John Smart’s Portrait of his Daughter Anna Maria

John Smart, Anna Maria Smart, the Artist’s Daughter, 1785. Watercolour and gouache on ivory, 3.1 cm high. Gift of the R.H. Tippet family, Ottawa, 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: RCL, NGC

John Smart (1741–1811) was one of the most important miniature painters of the 18th century, a time when this art form flourished. Often worn as jewellery or carried by the owner, portrait miniatures served as cherished keepsakes of spouses, family, friends or lovers. By their very nature, they are among are the most intimate of works, meant to be held and examined closely. Yet conventional scholarship has often neglected miniatures and their creators and, as if to demonstrate this, one of the standard dictionaries of art history has no entry for Smart.

Born and trained in London, Smart came to prominence around 1770. He had remarkable command of this difficult and unforgiving medium, which he pushed to its limits. His work is marked by a sense of focused observation of, and attention to, appearances. More than character, Smart valued verisimilitude. His sitters appear fashionable, elegant, self-assured and slightly reserved, matching polite society’s ideals for self-presentation.

Smart built up a successful practice in London, only to leave for India in 1785, where he would spend nearly a decade before returning home. He lived in Madras (now called Chennai), a settlement on the Bay of Bengal governed by the East India Company. A part-private, part-public institution, the Company was the leading force in the colonization of India by the British. Smart was one of many artists and adventurers who travelled to the subcontinent in the wake of British colonial expansion. In Madras, his clients included settlers and East India Company officials, but he was also commissioned by local magnates such as Muhammad Ali Khan, ruler of nearby Arcot, who patronized British artists and professionals.

Smart left his family in London and took only his eldest daughter Anna Maria (1766–1813) with him, perhaps to run the household. Recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, this miniature of Anna Maria dates to the first months after their arrival in September 1785. During this period, the artist inscribed his works with the letter “I"; in this work it is visible over the sitter's left shoulder. Unknown to scholars until now, this is the first surviving portrait Smart made of his daughter. She turns to the viewer, her head slightly tilted and her wide-open eyes more expressive than is usual in Smart’s work. The portrait may have been painted as a token for her suitor, Robert Woolf, whom she married the following July. Woolf was an official in the East India Company’s civil service and the couple’s future life was tied to India for many years – although they also spent significant time apart, when Anna Maria returned to England. They had nine children together.

The miniature remained in the family and passed to the sitter’s granddaughter Cornelia Grindon, who married Henry William Tippet, an Anglican clergyman. In 1848, the couple immigrated to New Brunswick, where they played an important role in local life and in the Church. The portrait then descended within the Tippet family, until donated by them to the nation last year. It is both the first work by Smart and the first 18th-century British portrait miniature in the Gallery’s collection.

 

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