Appreciation, as with any journey, starts with a single step; with one conscious step, taken freely.
Old Man and Donkey by George Smart. Collage on paper, 1833. © Compton Verney, photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
But appreciation is also born of our receptiveness; of our conscious or subconscious opening-up to the unfamiliar, to the beguiling, to the perplexing. It’s an aesthetic surrender to the tantalising possibilities of the unexpected; a hesitant or headlong immersion in the imagination of another. This new experience can be a revelation, a realisation of a shared vision, or an initiation into an alternative way of seeing.
Seeing, and telling, are actions fundamental to the Folk Art in Compton Verney, home to one of the outstanding Folk Art collections in Britain. These artists and crafts-people see primarily with a brother’s eye, with a sister’s understanding. They tell their stories of everyday life in a seemingly simple vocabulary, one readily accessible to us – we, the uninitiated, the receptive, the artistically immature. They don’t paint with a painter’s eye, or draw by the draughtsman’s convention. They depict the world around them, unencumbered by any debt to artistic principle or taste. Free from the shackles of accepted subject-matter or medium, they reveal an insight into real life and personal experience.
To me, Folk Art is raw, humanistic, and unpretentious. It may seem naive at first glance; but it’s wise too, touched with subtlety and nuance. It is a profoundly personal art, suffused with dignity and honesty. Above all it is an art, for all its apparent idiosyncrasies, with a deeply unerring eye.
It can also be an art of deep conviction, its practitioners prone occasionally to overweening pride and not a little self-belief. What do I mean? Come with me; let’s take a walk with George Smart for a while.
George Smart (c1775-1846), in his own words “Cat manufacturer” and “Artist in cloth and velvet figures” was a tailor in the East-Sussex village of Frant. Something of a local celebrity, references to him appear in various contemporary guidebooks from the early 1820s onwards. Contemporary prints show Smart’s house in the village, with a tantalising array of cloth figures displayed on the wall; Smart himself can be seen standing in the road, tempting the occupants of passing carriages with his wares.
Not one prone to self deprecation, Smart clearly had high regard for his talents, and lays them bare for all to see in a curious piece of self-promoting doggerel on a label occasionally found attached to the back of his pictures.
At Frant there dwells a Man of fame;
By trade a Tailor, SMART by name;
Whose studies gave me great delight,
For life resembled caught my sight.
There I beheld the Postman’s face,
His walking stick and letter case;
With Ass in hand, (to where he dwells,)
As he returns to TUNBRIDGE-WELLS.
A milestone also was in sight,
Which gave the work a natural light;
He bore a Letter in his hand,
Perhaps some favourable demand,
The same address’s to Mr Smart,
Professor of peculiar art,
Whose works appear by no means faint-
Sure Ruben’s there with brush and paint;
Or Aristotle is come back,
Who nature sought without respect.
There dogs and cats like life are seen,
The feather’d tribe of red and green.
He makes Old Maids of tempers mild,
And such as never have beguil’d;
They’re just like life, except the tongue,
From whence man’s great disquiet sprung:
Of Cloth and Velvet they’re prepar’d,
Appear as tho’ by nature rear’d.
His Camera Obscura too,
And Microscope to take the view
Of scenes, which gratify the mind;
And you may purchase if inclin’d.
The Postman he refers to (and depicted here in the Compton Verney picture) is Old Bright, a familiar sight at the time, often to be seen trudging the road between Tunbridge Wells and Frant, “in his black greatcoat and low crowned hat, satchel across his shoulder and leading his ass.”
As we look at his beguiling picture, we can forgive the man his genial self-comparison with Rubens and Aristotle, for despite its innocent appeal, there’s merit in his subtle rendering of sky, and trees and shadow. And if Aristotle was the father of Natural History, then there’s something of his understanding in Smart’s benign depiction of the ass’ face.
Maybe we can forgive him too for the oblique reference to the Old Maid’s tongue. By all accounts he was a genial and good humoured man; there’s no misogyny here.
The reference to his use of a microscope to take the view, though seemingly perverse (subsequent versions were corrected to telescope), reveals nonetheless a deeper insight into his work. His meticulous eye sees and depicts the minutiae of Frant life; be it the letter clutched in Old Bright’s hand, the inscribed milestone, or the gently rising smoke from the chimney pots. All is observed in microscopic detail, and served to us through the unerring lens of his imagination.
And if we look closely we can see, in the garden to the right of his house, the pitched roof and blue painted walls of his camera obscura, proudly labelled; no doubt a most curious sight for the time.
In Clifford’s Descriptive Guide of Tunbridge Wells of 1823, the writer tells us “The company from the Wells, in their rides through Frant, are agreeably attracted on entering the village by the nouvelle Exhibition of a tailor, who, out of cloth of divers colours, delineates animals and birds of various description, with a variety of grotesque characters, particularly old Bright, the Postman, many years sweeper of Tunbridge Wells’ Walks, which is considered a good likeness. He has many visitors to inspect this singular collection, who seldom leave his house without becoming purchasers.”
George Smart’s portrait of Old Bright never fails to capture my imagination when I visit Compton Verney, but no more so than the many other vivid depictions of Georgian and Victorian life that keep it company. All around, the many and fascinating functional objects on display exert a similar appeal, evoke a tangible sense of familiarity, or confound our imaginations. What was that used for? Didn’t my grandparents have one of those?
I return here often, and I’m glad to see many others do too; young and old. I’ve come to feel I know something of these artists and crafts-people. As I stroll through the Folk Art galleries at Compton Verney and look at their work I feel refreshingly liberated from the bonds of artistic merit and status, from the academic strictures of accepted style and convention. I feel a strange filial bond. I feel brother and sister standing before me; sharing their vision and experience; trusting me to read through their eyes. I travel with them, I share their conversations; significantly, I feel at home.
You can see the forthcoming exhibition dedicated to Folk Art at Compton Verney from 27th September to 14th December 2014.
For more information on Compton Verney’s glorious collections check out their website here: Compton Verney
I am indebted to Lucy West, Morgan Jones and Sam Skillings at Compton Verney for their valuable assistance during the writing of this piece.
Clifford’s Descriptive Guide of Tunbridge Wells. Tunbridge Wells, 1823.
Professor of Peculiar Art: A brief account of George Smart, Tailor of Frant. Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. No Date.