Skip to content

John Thomas Smith’s Rural Cottages

November 19, 2023
by the gentle author

Jonathan Pryce will read my short story ‘On Christmas Day’ at the launch at Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston next Thursday 23rd November at 6:30pm.




Near Battlebridge, Middlesex

Once November 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. 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 autumnal 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. Kate Amis permalink
    November 19, 2023

    Amazing to see think there were rural scenes like this so close to the centre of London a little over 200 years ago. Sad to say that so many people in our city live in hovels still without any of the romantic allure of these ..

  2. Milo permalink
    November 19, 2023

    By eck, some of those would be worth a few bob these days…

  3. Peter Harrison permalink
    November 19, 2023

    Smith’s Rural Scenery really is a remarkable piece of work. I’ve never come across it before, and it’s clear Smith was a very talented engraver. Thank you for bringing it to your audience!

  4. November 19, 2023

    This is exactly how the authentic English country life has always been imagined — in essence, it represents the eternally desired Arcadia.

    Love & Peace

  5. November 19, 2023

    I can confirm that Edmonton does not look like this now. However, not far out, one does reach green fields. I live surrounded by the Worcestershire countryside. Some rural properties get hugely enlarged into work from home mansions or commuter des res. Some little cottages, particularly those far off of the beaten track, fall into sad disrepair. Many are very old and it seems that even if they are listed, if they fall down, that’s too bad. Personally, I love living in an older home and have no interest in new builds.
    I’d rescue these little cottages and make them cosy homes again. Thank you for sharing these idyllic country cottages from the middle of the City!

  6. Bill permalink
    November 19, 2023

    A lovely way to while away some happy minutes on a Sunday morning. Thank you.

    Now I must get up and get going to face a less charming world. Weep for me.

  7. November 19, 2023

    Oh my — a festival of Divine Imperfection. I brewed another pot of coffee, brought a fresh cup to the computer and studiously looked at all the details. The engraver’s gift, surely? Only a skilled engraver would be able to convey the crustiness of these ramshackle bits of “found architecture”.
    It almost seems like these cottages sprang up from the ground. Details abound for the careful viewer. Bee skeps, dovecotes, cobbled fences and roofs, log benches, wonderfully wobbly ladders, overhanging boughs that eventually became part of the structure. Basketry and barrels. Stacks of rustic branches, in waiting for some task.

    These engravings lured me, and welcomed me inside.
    Thank you, GA.

  8. Saba permalink
    November 20, 2023

    Yum. These drawings, especially the one from Surrey, set me dreaming and taking photos for my inspiration board. Are some of these daub and wattle? Some are just boards and whatever else piled together. In reality, plenty of bugs and critters must have inhabited them as room mates to the humans. Animals and ten people may have lived in a tiny space. But, I do dream and would build a modern-day version — heat! water! — if I were able. Near the ocean? Near a river?

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS