S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Smith, Mr Christopher Webb (ornithology, botanical illustration)

Born: 30 May 1793, Camberwell, near London, England.
Died: 18 January 1871, Florence, Italy.

Christopher W. Smith was appointed to the English East India Company in 1807, when he entered Haileybury College, at that time the company's training college near Hertford. He studied there until 1811 and obtained good results in written Bengalese (for which he won a prize) and Hindustani. He was then sent to Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, where he continued his studies at Fitzwilliam College and was encouraged by Dr W. Carey to study Indian birds. In June 1814 he completed his studies, having been awarded three medals and an Honours degree. His first appointment was as magistrate at Behar, in the Doab, and he subsequently served as a magistrate and judge in various parts of Bengal (which then included most of northern India). In his spare time he collected and painted birds, producing 295 water-colours between 1815 and 1831. By 1833 he was stationed at Patna, on the Ganges River. There he and an artist friend, Sir Charles D'Oyly, published The feathered game of Hindostan (Patna, 1828, 12 plates) and one or two other albums for which Smith drew the birds while D'Oyly provided the landscapes. Between 1929 and 1931 he and D'Oyly furthermore produced 191 water-colours of the highest quality, depicting Indian birds painted by Smith with foliage and scenery painted by D'Oyly. Each picture was signed by both artists.

In 1837 Smith was granted two years leave at the Cape of Good Hope for health reasons. He appears to have arrived on 15 April that year and probably left again in February 1839. During his stay he travalled to the hot springs at Caledon, visited Stellenbosch, Paarl, Wellington and Franschhoek, but for most of his stay resided at Westbrooke, an estate near Rondebosch. In 1838 he began compiling an album of 58 water-colour paintings, entitled Birds, flowers and scenery of the Cape of Good Hope, with brief notes to identify the birds. He was primarily a bird artist and the many flowers depicted in his bird paintings, though painstakingly executed, show that he was not a trained botanist. Many of the paintings were not completed at the time.

Back in India Smith was provisionally appointed a member of the Supreme Council in September 1841, but despite this important promotion he retired and returned to England the next year for unspecified domestic reasons. He settled in Florence, Italy, in 1845, serving as secretary of the Holy Trinity Church committee from that year until his death in 1871. Between November 1858 and January 1859 he completed his Cape paintings from his sketches and prepared the album for the press. However, he abandoned the idea of publishing it, probably because he was not satisfied with the accuracy of his later work. The paintings, with his 295 paintings of Indian birds and the 191 paintings executed in collaboration with D'Oyly, were donated by his niece to the Newton Library of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, in 1903. About 20 paintings of Cape characters and scenes acquired by the Library of Parliament, long ascribed to an artist known only as "J.W.", were shown by A. Gordon-Brown (1963) to be Smith's work.

List of sources:
Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 1, 1968.

Gordon-Brown, A. Christopher Webb Smith: An artist at the Cape of Good Hope, 1837-1838. Cape Town: H. Timmins, 1965.

Gordon-Brown, A. The "J.W." pictures in the Library of Parliament. Africana Notes and News, 1963, Vol. 15(8), pp. 325-329.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Compiled by: C. Plug