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Robert Smirke RA (1753 - 1845)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Robert Smirke was born in Cumberland, the son of a peripatetic artist. Little is known about his early childhood, but Smirke was taken to London by his father in 1766, where he became apprenticed to the coach-painter John Bromley. In 1772, Smirke entered the Royal Academy Schools. In 1777 he married Elizabeth Russell (d. 1825), with whom he would go on to have eight children, several of whom also had notable artistic careers.

Smirke built his early career on illustrations and paintings of literary themes and contemporary history subjects. He became particularly associated with illustrations for Shakespeare, painting scenes from plays for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, which were engraved for reproduction in numerous publications. The volume Illustrations to Shakespeare by Robert Smirke R.A. which included over 40 engravings after Smirke, was published in 1821, 1822 and 1825.

Smirke exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1786 to 1813, being elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791 and becoming a full Academician in 1793. His political views were considered radical leading some of his fellow RAs to become wary of him. Relations with the Academy became strained in the 1800s, with Smirke allegedly showing contempt towards the institution and its governance. This likely led to his decision to stop exhibiting at the Academy from 1813.

Throughout the last decade of the 18th century and the first two decades of the 19th century, Smirke provided illustrations for several historic and literary texts. He died in London in January 1845.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Robert Smirke was known to hold democratic and anti-monarchist views. Some of his contemporaries considered his political leanings to pose a threat to established institutions, to the extent that King George III refused to ratify Smirke’s election as Keeper (Head) of the Royal Academy Schools in 1804.

Smirke illustrated a volume of anti-slavery poems, Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1810), by James Montgomery, James Grahame and E. Benger. The illustrations include depictions of, and allegories relating to, the Transatlantic slave-trade. The images were intended to evoke sympathy for enslaved people and to increase support for abolition. However, many of the depictions represent the enslaved as passive figures in ‘exotic’ locations with white protagonists as their ‘saviours’, as in plate opposite page 87 of the volume, which shows a white woman as a figure of salvation for a Black man in a loin cloth, who kneels at her feet.

Relevant ODNB entries

Fiske, Tina. “Smirke, Robert (1753–1845), painter and illustrator.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-25762


Royal Academician

Born: 15 April 1753 in Wigton, near Carlisle, Cumbria, England, United Kingdom

Died: 5 January 1845

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 30 November 1772

Elected ARA: 10 November 1791

Elected RA: 11 February 1793

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting and Illustration

Works by Robert Smirke in the RA Collection

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Works after Robert Smirke in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Robert Smirke in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

51 results