Summary

John Smith (?1655-1723), eminent Whig politician under William III and Queen Anne, was the son of John Smith of South Tidworth or Tedworth, Hampshire, and heir to 'a good estate'. He matriculated from St John's College, Oxford, in 1672 but did not take a degree. He was admitted a student to the Middle Temple in 1674 but was not called to the bar. His status as the son and heir of a prominent landowner made politics a natural career choice, and he served as a Member of Parliament for Ludgershall, Wiltshire, 1678-9, 1680-1 and 1688-9, Bere Alston, Devon, 1691-5, for Andover, Hampshire, 1695-1713, and East Looe, Cornwall, from 1715 until his death on 2 October 1723, some three weeks before that of the painter of this portrait, Kneller. He was known as a good orator and conversationalist with firmly-held opinions. Although a staunch Whig and Protestant, his agreeable disposition enabled him to remain on good terms with the Tories. He was the leading whip for the Whigs before becoming a Lord of the Treasury, 1694-99, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1699-1701.

On 24 October 1705 Smith was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, beating William Bromley by forty-three votes. In 1706 he was made one of the Commissioners for arranging the Union with Scotland, a task he performed so successfully that when the House assembled in October 1707 with the addition of the new Scottish members, he was re-elected Speaker without a contest. It is presumably this rare tribute which is commemorated in this picture, in which Smith is shown holding a scroll inscribed 'The Union Act' (the Act had received the royal assent on 6 March 1707). In April 1708 he resigned the post in favour of his political ally Sir Richard Onslow and returned to the chancellorship of the Exchequer until August 1710, when he retired from high-level politics with the lucrative sinecure of one of the four principal tellers of the Exchequer, which he retained until his death.

Kneller's portrait shows him in the full dignity of the Speaker's robes, with the Speaker's mace and chair behind him. The fluted pillars on either side of the chair correspond with its actual appearance at the time and can be seen in other contemporary paintings such as Arthur Onslow in the House of Commons, 1730, by Sir James Thornhill and William Hogarth, at Clandon Park. The chair was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1706 and copies of it were used until 1834.

The painting, in which the splendid accoutrements of office are handled with restrained but well-balanced grace, concentrating all attention on the sensitively painted head and hand, is a particularly fine example of official portraiture at the time of Queen Anne and of Kneller's work in the grand style at its most dignified.

Thomas Assheton-Smith (died 1828), a descendant of the sitter, presented a copy of this painting to the Palace of Westminster in 1803.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.71-2, reproduced
Dictionary of National Biography, XVII, 1909, p.485

Terry Riggs
January 1998