his book The Visual Culture of Wales: Industrial Society, Peter Lord is of the opinion that his paintings of these mines are the best works he ever created. In 1794 the volume A tour through parts of Wales, sonnets, odes and other poems, with engravings from drawings taken on the spot was published. It contained 13 pictures based on Smith’s works.

Hafod, Ceredigion

In 1792 John ‘Warwick’ Smith visited Hafod, Ceredigion once again with Greville and Ibbetson and in 1810 15 of his drawings were published in A Tour of Hafod in Cardiganshire with text by Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828), the President of the Linnean Society. Some of the original works he created for this publication including Hafod in Cwm Ystwith. The romantic abode of Thomas Johnes, Esq; M.P. Cardiganshire, are to be found among the 162 works now digitised. The volume itself has already been digitised by the Library.

Further Reading

  • David Dimbleby, A Picture of Britain, (London: Tate, 2005)
  • Greg Smith, The Emergence of the Professional Watercolourist, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002)
  • Peter Lord, Gwenllian: Essays on Visual Culture, (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1994)
  • Peter Lord, The Visual Culture of Wales: Industrial Society, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998)
  • Simon Fenwick, ‘Smith, John (1749–1831)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 27 Sept 2011]
  • W. Sotheby, A Tour through parts of Wales, sonnets, odes, and other poems with engravings from drawings taken on the spot, (London: Published by J. Smeeton, in St. Martin's Lane, for R. Blamire, Strand, by Charing Cross, 1794)