George Smart may not be a name you’ve heard before. George was an artist, self-taught, who created his artworks to sell to tourists in the early 19th century. His work is what you would describe as typical British Folk art, as George was untrained, and went on to develop a unique style of mixed-media collage. In the last few years, George Smart has been recognised as an important figure in the history of British Folk art. In 2014, Tate Britain included his work in an exhibition entitled ‘British Folk Art’.
Working in Frant, East Sussex, George was a tailor by trade and he used scraps of used material in his work. Many of his quirky collages are of cartoon-like characters with animal companions. It is reported that they are based on people George saw day-to-day in his local village, many appearing in profile giving the impression that they are just passing by.
Littlehampton Museum are fortunate enough to have a rare George Smart piece in the art collection. Smart’s work rarely survives, due to its fragile nature, but in 2016 the Museum Curator rediscovered the work as part of a wider cataloguing project and realised it was something special. The piece is called ‘Old Bright, the Postman’, and dates from 1827. It features a charming image of a postman and his donkey. The collage is made from a range of different materials such as leather for the satchel, velvet for the coat, foil for the buttons, glass beads for the eyes and paper for the body. In contrast, the background is painted in a with delicate watercolours, with further painted details added to the figures.
Old Bright and his donkey look similar to caricatures, this is partly because George was not a trained artist and his style was more naïve. It is also because they were designed to be charming souvenirs for tourists. There are a few copies of this particular collage that have survived, all of them slightly different, and this tells us that it was a favourite of his and that the piece may have been popular with his customers.
‘Old Bright, the Postman’ also has some intriguing information hidden within the collage. See the milestone next to the donkey? George often put these in his artwork, each one with a different date. This one says “1827”, the year it was made. The letter in Old Bright’s hand is also addressed to the artist himself. Finally, the most interesting detail is found on the back:
This is a poem written by George about himself and ‘Old Bright’. It is a comical poem, weaving a tale about the artist who made this collage. This was a way that George helped to establish himself as an artist. In the poem, he describes himself as a:
“Professor of – peculiar art;
Whose works appear by no means faint”
George understood that his unique style of folk art was unusual, and that it was this that made him very popular. He deliberately created bold and eye-catching images, “by no means faint”, because that is exactly what he did best. You certainly get a feeling from this amusing poem that George celebrated his popularity, and was very grateful for it.
‘Old Bright, the postman’ will feature in our Folk Art exhibition from Wednesday 7th June to Friday 21st July.