Smyth, Edward (1749–1812), sculptor, was born in Co. Meath, the son of a stonecutter who moved to Dublin in 1750. He was educated at the Dublin Society schools, before being apprenticed to Simon Vierpyl (qv) at Bachelor's Walk, whom he probably assisted on the decorative statuary of the Royal Exchange (latterly, Dublin City Hall). In 1772 at the Society of Artists in Ireland he exhibited a full-length statue model of the patriot politician Charles Lucas (qv), which won a competition held by Dublin merchants; though the completed marble, placed in the Royal Exchange in 1779, showed considerable promise, Smyth failed for some years to receive any important commissions.
In 1781 he was recommended by building contractor and mason Henry Darley – for whom he was working on mantelpieces and decorative plastering – as an architectural sculptor to James Gandon (qv), who engaged him to execute most of the exterior statuary and interior stucco on the Custom House (1781–91). Smyth sculpted the four renditions of the arms of the kingdom of Ireland atop the building's corner pavilions, each including a harp within an oval shield, topped with a crown and flanked by the royal lion and unicorn; vigorously carved, the works are masterpieces of dramatic skyline sculpture. He executed the large female figure of Commerce, accoutred with tiller and anchor, surmounting the dome, and two of the four statues – those of Industry and Plenty – lining the attic storey of the main (south) façade; along with most of his interior work, these were damaged in the fire of 1921. For the tympanum of the south pediment he carved a relief designed by the London-based Italian sculptor Agostino Carlini, representing the friendly alliance of Hibernia and Britannia, with Neptune driving away figures of famine and despair. The first historiated pediment in Dublin, the allegorical scene, in common with the building's entire sculptural programme, expressed the aspirations of the protestant patriot position: a free, unencumbered maritime trade by a sovereign, independent Irish polity in alliance with Britain. Smyth's greatest achievement was the riverine heads, a series of fourteen keystones positioned on ground-floor window and portal arches of the Custom House, symbolising, as avenues of trade, the thirteen principal rivers of Ireland, and the Atlantic ocean; the idea derived from similar arch keystones on Somerset House, London. Completed in Portland stone in 1784, the sculptured heads each represented, in characterisation and ornamental detail, the economic and historic significance of the river and its basin. The only female head, representing the Liffey, was placed over the central doorway of the south façade, facing the river it signified. A set of wax models of the heads is in Dublin's civic museum. In 1928 the currency commission designed new Irish bank notes using Smyth's riverine heads as centre-pieces.
Smyth continued to collaborate with Gandon on each of his major Dublin commissions. Little survives of his extensive work on the Four Courts (1786–96): on the south façade, the three standing figures above the pediment (including Moses bearing the tablets of the law) and two seated figures at the corners of the central block; the trophies over the gates of the arcaded screen walls of the quadrangles; and the stucco panel in the front vestibule. His stucco decoration of the great central hall included eight colossal allegorical figures on consoles between the windows of the dome; medallions over the windows portraying eight of the world's great legislators; and four bas-relief panels over the entrances to the courts depicting scenes in the legal history of Britain and Ireland; all was destroyed in the explosion during the building's siege in 1922 at the outset of the civil war. Smyth executed the oxhead frieze beneath the roof of the Rotunda in Rutland Sq. (latterly, Parnell Sq.) during Gandon's renovation of the building (1786). For Gandon's eastern extension of Parliament House he sculpted (1787) three finely proportioned goddess figures of Wisdom, Justice, and Liberty, placed atop the new House of Lords portico. The Liberty bore a spear in her left hand, surmounted by the Phrygian cap worn by emancipated slaves of ancient Rome; as the device became a symbol of the United Irishmen, after the union the statue was removed from the building (early 1800s), but was replaced in a 1946 restoration. Smyth carved two keystone heads (akin to those on the Custom House) for the central arch of Gandon's Carlisle bridge (1791–5), one symbolising Anna Liffey and facing westwards upriver, the other the Atlantic ocean facing eastwards toward the sea. Replaced by reproductions on the new O'Connell bridge (1880), Smyth's originals decorate a brick building at 30–32 Sir John Rogerson's Quay. Smyth last worked with Gandon on the King's Inns (begun in 1795), sculpting (post-union) the royal arms of George III above the Henrietta St. gate, and the caryatides at the garden-front entrances to the two wings: female figures of Ceres and a bacchante flanking the portal to the benchers’ dining hall (in the interior of which he executed stucco decoration), and male figures of Security and Law flanking that to the prerogative court (latterly, the registry of deeds). Less successful are his three bas-relief plaques on the garden elevation.
Outside Dublin, Smyth's work includes two riverine heads, symbolising the Foyle and the Boyne, for the triumphal arch at Bishop's Gate, Derry (1789). He carved a beautiful life-size crucifixion in lime wood for the catholic chapel in Navan, Co. Meath (1792) (leading some critics to presume Navan as his birthplace); his only known religious commission, the piece was latterly on the high altar of St Mary's church in the town. Employed by the Dublin Society in 1796 to repair the statues and busts belonging to their drawing schools, he was commissioned (1798/9) by the society to execute the figure of Hibernia placed over the entrance of their new premises on Hawkins St.; the statue accompanied the society to Leinster House (where it surmounted first the main gate (1818–86), and secondly the portal of the new lecture theatre (1886–1928) (latterly the chamber of Dáil Éireann)), and finally to Ballsbridge, where it now occupies a prominent niche on the Anglesea stand. In the last decade of his career Smyth worked on several buildings designed by Francis Johnston (qv). He carved keystone heads representing Faith, Hope, and Charity under the portico of St George's Church, Hardwicke Place (1802). His statue of the eponymous saint for the entrance portico of St Andrew's church, Suffolk St., restored by Johnston (c.1803–4), was damaged by fire in 1860, and removed to the churchyard. Assisted by his eldest son, the sculptor John Smyth (qv), he executed exterior sculpture and interior stucco for Johnston's chapel royal, Dublin Castle, begun in 1807; most noteworthy are the heads and busts, over 100 in number, in blue Tullamore limestone, on the window labels, entrances, and buttress pinnacles, depicting notable ecclesiastics and English monarchs. Commissioned by Johnston, Smyth returned to the former Parliament House, latterly the Bank of Ireland, and with his son executed three stately neo-classical statues to crown the main, south portico, representing Hibernia, Fidelity, and Commerce (1809–10).
Smyth's portraiture, while secondary to his architectural sculpture, was notable for its dynamism and reluctance to glamourise the subject. Best known, after the Lucas statue, are his statue (1788) of the lord lieutenant John Hobart (qv), 2nd earl of Buckinghamshire, latterly in St Patrick's cathedral, and his bust of George III, executed jointly with his son (1809), in the NGI. A director from 1800 of the Dublin Society's living academy, he was appointed the first master of modelling and sculpture in the society's schools (1811–12), succeeded on his death by his son John Smyth. A member of the Society of Artists of the City of Dublin (1810–12), shortly before his death he was elected a vice-president. Acclaimed as the ‘Phidias of Ireland’, Smyth was among the most talented architectural sculptors of eighteenth-century Europe, possessing an innate understanding of the relationship between decorative sculpture and architecture, and a sensitive feeling for detail and finish. Never travelling outside of Ireland, he thus avoided the fashionable neo-classical bias toward ideal form and solemnity, and freely indulged an innovative and uniquely personal flair for baroque expressiveness and zest. Mild-mannered, unpretentious, and benevolent in temper, he was known for an improvident conviviality. He died 2 August 1812 at 36 Montgomery St., Dublin, and was buried in St Thomas's churchyard; his remains were removed to Mt. Jerome cemetery in 1925.