An Artist’s Memoir Of The Smashers Club (Part 1)

Posted on 09 October 2020

By Dr Joanna Soden HRSA


In 1904, at the end of a long and productive career, the painter James Archer RSA (1823-1904) presented a small collection of items from his personal library to the Royal Scottish Academy.[i] Among them were two notebooks described as ‘Extended Minutes of a Sketching Club’, established in Edinburgh in 1848.  Although the books are anonymous and bear no dates the author is identified as the donor, James Archer. [ii] His text takes the form of a play in a succession of six scenes per notebook. Written in black ink with some pencil additions, it is mostly in unrhymed verse. Volume 1 recalls meetings of the club in Edinburgh between 1848 and around 1853, and Volume 2 similarly covers the period when it was re-instated in London in 1863 as The Auld Lang Syne Club.


Extended Minutes of a Sketching Club, ‘The Smashers Club’


Christened The Smashers Club in 1848, this association was a close-knit group of young artists who were striving to further their careers. It follows in the tradition of social and shared-interest clubs that had been a feature of Enlightenment Edinburgh, and similar clubs operated in the nineteenth century. Some were specifically for artists, such as the Edinburgh Etching Club. This was active in the 1830s and included Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845), David Octavius Hill RSA (1802-1870) and William Simson RSA (1800-1847) [iii] and it may have been a precursor to The Smashers Club.


Thomas Duncan RSA, Woman by a fireplace, etching, from The Book of The Edinburgh Etching Club


Volume 1 of the so-called minute books presents a dramatis personae in the style of a theatrical cast list. The Art Students are listed in alphabetical order by their club name and their real name, as follows: Anson (James Archer), Butterworth (John Ballantyne 1815-1897), Crichton (William Crawford 1821-1869), Davidson (William Fettes Douglas 1822-1891), John Finlay (John Faed 1819-1902) and Tom Finlay (Thomas Faed 1826-1900). Appended to this list are Edward Nicholson (Erskine Nicol 1825-1904) and Andrew Macpherson (Andrew Maclure 1812-1885) who joined the club at its later re-incarnation in London. In 1848 the founder members ranged in age from 22 to 33 and all lived in Edinburgh. They had studied at the Trustees’ Academy (the only public art school in Scotland at the time) and by 1848 Ballantyne and Crawford were teaching there. They were also beginning to exhibit in the RSA annual exhibitions. Ballantyne and John Faed were already Associates of the RSA (elected in 1841 and 1847 respectively), and the rest were to follow suit between 1850 and 1860. Thus we meet six young men, early in their careers and keen for self-improvement.


John Faed RSA, The Poet’s Dream, oil on canvas, about 1883


Volume 1 opens with a short Prologue where Archer and Crawford meet on Princes Street, share their admiration for the work of Michelangelo and then agree to meet again at the next meeting of the Club at Fettes Douglas’s house next Friday night.


1st Meeting

Held in Fettes Douglas’ house at 47 George Square, Edinburgh, this meeting follows a regular format combining work, refreshment and social intercourse. The members assemble at 8.00pm and the host for the evening sets a theme upon which they will work. This time around Fettes Douglas chooses Ambition, and for the next hour and a half they produce sketches. Afterwards they review each other’s work. Fettes Douglas asks:


D         …Well! Are you done?

            Come let us look upon the sketches now

            And see who comes out first; that is very fine

            Tom Finlay [Faed], the effect is beautiful…

            Anson [Archer] the idea’s good; now Crichton [Crawford]

            You have been talking too much tonight…

Afterwards they adjourn to the Supper Room for roast chicken, tripe and wine. Then Fettes Douglas announces:

D         We’ll get the table cleared, & then set to

            The serious portion of the night.


Smashers Club glass belonging to Thomas Faed

Hot toddy is served in glasses inscribed with the name of each member [ILLUS, RSA COLL]. Ballantyne sings My Boat is on the Shore (lyrics by Lord Byron). They then propose a toast to the health of the club. Poetry, banter and more toasts follow. It is the last meeting of the season (this followed roughly the current academic year running from 1848-49 thus finishing in early summer), and they arrange to make a sketching trip to Arran a week later.


John Clerk of Eldin, Part of Edinburgh from the King’s Park (Holyrood), etching, 1773


Before the meeting closes Thomas Faed suggests …we sally out/ And walk round our hill, our Arthur’s Seat. With easy access from the Old Town, the open space that is Holyrood Park had for many centuries been adopted by the citizens of Edinburgh as their local wilderness, grazing land and quarry. It has also been the location of myths, legends, historical events, dark doings and scientific discoveries. For example, whilst walking below Salisbury Crags the geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) found evidence of ancient molten magna intruding into even older layers of sedimentary rock. This resulted in his ground-breaking Theory of the Earth.[iv] And for long this open space has attracted poets and writers, and artists ranging from John Clerk of Eldin (1728-1812) with his topographical views to Angus Farquhar’s Speed of Light project of 2012 when flocks of runners carried torches along routes in the park after dusk. With this heritage in mind the young artists of 1848/9 walk the circuit of the Queen’s Drive on a summer’s night and admire the scenery and associations – visual, historical and geological. Archer comments:


A          How quiet and solitary looks the loch

Of Duddingstone [sic] at this time of night

C         Morning you mean, it’s gone half past three.

A          … Look, look!…

At the Castle closely, rising up, how large

It seems in this uncertain light


Passing beneath the basalt columns of Samson’s Ribs (strictly speaking not on their route as this formation is only visible from below Queen’s Drive) they are suitably impressed by its geology. At the end of the walk they pass Holyrood Palace where Mary’s ghost/ With Rizzio’s may be wandering around and then ascend the High Street …with those high houses/ Looking down on us, & all so silent. These observations relate to themes explored in their creative work (and this will be discussed in a later article).[v]


John Clerk of Eldin, Arthur’s Seat from Lochend, etching, 1774


Reaching the Tron Fettes Douglas separates from the group and heads south and back to 47 George Square. The others cross North Bridge and head homewards towards the New Town of Edinburgh.

We shall next meet the club at Brodick on the Isle of Arran…


[i] This article was written during the coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 when access to research material was significantly restricted.

[ii] The RSA’s acquisition records are misleading as this gift is recorded twice, once as being the gift of James Archer and once as being the gift of William Darling Mackay, Annual Report of the Royal Scottish Academy (Edinburgh 1904) p.7. It is concluded that the actual donor was Archer but that Mackay, as Librarian of the RSA at the time, acted as his agent through which the gift was passed on to the Academy

[iii] William D Mackay, The Scottish School of Painting (London 1906) p.340

[iv] In the RSA Collections there is an album bearing the title Book of the Edinburgh Etching Club (cat no 1994.084) and it contains seventeen bound and eight loose prints including the three artists mentioned in this text.

[v] Published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, vol 1)

[vi] William D Mackay, ibid, p.334