Sydney was the son of merchant Robert Smith (1739-1827) and Maria Olier (1750-1801). Robert, described as “a man of restless ingenuity and activity”, “very clever, odd by nature, but still more odd by design”, owned at various times nineteen different estates in England.
Sydney was the second of four brothers and one sister, all remarkable for their talents. Two of the brothers, Robert Percy, known as “Bobus”, and Cecil, were sent to Eton, but Sydney was sent with the youngest to Winchester, where he rose to be captain of the school. He and his brother so distinguished that their school-fellows signed a round-robin “refusing to try for the college prizes if the Smiths were allowed to contend for them any more”.
In 1789, he became a scholar of New College, Oxford; he received a fellowship after two years’ residence, took his degree in 1792 and obtained his M.A. in 1796. He planned to read for the bar, but his father disagreed, and he was reluctantly compelled to take holy orders. He was ordained at Oxford in 1796, and became curate of the village of Netheravon, near Amesbury, in Salisbury Plain. Sydney Smith did much for the inhabitants; providing the means for the rudiments of education, and thus making better things possible. The squire of the parish, Michael Hicks-Beach, invited the new curate to dine, was thrilled to find such a man there, and engaged him as tutor to his eldest son. It was arranged that they should go to the University of Weimar in Germany, but war prevented them, and “in stress of politics” said Smith, “we put into Edinburgh” in 1798. While his pupil attended lectures, Smith studied moral philosophy under Dugald Stewart, as well as medicine and chemistry. He also preached in the Episcopal chapel, attracting large audiences.
In 1800, he published his first book, Six Sermons, preached in Charlotte Street Chapel, Edinburgh, and in the same year, married, against the wishes of her friends, Catharine Amelia Pybus. They settled at 46 George Street, Edinburgh, where Smith made numerous friends, among them the future Edinburgh Reviewers. Towards the end of his five years’ residence in Edinburgh, in a house in Buccleuch Place, the elevated residence of the then Mr Jeffrey, that Smith proposed the setting up of a review. “I was appointed editor,” he says in the preface to the collection of his contributions, “and remained long enough in Edinburgh to edit the first number (October 1802) of the Edinburgh Review. The motto I proposed for the Review was Tenui musam meditamur avena.–’We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal.’ But this was too near the truth to be admitted, and so we took our present grave motto from Publius Syrus, of whom, none of us, I am sure, had ever read a single line.” He continued to write for the Review for the next quarter of a century, and his brilliant articles were a main element in its
Long after his death, his memory was to live on among homemakers in the United States, due to his rhyming recipe for salad dressing.
One quote of Sydney Smith’s can be viewed on the wall of the main hallway in the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas. The quote refers to Sydney’s love for tea and compliments the Museum’s tea set display nicely.