John Raphael Smith was born in Derby, the son of the itinerant landscape painter Thomas Smith of Derby. Apprenticed to a linen-draper he subsequently pursued the same business in London, adding to his income by producing miniatures and chalk-drawings, largely portraits of middle-class sitters.
In 1769 he turned to engraving and executed his first plate, eventually becoming the most celebrated producer of prints of the period. Upon the decline of his business as a print-seller he gave up engraving in 1802 to concentrate on his work as a portrait painter in chalk and crayon. His giving up engraving may well be connected with the strain on his eyes occasioned by the fineness of detail required in the work.
Whatever the precise reason he went on to quickly develop a lucrative practice in pastel portraiture as a result, with as many as forty sitters a week at two guineas a head. His patrons included some of the leading politicians of the day, such as the Whigs Charles James Fox and Lord Holland.
Museums National Portrait Gallery, Parliamentary Collection, National Trust Collections, Wellcome Collection, Usher Gallery, American Museums & Gardens
Credit to Neil Jeffares, who is a leading expert of pastel portraits before 1800