The Many-Wintered Crow. James Smetham. 1860s (see Casteras 116); 1880 (see Art UK). Oil on panel, H 14 x W 19.4 cm. Credit: Birmingham Museums Trust. Accession number: 1943P281, bequeathed by Sir Arthur Newsholme, 1942. Image kindly released via Art UK on the Creative Commons Zero licence (CC0). Caption material added by Jacqueline Banerjee, who also added the comments below. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The painting takes its title from a line in Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," in which the speaker imagines his eventual old age in terms of "the many-winter'd crow that leads the clanging rookery home." Yet the bare, wintry scene has its own beauty, with blue sea in the distance (reminiscent of the "central blue" in a later line of the poem). Smetham greatly admired Tennyson. He had bought the two-volume edition of the poems in 1843, the very year it was published, and it proved a great source of inspiration for him. William Davies in his memoir of Smetham recalls that "he made some charming marginal illustrations in it." Davies continues,

I first became acquainted with him in the year 1846, and remember well his enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the delicate touches and artistic refinement of the early poems of Lord Tennyson. They remained to him an influence during the rest of his life; and perhaps nowhere could the Laureate have found a more faithful treasury of his writings than in this “heart of a friend.” Besides appealing to his aesthetic sense they stimulated his artistic faculty, and afforded him subjects for many pictures. [13]

Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov (1830-1897), The Rooks Have Come Back (1871) in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Mike Hickox, who has written about Smetham's Mary Magdalene, feels that the later date of the painting, as given on Art UK, may have been added by Smetham's friends when trying to sell it on his behalf, because by that stage of his life he was suffering from severe depression. It seems much more likely that Susan Casteras is right in including it among works of the 1860s.

Smetham's painting has more drama about it than one on a similar theme, by the Russian artist Alexei Savrasov. Interestingly, Savrasov visited England in the 60s, and was much impressed by English and German artists' "striving for truth and independence" (qtd. in "Alexey Kondratievich Savrasov") but there is nothing to suggest that he might have seen this particular painting or been inspired by the idea of birds returning in spring. His own painting has an altogether fresher aspect: it is set in brighter daylight, and a little later in the season. Here, snow is thawing, and instead of old leaves still clinging to bare branches, there is a hint of new ones budding on the delicate sprays of the birches. The birds are already making their nests, and the shadows cast by the sun suggest warmer weather to come, while the spire nearby speaks of spiritual renewal. The two paintings make an interesting pair. Savrasov's, however, is much better known, perhaps even the best known of his works.


"Alexey Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897)" (trans. from the Russian). - online library. Web. 14 April 2021.

Casteras, Susan. James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1994.

Davies, William. "Memoir of James Smetham." In Letters of James Smetham. Ed. Sarah Smetham and William Davies. London: Macmillan, 1892. 1-50. Google Books. Free Ebook.

Last modified 14 April 2021