Robert Smith and Redcliffe Towers Case Study: Background and Training

Foster 870

Figure 2. Jivan Ram, Raja (Raja Jirvan Raja), Portrait of Robert Smith, Bengal Engineers, c.1830, oil painting. © British Library Board, Foster 870.

Background and Training

Robert Smith’s early family life not only shaped the direction of his later career, but also the locations and houses in which he settled once retired. Although primarily based in the busy, cosmopolitan port of Bideford, Devon, Robert Smith’s family frequently journeyed out to Europe and India.[1] In consequence, while two of his brothers were born in India, Smith (see figure 2)—the third son of James and Mary Smith—came to be baptised in Nancy, France, on 13 September 1787.[2] The family enjoyed early connections to the EIC: trained as a lawyer, Smith’s father also worked at one time as private secretary to the Marquis of Hastings.[3]   Understandably therefore, when the Smith family later moved to an artists’ district (Newman Street, off Oxford Street) in London, and financial pressures meant that the sons had to seek employment, the expanding East India Company seemed the perfect choice.[4] Robert Smith, aged sixteen years, enlisted as a Cadet in 1803, following his older brothers, James and John, to India, while his younger brother, Edward, joined the Company in 1815.[5]  Robert Smith became an Ensign in April 1805, soon transferring from the Infantry to the Engineers, which proved a pivotal decision as he was rarely posted to the front-line of hostilities.[6] Tragically, of the four sons who went out to India, joining as Ensigns and rising to at least the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, all, except Robert died there.[7]

Smith began his military training at the EIC’s Great Marlow Academy.[8] As the Company expanded into new territories in India, surveying and accurate mapping skills were imperative to assist revenue collection, administrative function, and later military campaigns.[9]  The drawing masters at Great Marlow, including William De La Motte (1775-1863) and William Alexander (1767-1816), ensured their pupils became proficient in drafting accurate maps, fortification, sketching in the field, and painting topographical watercolours and panoramas.[10]  Although influenced by the Picturesque paintings of William (1769-1837) and Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) and William Hodges (1744-1797), Smith developed his own style,  and was one of many soldiers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who took up drawing as part of their leisure activities, and showed evidence of accomplished draughtsmanship.[11]  Throughout his time in India, Smith was a prodigious artist, both for work and leisure, depicting India’s scenery, architecture and culture. As an engineer Smith worked on a variety of projects, but he was also called upon at times to be both an artist and a fighting soldier.  These differing strands of his career influenced his later architectural endeavours.

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[1]V. C. P. Hodson, List of the Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834, 4, 4 (London: Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 1947), p. 133; Raymond Head, Redcliffe & Colonel Robert Smith: A History of the Redcliffe Hotel and its Original Designer (Torquay: Redcliffe Hotel, 1997).

[2] Head, Redcliffe & Robert Smith; Bideford Parish Register.

[3] Raymond Head, Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873) and Redcliffe, (The Torbay Civic Society, [n.d.]).

[4] Head, Redcliffe & Robert Smith.

[5] Hodson, List of the Officers, p. 133; BL IOR/MIL/9/112: 1802-1803, Cadet papers for Robert Smith.

[6] Ibid.; Reginald Henry Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, 4, 2 (Dehra Dun: Surveyor General of India, 1950), p.442. Smith transferred from Infantry to Engineers in June 1805.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Torquay Herald Express (12 September 2001), p. 19.

[9] Mildred Archer, ‘An Artist Engineer: Colonel Robert Smith in India (1805-1830)’, The Connoisseur (February 1972), p. 79.

[10] Luke Herrmann, ‘Delamotte, William (1775–1863)’, and Richard Garnett, ‘Alexander, William (1767–1816)’, rev. Heather M. MacLennan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[11] See Rosie Dias, ‘Memory and the Aesthetics of Military Experience: Viewing the Landscape of the Anglo-Mysore Wars’, Tate Papers, Issue 19,, accessed 16 October 2013.  See also Jennifer Howes, Illustrating India: the Early Colonial Investigations of Colin Mackenzie (1784-1821) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.14.