Thomas Stuart Smith, landscape and figure painter, and public benefactor, was the son of Thomas Smith, a Scottish merchant. The identity of his mother is unknown; she appears to have died before he could remember her and he may have been illegitimate. His grandfather, also Thomas and an Edinburgh merchant, had married Helen Jaffray, sister of Alexander Jaffray, Provost of Stirling, and they also had a younger son called Alexander, subsequently a merchant there. In 1810 Provost Jaffray conveyed to his two nephews, Thomas senior and Alexander, the estate of Glassingall six miles north of Stirling near Dunblane, which he had inherited from his own mother, Janet Stewart. It was her Jacobite family name that Thomas Stuart Smith appears later to have adopted variably and by choice as one of his own rather than being given it, though no baptismal record is known.
In that year, when Thomas junior was about 13, they went to France accompanied by Richard Owen, the natural scientist and a family friend, where the boy was placed in a school at Bourbourg, now a suburb of Dunkirk. Thomas senior arranged for his son’s support and the payment of school fees, primarily through another friend, Robert Auld, Secretary of the Scottish Company in London. He then left to work in the West Indies in 1828 where he is thought to have drowned in or off Cuba in mid to late 1834. By then he was again in contact with his brother Alexander, but had not told him of his son’s existence.
After his father’s death Thomas junior partly met the costs of finishing education in Bourbourg by working as one of the school ushers. He then became tutor to a young Italian nobleman, travelling with him to Naples, where it was observing his lessons in painting from an Italian master that sparked his own resolution to become an artist. In May 1836 Robert Auld wrote to his bachelor uncle Alexander, for the first time informing him that he had an orphaned nephew and asking for his help in supporting this intention. His uncle – whom Smith never met – provided him with an allowance to pursue artistic studies in Italy, in which he had some tuition from the historical painter Filippo Marsigli (1790–1863), also a professor at the Academy in Naples.
Alexander encouraged his nephew in their regular correspondence and took pleasure and pride in the paintings the latter sent to him over the next thirteen years. Smith spent winters working in the galleries in Rome, and summers in the Apennines or Alps, selling little and living modestly within his allowance. After visiting Paris in July 1849, where he also exhibited at the Salon, he returned to Rome and found his quarterly allowance had not arrived, his uncle having died that month aged 80 and intestate, with no clear heirs: a recorded will seems to have been accidentally destroyed.
Smith returned to England and, with the help of Professor Owen and others the latter enlisted, managed by January 1857 to establish his claim above those of eighteen more distant relatives to his uncle’s estates at Glassinghall and Canglour, which had been forfeit to the Crown owing to the intestacy.
In the intervening seven years he lived partly by painting, helped by loans from a friend. For a time he had some success teaching and as a portraitist in Nottingham, one of his pupils being James Orrock, who remembered him as ‘a man who could paint anything’. His first picture exhibited at the Royal Academy was a figure subject called The Monk’s Welcome, shown in 1850. This was bought by Richard Owen and often admired in his house by Sir Edwin Landseer.
While Smith’s inheritance secured his future, he neither enjoyed nor was successful in the role of Scottish laird at Glassinghall. In 1863 he sold the estate and, though occasionally revisiting Scotland, thereafter lived at 35 Fitzroy Square, London, where he continued to paint and to collect work by contemporary artists of generally conservative stamp: British names included John Philip RA (whom he knew and who called him ‘one of the best living colourists’), William Hunt, David Cox, William Müller, Francis Danby, and T. M. Richardson. At J. D. Harding’s studio sale he bought a substantial collection of Harding’s drawings, being an admirer of his rendering of trees, and he also knew Constantine Troyon and other French Barbizon school painters.
His principles seem to have been liberal: he did three unusual portraits of black subjects, marking the abolition of slavery in the USA in 1863, and in 2015 a portrait by F. M Drexel (1827) of ‘El Libertador’ Simon Bolivar was re-identified in his collection. He also started buying back many of his own paintings and did a second version of The Monk’s Welcome when Owen declined to part with the original. The result was that few of his works except portraits remained in other hands.
As a bachelor lacking family, his intention was to leave his collection, including his own output, as a public one for Stirling – his family point of origin and source of his fortune. This was formalised in a testamentary deed of gift which appointed trustees and which he signed at Edinburgh on 12th November 1869. It included provision of £5,000 to construct a gallery, to be started within two years, and Smith planned to oversee this himself since he had specific ideas on its design. He then returned to London before leaving to spend the winter of 1869–1870 in the south of France.
His last letters from the Hotel de l’Europe at Avignon in December showed him in good spirits and health, but after his usual simple meal on the evening of the 31st he collapsed and died from a sudden stroke. His body was first buried in a common plot but later moved by his trustees to a new grave in the Cimetière de Saint-Veran under a monument commemorating his generosity and, coincidentally, close to that of John Stuart Mill. (Mill died in 1873 after living at Avignon since his wife died and was buried there in 1858.)
Stirling subsequently provided the site on which Smith’s trustees erected the Smith Institute, now the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Designed in the classical style by John Lessells of Edinburgh, it was opened on 11th August 1874. Robert Louis Stevenson was a visitor and wove some of the early elements of Smith’s life into that of David Balfour in Kidnapped (1886). The Smith bequest has also prompted later gifts to the collection by other Scottish artists. Today the museum holds approximately 40,000 items, including the bulk of Smith’s work, other pictures he owned and material primarily relating to Scottish life in the Stirling area.
From Pieter van der Merwe: based on Catalogue of the collections in the picture galleries and museum of the Smith Institute, Stirling: with notes, historical, biographical and explanatory (published by the Trustees; 2nd ed., 1898); and Susan Jamieson and Evelyn Paton, ‘People of the Forth (5) Thomas Stuart Smith’ in Forth Naturalist and Historian, vol. 14 (1995), pp.101–109.
Text source: Art Detective