Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bernhard Smith (1820–1885)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published:

Bernhard Smith (1820-1885), sculptor and painter, was born at Greenwich, London, England, third son of Lord [Christian name] Henry Smith and his wife Jane Mary, née Voase. He joined the Antique School of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1840 and later that year enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His first notable sculpture (1838) was a memorial to his sister. After his return to London he wrote 'The World in Miniature' in 1842 but there is no evidence that it was published. By 1851 he had exhibited nineteen works at the Royal Academy, including an oil painting, 'Puck', the inspiration of T. Woolner's statuette. Smith and Woolner shared a studio in Stanhope Street and their circle included Browning, Carlyle, Lamb, Tennyson and Mary and William Howitt. Smith's daughter Minnie later claimed that he was one of the seven original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; he certainly belonged to it by 1850 when he helped D. G. Rossetti to plan the Germ. Both Woolner and Rossetti acknowledged Smith's influence on them.

Disillusioned with the movement, Smith planned to go to Canada, but instead he and Woolner decided to accompany E. L. Bateman to Melbourne. Their departure in the Windsor in July 1852 inspired Ford Madox Brown's painting, 'The last of England'. Arriving on 23 October, Smith and Woolner set out for the Ovens diggings and then went to Fryer's Creek and Sandhurst. Smith's brother Alexander John (1813?-1872) had become a commissioner of crown lands for the goldfields; on 17 May 1854 Bernhard became assistant commissioner for the Westernport District, with salary of £400 and allowances, and by 1857 was at Ballarat. On 8 February 1858 he became warden of the goldfields and Chinese protector. In 1860 he was transferred to Pleasant Creek (Stawell) as police magistrate, but resigned on 31 March 1861 and joined Alexander, who had taken up Langley Vale station near Kyneton and who won the Legislative Assembly seat of Castlemaine in May. Bernhard became commissioner of crown lands in August and warden for the goldfields of Victoria in September. Interested in astronomy, in the early 1860s he took meteorological observations for R. L. J. Ellery's geodetic survey; he was assisted by his wife Olivia Frances Josephine, née Boyes, whom he had married at St Paul's Church, Melbourne, on 12 February 1863. He was police magistrate and deputy-sheriff at Stawell from 9 October 1865. Along with many other civil servants he was dismissed on Black Wednesday in January 1878 while stationed at Smythesdale, but he was later reinstated and transferred to Alexandra.

Smith had corresponded with his English friends and continued to paint, though he was not interested in Australian subjects; he remained isolated from colonial artistic trends: 'A thorn pierced my foot in 1854', he wrote of his work for the government, 'So among Gum Trees I lived listlessly dreaming; jangling with sweet music, all out of tune'. In 1881 he dislocated his right arm, but continued his work, painting ethereal and heavenly objects in the manner of Blake and Fuseli; a recent art historian has noted that his art and prose are closer to surrealism than any of the other Pre-Raphaelites. Among his commissions were five illustrations of Macbeth and four of Much Ado About Nothing for a music hall. He wrote verse and sketched fairies and birds for his children. He sent for Rossetti's engravings, but in his isolation he feared for his perception; on seeing a picture of Woolner's statue of Captain Cook he commented, 'No, no, no … Gum Trees and Kangaroos may have ruined my taste'.

W. M. Rossetti described Smith as 'six feet (183 cm) broad … with a hearty English look and manner, and a clear resonant voice'. Alfred Howitt thought him rather fussy but 'a useful man of business'. His habits were abstemious: he customarily drank a handful of oatmeal in a jug of cold water and warned his student son in England against the evils of beer that 'bemuddles the clear brains'. Aged 64, he died of pneumonia at Alexandra on 7 October 1885 after trying to rescue two children from a flooded stream. Buried in the Alexandra cemetery, he was survived by his wife, three of their four sons and four of their five daughters; his estate was valued for probate at £1999, including a property at Elgar Park, Box Hill. Two of his portrait medallions, of Sir John Richardson and Sir James Clark Ross, are in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Howitt (ed), Mary Howitt. An Autobiography (Lond, 1889)
  • W. M Rossetti (ed), Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters (Lond, 1900)
  • W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Lond, 1905)
  • W. M. Rossetti, Some Reminiscences, vol 1 (Lond, 1906)
  • A. Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, vol 7 (Lond, 1906)
  • U. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler (Leipzig, 1912)
  • B. Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Syd, 1945)
  • M. B. Smith, Bernhard Smith and his Connection with Art (manuscript, 1917, copies at State Library of Victoria, State Library of New South Wales and State Library of Queensland)
  • Howitt papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Woolner diary (copy at National Library of Australia)
  • Chief Secretary, letters (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Smith, Bernhard (1820–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


7 October, 1885 (aged ~ 65)
Alexandra, Victoria, Australia

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