In the year 1729, a Scottish painter named John Smibert packed up his easel, turned his back on London and set sail for a new life across the Atlantic. An established portrait painter, Smibert was in his forties and knew this would be his last chance to change direction in life. London meant painting the same old portraits in the same old way, unable to change for fear of upsetting the customers on whom Smibert depended for financial security. Like so many others before and since, he looked westwards across the Atlantic and dreamed of a better life.

George BerkeleyCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Smithsonian National Portrait GalleryBut Smibert’s was no idle dream of fame, for his journey came as part of a mission, and nor did he intend to become an American. Our painter is one of a group, headed by Bishop George Berkeley, one of the most noted men of thought at that time, who sought to set up a college on the British-owned island of Bermuda. To commemorate the voyage and its goal, John Wainwright, a follower of Berkeley, commissioned a painting from Smibert during the summer of 1728. Smibert began the piece, his boldest work yet, before the small group left England. Four years passed before its completion, and neither painting nor author would see ever Bermuda.

Smibert, born in Edinburgh in 1688, moved to London as a young man, working on painting horse carriages, drawing in his spare time. Furthering his interest in the late 1710s, Smibert studied under Sir James Thornhill (the man who, among other achievements, painted the murals within the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral) before undertaking the ‘Grand Tour’, the gap year or hippy trail of the eighteenth century. For many wealthy young men, the Grand Tour was less an educational grounding in classicism and Western civilization, and more an introduction to fashionable European society and attend parties and balls, but for a struggling young artist such as Smibert, undertaking the Grand Tour meant the only chance to study the work of masters such as Rubens, Raphael and Caravaggio.

Returning to London, Smibert worked as a portraitist, and as a copyist of famous paintings. By far the most renowned painter in London at this time was Sir Godfrey Kneller, and Smibert found it hard to shake off the great man's influence, and Smibert’s work, in retrospect, appears tired and lackluster compared to some of his later work. Kneller’s approach to his own work did not help matters; he pioneered an ‘assembly line’ approach to portrait painting and having taken preliminary drawings of the sitter's face, Kneller simply added generic details to the painting as if putting a kit together.

Kneller died in 1723 and Smibert soon replaced him as the leading portrait painter in London. Despite his success, Smibert felt stifled, bored by the demands and conservative tastes of his society clients, and pined for change. Luckily, Bishop Berkeley had come across Smibert and his work in Italy, and offered him a post as a don, teaching art, in the college he hoped to set up in Bermuda. 

The initial destination for Berkeley, Smibert and company was Newport, Rhode Island, and they settled in the area while awaiting government funds to arrive from Britain. The months passed and Smibert continued to occupy himself with Wainwright’s commission as well as taking on more standard portrait work. By late 1731 however, with the funds not forthcoming, Berkeley abandoned his plans for the Bermuda college and most of the group returned to Britain. Smibert, loathe to return in defeat, remained in New England to complete his largest and most complex painting.

Smibert depicts eight figures in the painting. On the far left is Smibert himself, the only visual The Bermuda GroupCredit: Wikimedia Commons/The Yorck Projectrepresentation we have of the artist, holding a scroll or a sketch, perhaps a preliminary drawing of the painting in which he stands. To Smibert’s immediate right is Richard Dalton, another would-be don. Reclining over the table, pen in hand, is Wainwright; although he did not travel with group, he paid for the painting, and as artists of all ages know, the patron gets a prize spot in the finished product.

The young lady pointing in Wainwright’s direction is Miss Handcock, travelling companion of Berkeley’s wife, Ann Foster, seen holding their infant son Henry, born two years in June 1729. Standing behind the two women is John James, who like Dalton sought his fortune overseas. On the far right-hand side stands Bishop Berkeley himself, looking heavenwards for inspiration with Wainwright ready to immortalise his next words of wisdom. Berkeley mirrors Smibert’s role as a future don; the inspired will now inspire others. Berkeley stands with hand resting on the upright spine of one of his books; Smibert stands to one side, opposite to Berkeley, sketch in hand for his future. The painter looks pensive, as if worried we might reject his work and with it, reject his hopes.

At the center of the painting, drawing our gaze, a fruit is held in the child’s hand; one seed holding another seed, a powerful dual symbol of the future. Around the child, the figures are either looking at each other or at us, Smibert combining the allegorical style the painter saw in the Renaissance paintings during the Grand Tour, and the more modish group pictures celebrating friendship and family. The colonnade in the background gives a classical air of respectability befitting the Bishop and his group’s lofty aims, while in the forefront the rich carpet draped upon the table gives a cosier, domestic feel to offset the academia. Berkeley was an anti-materialist, believing possessions and the material world distracted the mind from God, so Smibert added no more than this and a few books to enrich the scene, respectful and aware of Berkeley’s beliefs.

November of 1731 saw the project abandoned. Smibert completed the piece by the time his friends left for England in early 1732, or at least using preparation sketches and drawings to finish the painting soon after the group’s departure. Whenever Smibert finished the painting, he may have done so with a heavy heart.

The Bermuda Group never left Smibert’s studio, just as Smibert never left Boston. Portraits of the big city’s great and good once more became Smibert’s stock-in-trade and he never again attempt a work on such a scale. The painting itself became the most famous in colonial America (and at six foot by eight foot, certainly the biggest) and hung for many years in studio above the art supplies shop Smibert opened in Boston, along with Smibert’s other works, and the copies, busts and engravings he brought with him from Britain. In effect, this became America’s first art gallery, and for over forty years The Bermuda Group by Smibert was American art. And with his ongoing portrait work, Smibert formed the pinnacle of what became known as the Grand Colonial Portrait Style. 

The Copley FamilyCredit: Wikimedia Commons/National Gallery of ArtMany budding artists came to Smibert’s studio to admire The Bermuda Group, including John Trumbull (painter of the Declaration of Independence, 1817) and John Singleton Copley, arguably the successor to the title of greatest living American artist. One can see Smibert’s influence on Copley’s work in a piece such as The Copley Family (1776-77), with its strength of harmony, and felicity of companionship, all traceable to the gallant group who left England in 1728.

Smibert, perhaps the archetypal American immigrant, aimed high but in the end had to dampen his dreams, challenged by the day-to-day necessity of making a living and caring for his wife and family. Doubtless disappointed, and frustrated by the lack of opportunity to expand beyond society portraits, Smibert still made his mark on America and not only produced the country’s first great painting, but in starting the work in Britain and finishing it in American, symbolises the journey made by so many over the centuries, and bridged two ages together in art.

The Bermuda Group resides today in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.