Sir Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900), engineer, archaeologist and diplomat

In 1866, when Tinco Lycklama visits Tehran for the first time, he meets with “Captain Smith” – who happens to be the later Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith. Their relationship is social; Robert Murdoch Smith had just arrived in Persia and had not yet started the work he is most remembered for – collecting objects in Persia.

Whereas Robert Murdoch Smith started his career as an Scottish engineer working on the Persian telegraph system, in 1873 he also would become an agent for the South Kensington Museum and, later, for the Victoria & Albert museum. The acquisitions by Robert Murdoch Smith have been the start of the Iran collection at the V&A.

(See biography and links below the picture)

Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900)
Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900) – Collection National Museums Scotland



(see source in notes below)

Major General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith KCMG (18 August 1835 – 3 July 1900) was a Scottish engineer, archaeologist and diplomat. He is known for his involvement with the excavation of antiquities found at Knidos and Cyrene, the telegraph to Iran, Persian antiquities bought for the Victoria and Albert Museum, and for serving as Director of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art.

Early life
Smith was born on 18 August 1835 in Bank Street, Kilmarnock. He was the second child of Jean (born Murdoch) and Dr Hugh Smith.[1] He attended Kilmarnock Academy and went on to spend four years at Glasgow University.[2] He found moral philosophy vague, but excelled at science, in which he was taught by a young Lord Kelvin.[1]

Smith joined the army during the Crimean War and out of the 380 candidates who took the entry exam he came first. In September 1855, Smith was gazetted to Lieutenant and in the following October was chosen to lead a small group of Royal Engineers bound to help Charles Thomas Newton’s archaeological mission to the remains of the ancient civilisation at Knidos in Turkey.[1]

The Lion of Knidos was found in 1858 by the architect Richard Popplewell Pullan near where he was helping Newton’s Knidos excavations.[3] Smith’s role was significant as he was presented with a large statue that had fallen onto its front face on a high cliff[1] and it was Smith who discovered the location of the mausoleum.[4] The limestone core of a monument was still there but the marble had been moved or stolen. Other pieces of worked stone lay around where they had been abandoned. Smith was able to replace, examine and move each of the remaining stones, and to create a detailed report on the supposed construction and its historical context.[1] This allowed Pullen to sketch what is thought to be a good reproduction of what the whole mausoleum would have looked like.[5] The Lion of Knidos was loaded onto the naval ship HMS Supply and shipped to London, where it is now held in the British Museum.[3]

Smith was very interested in archaeology and he decided to fund another two-year expedition to excavate the lost settlements of Cyrenaica in North Africa. The British government had permitted this expedition and when Smith and Lieutenant E. A. Porcher returned they deposited a large quantity of Cyrene sculptures and artefacts in the British Museum. This included the 2.29-metre (7 ft 6 in) high Apollo of Cyrene which they found in 121 pieces. They moved the pieces away secretly, fearing the marble fragments would be further destroyed by the locals because the sculpture was non-Islamic.[6] In 1862, Smith was able to publish his account of the excavations at Knidos, and in 1864 he wrote and Porcher illustrated their report on the Cyrene work.[4]

From 1865 Smith was a director of the Persian Telegraph Company, which enabled him to drastically improve the local infrastructure. He obtained this appointment following two years he spent assisting with the difficult task of installing the 1,200-mile-long wire required to join Tehran to London. Smith noted that this was done under difficult conditions as the locals saw it as a tool of the colonists.[2]

In parallel with this he had not lost his interest in culture. In 1873, he was given the unusual task of gathering artefacts and antiquities for the United Kingdom paid for by the Department of Science and Art. Smith did not just buy individual items, but in at least one case bought an entire collection belonging to Jules Richard in 1875.[7] Richard was known as Ri??r Khan and had initially worked as a translator, but he was involved in a variety of tasks from photography to balloon manufacture for the Shah.[8]

He lived in Tehran and his collection was so extensive that a special exhibition was staged in 1876 with a guide to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s special gallery written by Smith. The V&A acknowledge that it is Smith’s acquisitions that formed their Iranian collection.[7] Smith had not ignored his main job and his partnership with the Shah, Nasir al-Din, was noted when he received his Sword of Honour.[4]

The relatively new Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art appointed him as its director in 1885 and he was made Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) three years later, following a successful diplomatic mission to renegotiate Persian telegraph contracts. He gained a significant extension to the contracts and a diamond snuff box from the Shah. He died in Edinburgh in 1900, leaving two daughters.[4]

^ a b c d e The Life of Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, K.C.M.G., Royal Engineers, William Kirk Dickson, 1901, Blackwood
^ a b Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900), Kilmarnock Academy. Retrieved 2 December 2013
^ a b British Museum Collection The Lion of Knidos, British Museum. Retrieved 30 November 2013
^ a b c d George Stronach, ‘Smith, Sir Robert Murdoch (1835-1900)’, Rev. Roger T. Stearn, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 2 Dec 2013
^ Jenkins, Ian (2006). Greek architecture and Its Sculpture. New York: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674023889.
^ The Cyrene Apollo, Peter Higgs, History Today, Vol. 44, No. 11. Retrieved 2 December 2013
^ a b Major-General Sir Robert J. Murdoch Smith, Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2 December 2013
^ Rishar Khan, iranicaonline. Retrieved 2 December 2013


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s