skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

Webb Smith Collection

webbsmith1This collection comprises well over 500 magnificent original water colour paintings of African and Indian birds and scenes by Christopher Webb Smith (1796-1871). They were presented to the Museum of Zoology by Mrs. Frances H. Atkinson, the wife of the Master of Clare College, in March 1903. Webb Smith was Mrs. Atkinson's uncle on her father's side and was also related by marriage to Sir Charles D'Oyly who painted the scenery in many of Webb Smith's illustrations of Indian birds. Letters relating to the presentation may be found in Volume 4 of the History of the Collection, Museum of Zoology, which is kept in the University Museum of Zoology Cambridge. The Library Office also holds records relating to the collection, which is now housed in the Balfour & Newton Libraries.

Webb Smith was born in Camberwell, London in 1793. He joined the civil service of the East India Company in 1808. He served in India from 1811 until 1842, when he retired to Florence, Italy. He was educated at Haileybury (then the East India Company's training college) from 1807 until 1811, when he entered Fort William College, Calcutta (a college aimed at training British officials in Indian languages).

Webb Smith was a close friend of Sir Charles D'Oyly (1781-1845). They were connected by marriage and both served in the Bengal Civil Service. Together they set up the first British lithographic press in Bihar in order to publish their work. They produced two volumes, The feathered game of Hindustan in 1828 and Oriental ornithology in 1829. Webb Smith painted the birds and the foliage, D'Oyly the backgrounds. Webb Smith visited the Cape of Good Hope on sick leave from 1837 until 1839. He and D'Oyly worked together on a third volume, The birds, flowers, and scenery of the Cape, for which 56 plates were prepared but this was never published.

Between 1849 and 1860 Webb Smith had been working on another manuscript work, a critique, on the 300 paintings in the Pitti Gallery, Florence. The work was totally lost at sea when the Black Prince steamer, on which it was being carried to England for publication, sank off the coast of Portugal.

Webb Smith died in Florence in 1871.

The Webb Smith Collection owned by the Balfour & Newton Libraries consists of:

1815-31. Birds of India. 295 original water colours. The drawings are unsigned but the writing is in Webb Smith's hand. The partner volume to this work in the collection is Notes on the birds of India. This consists of manuscript descriptions of 295 species, illustrated in Birds of India. Balfour Library shelf marks: Strickland (339) and Strickland (338).

1829-31. Indian birds and scenery. 191 original water colours. The birds were painted by Webb Smith; the foliage and scenery were by Sir Charles D'Oyly. Balfour Library shelf mark: Folio (258).

1839-59. Cape birds, flowers and scenery. 56 original watercolours mostly signed and dated by Webb Smith. Balfour Library shelf mark: Strickland (2). [This has been moved to the Manuscripts Department at Cambridge University Library]. The List of Cape drawings of birds, flowers and scenery is a manuscript list with descriptions of the 56 water colours by Webb Smith in Cape birds, flowers and scenery. [This has also been moved to the Manuscripts Department at Cambridge University Library].

webbsmith2Another related work was included in the Newton bequest:

1829. Oriental ornithology by Sir Charles D'Oyly and Christopher Webb Smith. This contains 12 lithographs of birds, in which the birds are finely coloured by hand, the scenery being left plain. Also bound at the back are three original water colours of 10 figures of birds, unsigned and undated. Balfour Library shelf mark: ff KZ.5 (1).

Paintings from our collection have been reproduced with our permission in the following works, which may be of use for further research:

Christopher Webb Smith: an artist at the Cape of Good Hope, 1837-1839, by A. Gordon-Brown. Cape Town: H. Timmins; 1965. Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ.6 (47).

From Merchants to Emperors: British Artists in India, 1757-1930, by Pratapaditya Pal and Vidya Dehejia. Cornell University Press; 1987.

Life and works: Charles Michell, by G. Richings. Fernwood Press (Pty) Limited, South Africa; 2006.

Splendid plumage: Indian birds by British artists, by Jagmohan Mahajan; with descriptions of birds by Bikram Grewal. Hong Kong: Local Colour Limited; 1965. Balfour Library shelf mark: qKZ.54 (1).