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John Thomas Smith’s Rural Cottages

September 26, 2020
by the gentle author

Near Battlebridge, Middlesex

As September draws to an end and autumn closes in, I get the urge to go to ground, hiding myself away in some remote cabin and not straying from the fireside until spring shows again. With this in mind, John Thomas Smith’s twenty etchings of extravagantly rustic cottages published as Remarks On Rural Scenery Of Various Features & Specific Beauties In Cottage Scenery in 1797 suit my hibernatory fantasy ideally.

Born in the back of a Hackney carriage in 1766, Smith grew into an artist consumed by London, as his inspiration, his subject matter and his life. At first, he drew the old streets and buildings that were due for demolition at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Ancient Topography of London and Antiquities of London, savouring every detail of their shambolic architecture with loving attention. Later, he turned his attention to London streetlife, the hawkers and the outcast poor, portrayed in Vagabondiana and Remarkable Beggars, creating lively and sympathetic portraits of those who scraped a living out of nothing but resourcefulness. By contrast, these rural cottages were a rare excursion into the bucolic world for Smith, although you only have to look at the locations to see that he did not travel too far from the capital to find them.

“Of all the pictoresque subjects, the English cottage seems to have obtained the least share of particular notice,” wrote Smith in his introduction to these plates, which included John Constable and William Blake among the subscribers, “Palaces, castles, churches, monastic ruins and ecclesiastical structures have been elaborately and very interestingly described with all their characteristic distinctions while the objects comprehended by the term ‘cottage scenery’ have by no means been honoured with equal attention.”

While emphasising that beauty was equally to be found in humble as well as in stately homes, Smith also understood the irony that a well-kept dwelling offered less picturesque subject matter than a derelict hovel. “I am, however, by no means cottage-mad,” he admitted, acknowledging the poverty of the living conditions, “But the unrepaired accidents of wind and rain offer far greater allurements to the painter’s eye, than more neat, regular or formal arrangements could possibly have done.”

Some of these pastoral dwellings were in places now absorbed into Central London and others in outlying villages that lie beneath suburbs today. Yet the paradox is that these etchings are the origin of the romantic image of the English country cottage which has occupied such a cherished position in the collective imagination ever since, and thus many of the suburban homes that have now obliterated these rural locations were designed to evoke this potent rural fantasy.

On Scotland Green, Ponder’s End

Near Deptford, Kent

At Clandon, Surrey – formerly the residence of Mr John Woolderidge, the Clandon Poet

In Bury St, Edmonton

Near Jack Straw’s Castle, Hampstead Heath

In Green St, Enfield Highway

Near Palmer’s Green, Edmonton

Near Ranelagh, Chelsea

In Green St, Enfield Highway

At Ponder’s End, Near Enfield

On Merrow Common, Surrey

At Cobham, Surrey – in the hop gardens

Near Bull’s Cross, Enfield

In Bury St, Edmonton

On Millbank, Westminster

Near Edmonton Church

Near Chelsea Bridge

In Green St, Enfield Highway

Lady Plomer’s Place on the summit of Hawke’s Bill Wood, Epping Forest

You may also like to take a look at these other works by John Thomas Smith

John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography of London

John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana II

John Thomas Smith’s Vagabondiana III

John Thomas Smith’s Remarkable Beggars

8 Responses leave one →
  1. September 26, 2020

    Lovely images. They were like WH Pyne’s microcosm etc popular during the Napoleonic wars to try to increase patriotism by reminding ppl what they were fighting for.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 26, 2020

    Great drawings!

    These are places which need to have a roaring fire in them to make them bearable in winter – although I imagine there would be problems with the smoke blowing everywhere with all the draughty holes in the walls…

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 26, 2020

    These are lovely drawings but oh how uncomfortable life must have been for those who lived in them; so damp and cold and draughty with, in many cases, three generations living crowded together. Those born since the war will have no idea of what such real poverty was like but I can remember being taken by my mother to visit the men who had worked for her father, a farm bailiff, and some of the cottages we visited resembled some of these in no small measure with beaten earth floors and an overpowering smell of smoke and boiled cabbage !! Nevertheless I did enjoy our visits as we were always made so welcome, given tea (which in one cottage came in cups which were never washed up) and a piece of home made cake or a biscuit. When we left I would be given a sweetie or an apple picked from the garden. People then lived such simple lives with no luxuries whatsoever and many were crippled with rheumatism from working on the land from dawn to dusk in all weathers, but they were so kind and generous and I remember them with great affection.

    Thank you GA for bringing back happy memories for me once again.

  4. September 26, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an interesting array of “shambolic” dwellings from the late 18th century. The first one, “Near Battlebridge, Middlesex,” reminded me of Silas Marner’s cottage in the novel of the same name by George Eliot. She captures so well the simplicity of rural life at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

    Recall it was on an icy New Year’s Eve that little Eppie wandered into Silas’s cottage, changing his life forever. Just love that story!

  5. September 26, 2020

    Amazing images

  6. September 26, 2020

    Millbank has changed a bit

  7. September 26, 2020

    I Loved the cottages and small homes for the poor. Thank You So Very Much!!?????????

  8. Saba permalink
    September 26, 2020

    What beautiful pen and ink work! The pen has moved over the paper in lyrical fashion. The tiny strokes remind me of the strokes in a Van Gogh painting.

    I looked at the drawings in previous posts and noticed a marked difference in technique. Were these done late in the artist’s career? Or, perhaps he used the lyrical strokes to depict the freedom and relaxation of the countryside.

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