Fragments of a Patchwork Life | 451life

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Fragments of a Patchwork Life

by Jonathan Christie

I first encountered George Smart’s pictures when I was a student at Maidstone College of Art over 25 years ago. I was researching folk art in the library and came across a few thumbnails of his work in a book by James Ayres. Despite being poorly printed, they jumped off the page at me and lodged themselves in my mind.

Years later (by pure co-incidence) I moved to Frant, the village in East Sussex where Smart had lived and worked as a tailor in the first half of the nineteenth century. I discovered that the village hall had three pictures by him hanging on the wall. I’d see them every time I went to a jumble sale or pantomime and their unassuming charm always brought a smile to my face.

Smart's two main characters are Old Bright, The Postman and The Goosewoman. Both were real people, not invented by Smart, but locals he would have seen passing his shop window everyday. The villagers and tourists would also have seen them - maybe this is why they became his most popular pictures. They have a strong prescient graphic quality, reminiscent of a pub sign in their bold beauty, and their cut-out coats form such a striking, flat shape against Smart's delicate watercolour backgrounds. There is something for everyone here: paint, collage, humour and real life, right down to the glint in their glass bead eyes.

I always wondered why he was so under-represented in books and galleries. I glimpsed a couple in the British Folk Art Collection when it resided in Bath (now at Compton Verney), but Smart seemed hidden in the shadows. This formed part of a more general question in my mind concerning artists that were difficult to pin down in any quantity. Why was there no book on Christopher Wood’s paintings and drawings; or Samuel Palmer’s early work; or the complete works of Eric Ravilious? For me, George Smart was part of this puzzle and although some of these artists subsequently appeared in print, George Smart remained relatively obscure.

I have to stress that this wasn’t a constant concern, it just bubbled up every so often. When Tate Britain held its British Folk Art exhibition in the summer of 2014, my curiosity re-surfaced once again. Suddenly, from nowhere, twenty-one pieces by Smart were in the Tate Gallery… from the shadows of obscurity to the spotlight of one of the world’s most prestigious galleries. I began to think about writing a small book myself as surely now there would be interest in this artist. I was used to designing books, so why not finally write one myself?

My project began modestly. I thought that maybe I’d uncover a few more artworks than the Tate had managed to find (they only reproduced five in their catalogue) and scribble a few words to accompany them. I bought the slim black-and-white pamphlet on Smart produced by the Tunbridge Wells Museum in 1987. This seemed like something I could improve upon. Maybe my book could be in colour, and just sold locally.

Then I started to discover the artworks. Digging deeper than a superficial search, I came across scores of pictures, mostly in private collections. I got the opportunity to photograph some of these pictures and learnt the skill of shooting art under glass. I managed to get the lens right up close to the surface where Smart’s delicate watercolour washes and textured collaging was revealed. This was something much richer than I had previously imagined and I decided I needed to look for a publisher.

In the end, I found over seventy artworks (along with numerous other images) that really started to tell the tale of this tailor. Much of Smart’s life is a black hole of information. Where was he born? Did he go to school or take an apprenticeship? Why did he move to Frant? What did the clothes he made look like? How much did he sell his pictures for? Why did he die a pauper? These questions still remain partly unanswered, but I feel his pictures and labels tell us so much about who George Smart really was. They are full of humour and detail. His labels are witty and incisive. We may not have a painted portrait of Mr. Smart, but I feel his skill and character are finally revealed to a wider audience.

George Smart The Tailor of Frant: Artist in Cloth and Velvet Figures by Jonathan Christie is published by Unicorn Publishing Group.