Smetham was a curiously isolated figure. He was aware of this and in 1854 told Ruskin that, 'With artists generally I have not felt much drawn to associate’ (Letters, 1902, p.8). The son of a Wesleyan minister, he first supported himself by painting small-scale portraits; when photography began to supersede this means of livelihood, he became drawing-master at the Wesleyan Normal College in Westminster.
In 1869, Rossetti described his friend James Smetham as ‘a painter and designer of our own day who is, in many single respects, very closely akin to Blake; more so probably than any other living artist could be said to be. James Smetham’s work – generally of small or moderate size – ranges from Gospel subjects, of the subtlest imaginative and mental insight, and sometimes of the grandest colouring, through Old Testament compositions and through poetic and pastoral of every kind to a special imaginative form of landscape’ (Gilchrist, Life of Blake). But despite encouragement from Rossetti and John Ruskin, the artist was an isolated figure who achieved no popular success in his lifetime, which ended in disappointment, madness and melancholia.