Smetham, Self Portrait (1855, Oxford Brookes University)

The below letters were sent by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to James Smetham in 1865. The content of the first provides some context of the relationship between the two men, the second letter is a revealing insight into Rossetti’s views and feelings toward religion. It may be worth keeping his claim ‘Are not my works testament to my Christianity?’ in mind as you read. The letters are taken from O’Doughty and J.E. Wahl’s Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti Vol II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), and reproduced accordingly.

16, Cheyne Walk,

21st November, 1865

My dear Smetham,[1]

Thanks for your letter of the other day, which is very interesting, and lets me into much concerning you. I am afraid you will think no better of me for pronouncing the commonplace verdict that what you lack is simply ambition, i.e. the feeling of pure rage and self-hatred when any one else does better than you do. This in an ambitious mind leads not to envy in the least, but to self-scrutiny on all sides, and that to something if anything can. You comfort yourself with other things, whereas art must be its own comforter or else comfortless.

I will hope to see you to-morrow to dinner at six. After which we will go to Scott’s, and you remember I have a bed for you; and am meanwhile and ever, my dear Smetham, very sincerely yours,

D.G. Rossetti.

And do please kindly let more distant forms by dropped on both sides, being, as we are, almost ten-year-old friends.


                                                                                                                                                                               16, Cheyne Walk,

10th December, 1865

My dear Smetham,

After carefully reading your friendly and earnest ‘ventilations,’[2] and thoroughly appreciating both qualities in them, I ought nevertheless to tell you that, when I said I should be happy to receive such, I did not anticipate that they would chiefly consist of religious enquiry and discussion. I had better tell you frankly at once that I have no such faith as you have. Its default in me does not arise from want of natural impulse to believe, nor of reflection whether what I should alone call belief in a full sense is possible to me. Thus I know that while discussion on such points with a believer is painful to me, it affords me no counterbalancing profit; and I abstain from it absolutely. I feel this plain statement due to such sincerity as yours, though I do not ordinarily feel bound to explain myself at all on the matter.

As regards the pursuit of Art, which we have in common, I feel a pleasure in being so associated with you as well as a true regard for yourself; and if you can be content to consider these the chief bonds between us, I do not think we need feel a want in such intercourse on account of what I have felt it my duty to say here; of which I neither wish to mitigate the significance, nor to declare myself thereby a confident denier, – still less an apostle of opposition. This is all I feel able to say on the subject.

I hope to see you on Wednesday, and Jones will expect us in the evening, after which I can of course give you a bed as before; and am ever

Affectionately yours,

D.G. Rossetti.




[1] James Smetham (1821-1889), painter and essayist, unsuccessful as artist, a religious exalté, died insane.

[2] Smetham carried in his pocket as he went about his business little slips of paper, on which at intervals he would send messages (sometimes, as here, religious inquiries) to his acquaintances – not always to their convenience. These messages he called ‘ventilators’.