From curious collages to decorated jugs, Folk Art comes in many different forms. Here Littlehampton Museum Curator, Juliet Thomas, talks about a recent discovery in the collection of an artwork by renowned 19th century folk artist George Smart, The Tailor of Frant.
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We don’t know a huge amount about George Smart but we do know he was born in 1774 in Sussex and that he lived in Frant, a small village in East Sussex near Tunbridge Wells. He served as a soldier and later worked as a tailor, which was his primary occupation, in fact he was known as The Tailor of Frant. We also know he was married and had a daughter but other than he is quite mysterious. Despite his relative fame as a folk artist today, he died a pauper in 1846 and is buried in Frant.
People who are interested in folk art know of him, but it was in 2014 at the Tate Britain Folk Art exhibition that I really first became aware of him. They featured 21 of his works, which came from national and local collections, but we only discovered ours last year and if it weren’t for the exhibition I wouldn’t have necessarily realised what it was.
We were having our art store painted and repaired and, like most museums, we have a bit of a backlog where everything hasn’t been catalogued as thoroughly as you might like. So as we had to empty it we decided to catalogue the whole lot.
We found it in a box of unframed prints and quickly realised we had an artwork by someone quite famous. Everyone was familiar with the refrain “George Smart, Tailor of Frant”, but we didn’t make an instant connection with the Artist.
It depicts one of his most popular characters, which is Old Bright the Postman. He created these characters in this naïve style from local people as they passed his tailor’s shop window (they are always in profile) and then displayed and sold the finished works to tourists or passers-by. They were very popular in his day.
As well as Old Bright, other rural Sussex characters he depicted were an old soldier in a redcoat and a local character called ‘The Goosewoman’. They usually feature an animal of some kind. ‘Old Bright’ is always accompanied by a donkey, which is very charming.
They were made on black paper and put onto a board with a mixture of all kinds of materials. Ours is made from quite a few things – we call it a mixed media collage because the background is a painted scene of Frant – a lovely little a delicate watercolour with colours that are still quite vibrant. Over this he then built up the character. He would often date his works on a milestone in the background and ours has a clear date of 1827.
Old Bright has a leather satchel, a velvet coat with foil buttons, felt trousers and a wooden staff – he added glass eyes for both the postman and his donkey.
As well as the watercolour in the background he would paint in details of the figures as well, so in terms of conservation it was difficult to find a conservator to take it on because they usually specialise in one thing or another – whether it’s textiles, paper, wood or metal – but this artwork has them all.
Eventually we found Sussex based conservator Zenzie Tinker who repaired it sensitively, gave it a conservation clean and then reframed it in such a way so you can also see the poem on the back, which is really about George Smart as both Artist and the Tailor and how he sees the local postman walking everyday past his shop window.
It’s a kind of comical poem that tells the story of why he created the collage and presumably there were different poems for each of his characters because he details everything that is in the image.
I think these poems and the artworks were a way of advertising his work as a tailor; his characters have velvet coats, his soldier was very smartly attired, so It’s as if he’s saying “this is the work I create, isn’t it fun? Come to my shop.”
It’s all very light hearted but he is a businessman, obviously not a very good one, but he had a stab at it and for a while the artworks made him locally famous. People would come along on their way to Tunbridge Wells and pick these up as souvenirs. Thankfully a few of them have survived down the centuries.
Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery has got the largest collection, which is about seven I believe, but I do wonder how many other museums are in a similar situation to us and may have a single George Smart piece hiding in the collection. They might want to have a look and see what treasures they hide behind the scenes.
George Smart’s Old Bright the Postman can be seen in Littlehampton Museum’s Folk Art Exhibition, which runs until July 21 2017 and features other whimsical pieces from the Littlehampton Museum collection, alongside loaned items of Canal Ware and artefacts from a local Morris Dancing Side.
Juliet Thomas was talking to Richard Moss.
Littlehampton, West Sussex
Littlehampton Museum is in the heart of the town centre and offers a fascinating insight into the community’s social history through a variety of exciting galleries, many with audio points and interactive elements to help guide you through the history of the town. Admission and helpful advice is all FREE…