Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Muriel R. Smith

Title: Mrs H.J. Smith
Nationality: British
Date of birth: 18 June 1883
Date of death: 1 May 1923
Place of death: Cape Town, South Africa
Category: artist


Muriel R. Smith was an art student who posed for Whistler about 1897-1898.

Records of her life are sparse and so far, and her unmarried name is unknown. In 1904 'Muriel Ransom [Smith]' and 'Harry Jacob Smith' were living in Chorlton cum Hardy, Manchester. Their son, Harry David Smith, was born on 19 September 1883, and baptised in London on 13 March 1904. The 1911 UK census records Muriel Ransome Smith (aged 27, born in St Pancras, London), and her husband, Harry Jacob Smith (Maltsters Agent, aged 36, born in Ryburgh, Norfolk), with their son Harry David Smith (aged 7), resident in Didsbury, South Manchester.

Her husband and his family are described in Betty Wharton’s book The Smiths of Ryburgh (1930). He was the son of Annie and Frederick Edgar Smith, and was born in Great Rybergh, Norfolk, England, in 1875. During his military career he had served in the British army: he was a private during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, and later rose to the rank of Major. He emigrated to Tasmania in 1911.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force from 1915-1918; a photograph of him is in the Australian War Memorial website. In March 1915, when the Major enlisted, his wife was living at "Testerton", Jasper Road, Bentleigh, Victoria, Australia (National Archives of Australia). Scrawled on his World War 1 service record is another address, ‘636 Currie Road, Durban, Sth Africa 27.4 22’, suggesting that she had recently left for South Africa. It is not clear if her husband accompanied her.

Muriel Smith died on 1 May 1923 in Cape Town, and is buried in Maitland Cemetery, Capetown.

Major Smith returned to England from Sydney, Australia, arriving at Southampton on 28 August 1923, returning to take part in the family milling business. By 1939 he and his second wife, Alice May Smith (1877-1945), were living in the Esperance Nursing Home in Eastbourne. He died in Eastbourne in 1953.


According to her family Muriel Smith posed for several portraits when she was an art student in Paris, before her marriage about 1900. She was the first wife of Major Harry Jacob Smith (1875-1953).

She is said to have studied under Whistler, possibly at the Académie Carmen in Paris. Whistler's sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), was involved in making, cleaning, altering or repairing a dress, possibly for Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet y500, and Whistler wrote to Miss Philip on 11 August 1897: 'I do hope the dress came out all right - pity I hurried you - for find the abominable girl Muriel can't come until Saturday -' This might suggest the artist-model relationship was not good, but it may simply express irritation at the cancellation of a sitting.

'W.R.M.', 'The Work of a Dead Artist. / Striking Exhibition in the city. / A Pupil of Whistler and Leighton,' Cape Times, Cape Town, South Africa), June/July, 1923/1924.

According to a newspaper report after her death, 'As a girl she was a great friend and a pupil of Whistler, who always evinced the greatest interest in her and her work. So much so that at various times he painted five portraits of her. One of these is in the possession of Mr. Heinemann, one is owned by Mr. Van der Bilt [sic], and one is in the Luxembourg. Two of these are reproduced in Pennell's life of Whistler (1908), the one entitled "Girl with a Feather", and the other "Blue and Coral"'.

The newspaper also mentions that she was a friend of Frederick Leighton (1830-1896) and William Powell Frith (1819-1909). The press-cutting marks the occasion of a posthumous exhibition of her work at Messrs Dempers & Wiley's Gallery, Church Street, Cape Town, in South Africa, where she lived late in life.

Violet and Blue: The Red Feather y503 is the 'Girl with a Feather' cited in this article. Grey and Silver: La Petite Souris y502 is probably another (unfinished) portrait of Muriel Smith. It is not certain what portrait was supposedly owned by George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914): he owned The Little London Sparrow y477 but that shows a younger child, supposedly Lizzie Willis.