Andrew Bell and William Smellie

35] Andrew Bell (1726-1809) as shown in Kay’s engraving was very short in stature – four foot six inches –  with marked knock knee deformity due no doubt to rickets which was very prevalent then due to poor diet.  He also had an enormous nose which made him an object of fun enjoyed by Bell himself.  He owned a large horse which he could only mount with the aid of a ladder – another cause of mirth.  He worked as an engraver from a workshop on the south side of Parliament Square (where Kay also had his shop) and produced the illustrations for William Smellie’s translation of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle. Despite a limited education he had an astute mind and became a founding publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica together with Colin Macfarquhar on whose death he became the sole proprietor of the enterprise. The Encyclopaedia became an enormous success running to four editions in his lifetime for which he produced all the engravings amounting to 531 in the 4th edition. It continues to this day as a living legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Bell, who was brought up in humble circumstances, died aged 83 leaving an estate worth about £3 million in to-day’s values. His wit and sociability made him a popular figure in society but he could be pugnacious and notably fell out with the trustees of Macfarquhar’s estate and his own son-in-law.

Example of Bell’s engravings in the Encyclopaedia Britannica

36] William Smellie (1740-1795).  It is appropriate that Kay should have included both Bell and Smellie in the same engraving for the two men were close friends and collaborators.  Smellie came from a wealthy background and was educated at the High School which he left aged twelve to become apprenticed to a printer, who allowed him time off to further his education by attending classes at the University.  In addition to becoming a successful printer he became an eminent natural historian. Kay describes him ‘as the most learned printer of his day’. The publisher, Charles Elliot, offered him an unprecedented 1000 guineas for the copyright of his Philosophy of Natural History, before it was even written; it became a best seller.  He applied for the chair of Natural History at the University but failed despite considerable support.  He was a founder member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Society of Antiquaries to which he delivered a course of lectures on natural history which incurred the wrath of Professor John Walker, who had beaten him to the University chair. He was invited by Bell to edit the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to which he contributed many of the articles.

Smellie was renowned for his conviviality and wit.  He founded the Crochallan Fencibles, one of the many drinking clubs which were then fashionable in Edinburgh, to which he invited his friend Robert Burns (whose works he had printed).  Burns described him as ‘a man positively of the first abilities and greatest strength of mind, as well as one of the best hearts and keenest wits that I have ever met’, and immortalised him in the following verse;  

Shrewd Willie Smellie to the Crochallan came:
The old cock'd hat, the brown surtout, the same;
His grisly beard just bristling in its might,
('Twas four long nights and days to shaving night;)
His uncomb'd hoary locks, wild-staring, thatched
A head for thought profound and clear unmatch'd;
Yet tho' his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent and good."

William Smellie and his wife had only one surviving child of thirteen children. This child, Alexander Smellie (1770-1850), followed in is father’s profession becoming printer to the University and succeeding him as Secretary of the Antiquarian Society. Alexander deserves mention for he had curious link with Parliament Square recorded in Kay’s Portraits II p213. In 1798, bets were taken in the Burgess Golfing Society, that no two members could be found capable of driving a ball over the spire of St Giles’ steeple. Alexander Smellie was one of the two selected. The bet was decided early in the morning in case of accident, the parties taking their station at the south-east corner of the Square. The feat was described as one of easy performance the ‘balls passed considerably higher than the weathercock and were found nearly opposite in Advocates Close’. The clubs at that time had hickory shafts and the golf balls were featheries – leather covers filled with crushed feathers – which makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Benjamin Crombie’s portrait of Alexander Smellie does not give the impression of an accomplished golfer.