The Picturesque, The Sublime, The Beautiful: Visual Artistry in the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

by Valerie Derbyshire (University of Sheffield)

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An informative and entertaining research study which provides innovative readings of eighteenth-century artistry. The scholarship is robust and rigorous with detailed interpretations of the art of George Romney and James Northcote amongst others.

Stephen Ward
Stephen Ward Art

Valerie Derbyshire’s book takes a relatively rare critical approach: she charts the links between Charlotte Smith’s novels, poems and children’s books and the work of contemporary painters and designers. Her close readings elicit a rich, detailed interchange between Smith’s peopled landscape descriptions, new to the novel, and the picturesque landscapes of painters she knew, often personally. They delineate like her the cruelty and injustice inherent in pretty or sublime English scenes.
The novelist and the artists share a social and political sensibility. The many significant paintings Derbyshire identifies carry an important commentary on poverty, on women or family in codes well understood throughout Smith’s society. One of the best landscape artists of her time, forgotten now, taught her drawing as a child and so helped to form the way she saw the world around her.
Botanical drawing and colouring, then an important genre, is the subject of some of Smith’s elegiac sonnets, especially those on the death of her daughter. In these sonnets, the fleshiness and downiness of plants, the bloom on the young female face, escape the usual women-and-flowers banalities and testify to the Darwinian likeness of all living species. One of the most incisive parts of the book is its discussion of heraldry, a much more familiar index of identity in Smith’s time than it is today. Derbyshire enjoys Smith’s talent for radical debunking, for showing heraldic design with its cartoon wyverns and griffins as an entirely fictional narrative about the origins and importance of noble families.
The more deeply Derbyshire reads the paintings and designs in relation to Smith’s writing, the more clearly Smith emerges as one of the most powerful and erudite thinkers of her time. Visual Artistry is lavishly illustrated, so the reader is able to join in the pleasures of comparison. For all scholars and general readers interested in Charlotte Smith, in British Romanticism or in the aesthetics and politics of the later eighteenth century, this book is indispensable.

Loraine Fletcher
Author of the book "Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography"

With such insightful pairings and analyses, Derbyshire’s book is a valuable resource for students and scholars of Charlotte Smith, as well as those interested in the confluences of visual art and fiction during the Romantic age. By drawing the critical eye to Smith’s personal artistic networks, Derbyshire shows how novelistic artistry allows Smith to question dominant narratives, redefine women’s roles, and expose the artificial inequities of eighteenth-century British society. Most importantly, this book demonstrates Smith’s deep and lasting effect on the way women’s stories are told during the Romantic age and beyond.

[Extract from book review appearing on the journal 'Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature' (41.2), Fall 2022 issue. Reviewer: Rachael Isom (Arkansas State University)]

This book considers the relationships between British Romantic-era novelist, poet and writer of educational works for children, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), and a number of visual artists of the eighteenth century with whom she had connections. By exploring these associations with artists such as George Smith of Chichester, George Romney, James Northcote, John Raphael Smith and Emma Smith, the book demonstrates how the artwork of these individual artists influenced Charlotte Smith’s literary corpus. It also shows a mutual influence: how the literary works of Charlotte Smith impacted the corpora of these artists. This study uncovers information which was not heretofore known regarding these artists: it reveals a mistaken attribution of a sketch which accompanied the second volume of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1797) and sheds light on a print, held by the British Museum, which was previously shrouded in mystery. The artworks also enhance the existing scholarly knowledge about Smith’s biography.

This book analyses the tropes and motifs employed by Smith’s artist-associates in the context of the popular aesthetics of the period and undertakes parallel readings between such visual artistry and Smith’s literary works. The book deliberates on how Smith utilises these aesthetics as narrative devices, making use of the tropes of the picturesque, the sublime and the beautiful, as well as that of a national British heraldic artwork, in order to produce and enhance meaning in her literary oeuvre. Thus, Smith uses aesthetic structures as vehicles for social critique, commentating on political, gender, moral and class concerns in addition to enhancing the perceived authenticity of her own artistry. The scholarship aims to correct the common misperception that Smith was a lonely marginal figure of Romanticism and instead asserts her central position in an enormous network of key artistic figures of British Romanticism.


List of Illustrations

Chronology of Works and Key Dates in Smith’s Life

Chapter One “Passionate Delineation”: Introducing Art, Introducing Artists

Chapter Two A Tale of Two Smiths: In Pursuit of the Picturesque in Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788)

Chapter Three “The Horror of the Abyss”: The Feminine Sublime in Ethelinde (1789) and The Young Philosopher (1798)

Chapter Four The Darker Side of Desire: The Beautiful Heroes of James Northcote and Charlotte Smith

Chapter Five A Bevy of Beauties, An Anthology of Prostitutes, A Consternation of Mothers: The Print Collections of John Raphael Smith, Emma Smith and Charlotte Smith

Chapter Six Every Picture Tells a Story? Heraldic Art in Celestina (1791)



Valerie Derbyshire received her PhD from the School of English at the University of Sheffield where she was the winner of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Competition Student scholarship. Her doctoral research focused on visual artistry in the works of Charlotte Smith. Valerie’s research interests include Romanticism and the romance genre in general from the eighteenth century to the present day. She lives in Derbyshire, England with her husband and two sons.

Charlotte Smith, Romanticism, British Romanticism, History of Art, Visual Artistry, Art History, Literary Studies, Literature, Literary History

Bibliographic Information

Book Title

The Picturesque, The Sublime, The Beautiful: Visual Artistry in the Works of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)





Number of pages


Physical size



38 Color

Publication date

December 2019