3.3 Catalogue of the Museum of London Antiquities (1854) and illustrations of Roman London (1859)

As is clear from Table 1, Smith's volumes on the archaeology of Roman London attracted the greatest number of subscribers, and it is this work for which he is best known today (Henig and Coombe 2013; Smith 2016). In his Catalogue he apologises for his 'scanty descriptions' of many objects in his collection. Despite his protestations, however, the nature and extent of his scholarship is evident; in particular, his knowledge of British and European collections and primary and secondary sources. A key concern of his was to challenge the notion that Romano-British art and antiquities were inferior to those found elsewhere, a view voiced strongly in a review of the Catalogue in The Athenaeum:

Such figures as we see in the woodcuts on pages 7, 8, 9, seem to prove little in themselves, and to possess not the slightest recommendation as works of Ancient Art (Mar. 24, 1855, 1430, 345)

While Smith does not question the superiority of 'classical' art, stating that 'Nothing can exceed the beauty of form and brilliancy of colour of the painted vases from the tombs of Greece and Etruria …', he argues that:

The Roman fictile vases are not less historically and artistically interesting; while they possess an additional charm in being connected with, or comprised among, the antiquities of our own country (Smith 1859, 78–79)

The traditional boundary between archaeology and art is challenged by him; a development that was central to curatorial debates during this period (Whitehead 2009, 74):

The Athenaeum insinuated that all is comprised in architecture! This is, as it were, studying the drapery and the dress and forgetting the man; or minutely criticising the form and character of masonry and buildings, and neglecting the people these buildings were erected to shelter' (Smith 1883, 12)

He also asserts the importance of preserving the art of the Roman provinces:

The statue of Apollo, of heroic size, discovered at Lillibonne, and now in the possession of the Messrs Woodburn, of St Martin's Lane, is the finest and most perfect example of northern provincial art in this country, and should be secured for the national collection, or rather for that of France, to which it most properly belongs (Smith 1854a, 7).

While a small number of earlier antiquarians had shown similar concerns (Scott 2013a; 2014; see also Smith 1861, vii), this level of interest in preservation and conservation was unusual during this period, and was certainly not a government priority (see for example Punch, Taylor et al. 1861, 241, ridiculing the involvement of police in tracking stolen antiquities).

The popularity of the Catalogue and Illustrations was undoubtedly due in part to the importance of his 'extensive, varied and valuable collection' as an 'intellectual recreation of the season'; it is repeatedly recommended in London and regional newspapers (e.g. Morning Advertiser, 25 Dec. 1845; West Kent Guardian, 23 Dec. 1844; Morning Advertiser, 25 Dec. 1841; Morning Advertiser, 26 Dec. 1843; Smith 1886, 1; see Thornton 2015 on archaeology and the London 'season') (Figure 2). There was growing interest in everyday life in the ancient world, and Smith's collection was particularly notable in this respect, providing 'an idea of its prosperity and extent more than fifteen hundred years ago, and of the various changes and conditions of art and civilisation' (Illustrated London News, 8 Nov. 1856: 479). The value of his work is championed in Bentley's Miscellany:

No educated person's library ought to be without a copy of a work of so much importance to the past history and condition of this country, and especially of its chief city (Jan. 1886, 59, 364)
Figure 2
Figure 2: Notes for strangers. Morning Post, 24211, Thursday, July 17, 1851, pg. 5. British Library Newspapers Part II, 1800–1900. © British Library Board.

His publications on the antiquities of London became key sources of reference until well into the twentieth century, with individual objects regularly attracting popular attention (see for e.g. Illustrated London News, 19 Dec. 1863: 614). Illustrations has recently been reissued by Cambridge University Press (2015) as it remains 'an invaluable record of finds arising from the Victorian redevelopment of London'.

With respect to his concern for detailed recording, his recognition of the importance of all forms of archaeological evidence, and his understanding of the value of situating discoveries within their contexts, both physical and social, Smith was at the forefront of archaeological scholarship (Brabrook 1907; Rhodes 1992). While his aggressive stance was sometimes detrimental to his cause, particularly in the 1830s and 1840s, he nevertheless tirelessly championed British archaeology and archaeologists, galvanised support for publications, museums and excavations, and became a highly respected and influential archaeologist. The final part of this paper will examine the marketing and distribution of his volumes, and will further investigate the nature and extent of his social and intellectual networks through an analysis of his subscribers.


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