Archive and Special Collections

Smith the Sixth

Walter Smith is probably the best-known artist to have held the post of Headmaster at Leeds School of Art. His ideas and influence extended beyond the art schools of the UK to the burgeoning American art education system.

Walter Smith 1836-1886

Walter Smith was the sixth artist to hold the post of Headmaster at Leeds School of Art, taking over from Charles Ryan in 1859. The son of a Gloucestershire Butcher, his peers, credited him with stabilising the school after its first decade of relatively rapid turnover of Headmasters. He was described as a confident man, a self-assurance that often spilt over into arrogance. At least that was the perception many had of him. 

He believed passionately in self-help, of the variety espoused by Samuel Smiles. Smith also advocated adult education in general, especially for the working man. He saw Art as a great enabler, a channel through which the working class could improve themselves and contribute to society.

In 1851 Smith visited the Great Exhibition, and it had a profound effect on him, he perceived that English design could learn from French and Continental methods and influences.  He graduated from the South Kensington School of Art including the National Art Training Class for Masters in 1855. Smith taught at St Martin's and Charterhouse before settling in Leeds around 1859. He became Drawing Master at Leeds Grammar School. At about the same time he was appointed Superintendent of Drawing and Headmaster at art schools not only in Leeds but at Wakefield, Bradford, Huddersfield and Keighley. While Headmaster at Leeds he wrote several books on Art and prepared an influential report, spurred by his observations from the Great Exhibition, comparing French and English art teaching systems with recommendations on how to improve the English system.

By 1868 the Leeds authorities were concerned that Smith was not paying the central art school in Leeds the attention it deserved and was putting most of his energies into the satellite art schools. An ultimatum was issued, which resulted in Smith's dismissal from Leeds. He briefly moved back to London becoming Headmaster of Art and Science at South Kensington. After a year, Smith took up the opportunity to move to the United States. He was appointed Professor of Art Education at Boston Normal School of Art and Director of Art Education for Massachusetts. His books and lectures had a profound influence on the American art education system. Smith returned to England in 1882; his last post was as Principal and Art Director at Bradford Technical College.

Smith was born in 1836 at Kemerton in Gloucestershire, the son of Thomas Smith, a Farmer and Butcher, and Anne Roberts. He married Caroline Isobel Delatour in 1861. He died after a short illness on 14 September 1886 in Bradford, West Riding.

More from the blog

By Dr Keith Rowntree
10 Nov 2022
By Dr Keith Rowntree
04 Feb 2022
All blogs