Edward Smyth (or Smith), Sculptor

(b. 1749 d. 1812)


From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Edward Smyth. Engraved by H. Meyer, after a drawing by John Comerford.

Was born in the county of Meath in 1749. According to Warburton Whitelaw and Walsh's "History of Dublin," he was the son of a captain in the army and was born in 1746; but the "Dictionary of National Biography" gives the date of his birth as 1749, and says that his father was a stone-cutter who settled in Dublin about 1750. He was apprenticed to Simon Vierpyl, the sculptor (q.v.) who had his workshop in Bachelor's Walk. While with Vierpyl he modelled a figure of Charles Lucas, M.P., which he exhibited at the Society of Artists in William Street in 1772, and with it he competed for the statue proposed to be erected in Dublin. At a meeting of the committee appointed to select a design, Smyth's model was deemed the best of those submitted and he was commissioned to execute the statue and its pedestal. The statue was finished in 1779 and was erected in a niche on the west staircase in the Royal Exchange (now the City Hall). It was afterwards removed to the central hall where it now is. A remarkable work for a young sculptor with such limited training and experience, it displays extraordinary vigour, action and expressiveness, and an originality and independence of conception which, even in its faults, mark the sculptor as an artist of true genius.

Leaving Vierpyl, Smyth entered the employment of Henry Darley, a builder and stone-cutter in Abbey Street. Here he was engaged chiefly in carving panels and ornaments for chimney-pieces, and for some time found no other outlet for his talents. Darley was employed by James Gandon, the architect, in the stone work of the new Custom House, begun in 1781, and he recommended Smyth for employment on the ornamental sculpture required for the building, referring Gandon to the statue of Lucas in the Royal Exchange. Gandon had an interview with Smyth and gave him drawings of ornaments intended for the interior of the cupola, requesting him to make models from them. Smyth lost no time in producing his models; and when they were presented to Gandon he was at once impressed with the masterly and artist-like manner in which they were executed. In a few days after this Carlini sent over his design-model for the Royal Arms intended to be placed over the eastern and western wings of the north and south fronts. But the architect, being now fully impressed with Smyth's powers, determined that the opportunity should be afforded him to compete with Carlini, and gave an order to Smyth for a design-model, but without permitting him to see what Carlini had done. Smyth, seeing that his powers were felt and appreciated, set to work at his model and produced a composition so pre-eminently superior to that of his Italian rival that Gandon, turning to Darley, said: "This will do; this is the artist I require; he must go alone and quit your employment" (see Mulvany's "Life of Gandon").

Thus engaged by Gandon, he executed the Royal Arms which appear in the four angles of the building, and did the colossal figure of "Commerce" which surmounts the cupola, and the two figures of "Plenty" and "Industry" over the portico;* also the alto-relievo in the tympanum representing the "Friendly Union of Great Britain and Ireland with Neptune driving away Famine and Despair," after a design by Carlini. He likewise executed the various decorations in the frieze and in the interior of the building, and the sixteen Heads symbolical of the principal Rivers of Ireland, on the keystones of the arches. Twelve small wax models of these Smyth exhibited in the Parliament House in 1802. They are described in the catalogue as "twelve models in wax emblematically representing the commercial rivers of Ireland, decorated with the produce of the country through which they flow, designed and executed in Portland stone at the new Custom House." Ten of these models were presented by James Gandon to the Royal Hibernian Academy, where they now are.

They are the rivers Bann, Shannon, Foyle, Nore, Suir, Barrow, Blackwater, Lagan, Anna Liffey, and the Atlantic Ocean. A set similar to them, with others unnamed, in the National Museum belonged to the Stokes family and are possibly copies made by John Smyth.

Of Smyth's work at the Custom House, Gandon said: "The colossal statue of Commerce, with the bas-relief in the pediment, with the keystones representing the principal rivers of Ireland, some of which are equal to Michael Angelo, and all the rest, are executed by Mr. E. Smith, a native of Ireland, a gentleman who, without having had the advantage of foreign travel or opportunity of seeing many specimens of sculpture, has given proof of abilities equal to any in the Three Kingdoms."

Gandon continued to employ Smyth on his other important buildings in Dublin. The three figures on the pediment of the portico of the House of Lords in Westmoreland Street, representing Wisdom, with Justice on the right and Liberty on the left, were his work. When, in 1804, further additions and alterations were made in the building to fit it for its new purpose as the Bank of Ireland, Smyth was employed to execute the three figures over the south front, "Hibernia," with "Fidelity" on her right, and "Commerce" on her left. These statues were from designs by Flaxman, as stipulated by the Directors in spite of the earnest representations of the architect, Francis Johnston, who pointed out the many noble works already designed and executed by Smyth. Flaxman sent over three small pencil sketches from which copies were made by a young artist, T. J. Mulvany (q.v.), and handed to Smyth. Flaxman was paid fifteen hundred guineas while Smyth received only four hundred and fifty pounds. The figure of Hibernia had originally an olive branch, in bronze, in her hand. This has disappeared.

After Gandon became architect of the Four Courts on the death of Thomas Cooley, the sculpture on the building was entrusted to Smyth, who executed the external and internal carved work and statuary. On the pediment over the central portico stands the statue of "Moses," with "Justice" on one side and "Mercy" on the other, and on the corners of the building are seated figures of "Wisdom" and "Authority." On the panels over the entrances to the courts from the central hall are bas-reliefs representing four great events in English and Irish history: 1st, William the Conqueror establishing Courts of Justice; 2nd, King John signing Magna Charta; 3rd, Henry II, receiving the Irish chieftains, grants a charter to Dublin, and 4th, James I abolishing the Brehon Laws, etc., and publishing the Act of Oblivion. In the Hall, between the windows of the dome, are eight colossal figures in relief, emblematic of Liberty, Justice, Wisdom, Law, Prudence, Mercy, Eloquence and Punishment. A rich frieze of foliage runs round the dome, and over each window are medallions of ancient law-givers, Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, Numa, Confucius, Alfred, Manco-Capac and Ollamh-Fodla.

In the King's Inns, also designed by Gandon, are further examples of Smyth's work. Over the gateway in Henrietta Street are the Royal Arms; the two doorways in the façade are surmounted by cornices supported by Caryatides; Plenty with her Cornucopia and a Bacchante at the door leading into the King's Inn building; and at the other door, leading to the Registry of Deeds Office, a figure of a man holding a book and pen, and another holding a key and a scroll, said to represent "Security" and "Law." Over the centre archway is a bas-relief representing the Bishops presenting Queen Elizabeth with a Bible and the Barons with a copy of Magna Charta. Over each doorway is a panel with symbolical groups in relief.

For St. Andrew's Church, "the Round Church," built 1793-1807, Smyth was commissioned in 1803 to execute a statue of St. Andrew. This statue in Portland stone, seven feet high, was placed over the doorway on 16th June, 1804, and remained there until after the fire in 1860, when it was taken down. On the rebuilding of the church it was not replaced, but consigned to a corner of the yard where it is still to be seen. It is much broken and defaced, some of its injuries being due, it is said, to a noted duellist who lived in a house opposite, and used it as a target for pistol practice. Francis Johnston, the architect of the church, was also the designer of the Castle chapel, and he employed Smyth to carry out its various sculptured embellishments. On the exterior, supporting the labels over the windows and doors, are heads, ninety in number, including the sovereigns of England, St. Peter, St. Patrick, Archbishops Ussher and Robinson, Dean Swift, etc. Over the east window are three-quarter length figures of Faith, Hope and Charity. In these and the rest of the carved stone-work Smyth was assisted by his son John, who, on his father's death, completed the work. For the Royal Dublin Society Smyth was commissioned to design a figure of Hibernia. His design was accepted, but in executing the figure the meddlesome interference of members of the Committee obliged him to modify it and to carry out the work not in accordance with his own conceptions but to satisfy his employers. On the removal of the Society from Hawkins Street to Leinster House the statue was placed over the gateway in Kildare Street, but was taken down when the present Museum and Library were built and now stands, much defaced and weather-worn, under the colonnade at the side of Leinster House.

Besides his work for public buildings Smyth executed some portrait statues and busts. A marble statue of "Earl Temple," afterwards Marquess of Buckingham, was done by him for the Huguenot Settlement of New Geneva, Co. Waterford. Its destination was, however, changed, and in 1788 it was about to be erected in Sackville Street; but this intention was not carried out. In 1792 it was exhibited at Ellis's Museum in Mary Street, after which there is no certain account of it. But it was probably the same statue as that in the possession of Lord Tyrawley in 1809, and presented by him to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where it now is. It represents Lord Buckingham in robes as Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick. Inscribed on the pedestal is "This Statue was made at the expense of Lord Tyrawley as a Mark of his Esteem for the late Marquis of Buckingham."

In St. Mary's Church, Dublin, is a white marble tablet, with funeral urn, to the memory of William Watson, who died in 1805, by Smyth. Smyth did busts of "John Foster," the Speaker, and of "William Burton Conyngham," and exhibited them in 1800. Copies in plaster of Conyngham's bust he sold for three guineas. Busts of Francis Johnston and his wife belong to Colonel Johnston of Kilmore, Co. Armagh.

Smyth occasionally assisted the elder Mossop in his medallic designs.

He exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1772, while with Vierpyl, his model for the statue of Lucas; in 1800 he was living in the North Strand, and sent his busts of Foster and Conyngham to the exhibition at Allen's in Dame Street. In 1802 he was at 36 Montgomery Street, where he lived for the rest of his life, and exhibited at the Parliament House twelve models in wax of the River Heads done for the Custom House. In 1804 he exhibited four "Academy Figures from the life," at Allen's; in 1810 Models for his Statues on the Bank of Ireland, and in 1811 a Bust, in plaster, of "Dr. Betagh."

In 1811 the Dublin Society established a school of Modelling and Sculpture, and on 6th June Smyth was appointed Master, at a salary of fifty guineas per annum. He held this post but for a short time, for on the 2nd August, 1812, he died suddenly at his house in Montgomery Street. He left a large family scantily provided for.

His son, John, followed his father's profession and is separately noticed. Another son, William, was an officer in the Artillery, and attained the rank of Major, but died young.

Smyth was a man of simple, retiring disposition, and diffident and modest in pushing his own interests. He was at the same time hospitable and social amongst his friends. As an artist he showed great natural genius and talent; his works are conceived with boldness and vigour and with much originality of design; but his want of a thorough training in art, especially in an accurate knowledge of the human figure, is apparent in most of his works.

A portrait of Smyth, drawn by Comerford, was engraved by H. Meyer; and one by an unknown artist was in the Whaley collection sold in 1848, when it realized one shilling and three pence. William Woodhouse did a commemorative medal of him.

NOTE: * The other two statues over the portico, Neptune and Mercury, were the work of Carlini; the statues on the north front, representing the Four Quarters of the World, were done by Joseph Banks.

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