Recently cataloguing some engravings of Scottish antiquities and, once in a while, there is a certain pleasure to be had in attempting to rescue someone from obscurity. The idea was born of an occasional series on long and perhaps unjustly forgotten engravers. Fame, reputation and posterity don’t always get these matters quite right. Luck, and sometimes inattention, play their part. Why, amongst all the many engravers whose lives are duly recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, no place should have been found for G. B. Smith, it is difficult to say. His work is not all that often met with, granted – only, I think, a single example in the British Museum – but even among that vastly talented generation of nineteenth-century British engravers who worked on steel, he stands out. “Beautifully finished” is how Basil Hunnisett described his work in his An Illustrated Dictionary of British Steel Engravers (1989) – and no-one better to make such a judgement. Yet, beyond the few short lines in Hunnisett, I don’t think there is any other account of the man at all – for he is plainly not the potentially confusing George Barnett Smith recorded by Rodney Engen in Dictionary of Victorian Engravers, Print Publishers and Their Works (1979).
Pause here for a personal moment while I wonder can it really be so very long ago that the Hunnisett book appeared – for surely he and I were corresponding on these matters long before even that – in fact I know so. Impossible to deny, he says so in the preface. But – that aside – G. B. Smith. Where to start? The work, of course – almost exclusively mid-nineteenth-century architectural and antiquarian plates for Robert William Billings, James Raine, Thomas Rickman and Edmund Sharpe – executed with startling precision, a richness of field and depth seldom seen in steel-plate work, a boldness of treatment, and yet a capacity for the lightest and featheriest of touches on the landscape features – foliage that even Ruskin might have admired.
But who was he? The work simply signed G. B. Smith – no forenames given. Not the easiest of names to pursue – not certain what the initials stand for – George Something-or-Other probably – but there were 8,679 George Smiths in England and Wales on the 1851 Census Returns – another 1,020 in Scotland – over 10,000 in all if we include variants on George like Geo. But online research tools improve all the time, almost daily – how very, very, different it all was back in the 1980s.
Narrowed down with surprising (and stroke-of-lucky) ease to George Belles Smith of 6 Molesworth Place, Kentish Town in North London – aged thirty-one on the night of the 1851 Census, recorded as a London-born architectural engraver, resident with his wife Elizabeth, a son and a daughter. The rest of the biographical record soon blocked in.
He was born on 7th March 1820, the son of George Smith, an excise-officer, and his wife Martha Belles – then living in Catharine Street, Tower Hamlets. He was baptised on 23rd April 1820 at St. George in the East. The 1841 Census throws up something interesting – he was then recorded as an apprentice to George Gladwin (1789-1860), another fine engraver in similar vein, although perhaps a little more orthodox and mechanical in his approach. A relationship that, in fact, we might well have guessed at – a distinct similarity of style, Gladwin old enough to have been trained on copper rather than steel and retaining that feel for the velvety blacks of the softer metal.
George Belles Smith married Elizabeth Johnson, the daughter of a Suffolk farmer, at St. Pancras in 1847. The couple and their family remained at Molesworth Place for most of their lives, although they are also recorded at 1 Belles Cottages, West Road, Forest Hill, in South London – the name perhaps suggesting some personal involvement in this suburban development. Smith died at the Forest Hill address on 14th June 1875, leaving a modest but not unhealthy estate, by the standards of the time, of “under £450” – his will proved by a daughter, Elizabeth Matilda Smith, and another engraver, Francis William Phipps (1832?-1898), a nephew of George Gladwin and also a Gladwin apprentice. It was a tight-knit world, and one soon to disappear – the days of steel-engraving already almost past.