Smart’s Old Bright, the Postman

Remnant Rubens

A provincial folk artist offers an alternative view of Georgian society

On Art

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This year sees some big anniversaries, and some small. Amongst the big: Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, who died in 1574; the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who was born in 1774; and the National Gallery, which was founded in 1824. The small slip more easily beneath notice, but it would be remiss not to give a nod to a figure on the very fringes of the British art world: George Smart (1774–1846).

Smart, in a modest and parochial way, offers an alternative view of Georgian society to the grand narrative of Reynolds and Lawrence or the rural imaginings of Turner and Constable. He has more in common with the satirist Thomas Rowlandson but without the throng or the bawdiness. Smart was a quieter humorist.

His medium was neither paint nor pencil but offcuts of fabric left over from his trade as a tailor in the small village of Frant, two miles south of Tunbridge Wells on the road to the watering holes and resorts of the south coast. These snippets he turned into collages of local figures and picaresque scenes and sold them to passers-by.

He had very few subjects, perhaps just six, but made multiple versions of each. In 2014, at Tate Britain’s “British Folk Art”, 21 of his pictures were brought together and because he attached labels to the back of them we know who made them. Smart is therefore one of the few folk artists whose name survives.

Like so many of his class and station, very little is known about his life. What there is has been pieced together by two scholars, Jonathan Christie and Hector Medora.

Smart was not a man of the Weald but was probably born in Shoreditch, and it is unlikely he had any formal artistic training, although the watercolour backgrounds of some of his pictures show real skill. He was, however, a man of ingenuity who was certainly not lacking in self-confidence.

Smart styled himself “Artist in cloth and velvet figures to his Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex”. There is no evidence that the Duke, Augustus Frederick, George III’s ninth child, was aware of this lofty designation, but Smart was in the habit of stopping carriages as they passed his shop, conveniently located on a kink in the road, to press his pictures on the passengers. It is likely that the Duke was one of those who paid this local toll charge. Images of Frant in contemporary guidebooks show the royal coat of arms proudly displayed above the door to the tailor’s shop.

Smart’s cloth pictures of Old Bright, a Tunbridge Wells streetsweeper turned Frant postman; and the Goosewoman, an old woman, possibly Bright’s wife; of a hussar and a maid; and an earthstopper frightened by an apparition of the Devil, brought him a degree of renown. A newspaper in 1830 referred to “this eccentric and well-known character” who “cuts a very conspicuous figure, being dressed in an enormous broad-brimmed hat”.

Smart’s Goosewoman

As well as cloth pictures, Smart made felt-covered dummy boards — sometimes known as mantel or chimney boards — showing animals and birds. These were used to decorate inactive fireplaces in the summer months.

One visitor in 1820 likened Smart’s productions to “the contents of Noah’s Ark” where cloth animals “succeed each other in multitudinous succession”. Indeed, on one of his labels, Smart, referring to his boards, called himself a “cat manufacturer”.

In the self-penned verse of his labels, Smart also likened himself to both Rubens; and in his close observation of nature, to Aristotle. He declared himself “Professor of peculiar art” and issued a challenge to “ye quizzers, who laugh at Tailors and their Scissors”.

But there was more too to his droll vanity. “The Tailor of Frant” was also a natural scientist with a camera obscura and telescope in his garden, and an inventor, too. He dreamed up both a chimney sweeping machine to be operated by small children and, after enrolling in the Volunteer Infantry during the Napoleonic wars, an “infernal machine”.

This, recorded a New York journal, was “capable of destroying a thousand men a minute” and the operator “can remain in perfect safety in the centre, whilst he deals with death and destruction to all around him … and it can be moved with one horse, with the greatest facility, at the rate of eight miles an hour”. A model was shown to the Duke of Richmond but, alas, it was never put into production, so the fight against Bonaparte dragged on.

Fortune never did find Smart. He died in a workhouse in Ticehurst in 1846 and was given a pauper’s burial. The charm of his pictures, however, has not faded. Their inventiveness, the freshness of the unschooled observation, the effectiveness of his silhouettes, the mixture of naivety and skill give them the tang of authentic life. Old Bright and the Goosewoman are every bit as real as the grandee portraits by Royal Academicians.

For many years three of Smart’s pictures hung in the village hall in Frant. In 2015, however, in the wake of the Tate exhibition, they were stolen and have not been recovered. Smart, “singular, eccentric, but good-humoured”, according to a contemporary, might well have been tickled by the escapade and added another subject to his roster, The Thief in the Night.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover