Plymouth History Heroes: Robert Borlase Smart

Robert Borlase Smart was born in Kingsbridge, Devon in 1881.

During his early life he attended Plymouth School of Art and Plymouth College of Art. From 1900-01 he attended the Royal College of Art, training as a teacher.

From 1903-1913 he lived in Plymouth and worked as an art critic for the Western Morning News.

In 1913 he moved to St Ives to study seascape painting under the Anglo-Swedish painter Julius Olsson, only for the First World War to temporarily interrupt his plans.

Robert Borlase Smart standing by his work 'Munitions'
Robert Borlase Smart (1881-1947)

At the outbreak of the War, Smart joined the Artist’s Rifles as a volunteer. In 1915 he was employed to make technical drawings for the Machine Gun Training Centre. Then, in July 1916, he saw active service and was stationed on the Somme.

It was a brief posting as he was recalled to Britain in the September to join the Machine Gun Corps. Despite this, the experience had a profound effect on him and he produced almost 40 war drawings – many of which featured scenes from his time in France. Some were purchased by the Imperial War Museum while others are in the collections here in Plymouth.

Smart’s short time at the front meant he had to work mostly from memory, sometimes aided by photographs. This did not diminish the quality of his work however. Like the examples shown in this post, his drawings are subtle yet powerful and clearly show the impact of the conflict.

Morning Hymn of Hate by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
‘The Morning Hymn of Hate’ by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
Grandmother prepares to distribute her cough lozenges by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
‘Grandmother Prepares to Distribute her Cough Lozenges’ by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)

In August 1917, Smart applied to become an Officer in the Indian Army. On his application he referred to himself as an artist, a specialist in instruction diagrams for Cavalry, Infantry and Machine Gun Training and a camouflage expert.

Given both his teaching and art qualifications, Smart found his niche as an instructor, particularly relating to camouflage, and he was very well-regarded. In fact, his application to the Indian Army was rejected because he could not be spared!

Lifelong friend, fellow WWI veteran and artist Leonard Fuller described him as someone who should be noted for his ‘boundless enthusiasm, his forthrightness and his helpfulness. These three things governed his life.’

Shell swept road north of Arras by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
A shell swept road north of Arras by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)

In autumn 1917, Smart married nineteen year old Irene Godson in Surrey. She was the sister of a friend who had been killed in action. They settled in St Ives. With the exception of 1926 when they lived in Salcombe, he remained there until his death from a heart attack in 1947. During his post-war years he immersed himself in the life of St Ives and contributed greatly to its artistic community.

Today he is usually described as a coastal artist but he also produced a series of highly accomplished industrial and architectural drawings. In addition, his works from the First World War endure as a first-hand record of an artist and soldier’s experience.

You can find out more about Borlase Smart’s life and work on his official website.

As part of our ‘Plymouth Remembers’ programme you can hear a talk by one of our curators about Borlase Smart on 8 November. Find out all the details here.

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