Biography, Sam Smith 1908-1983

Sam was born, Alan Verner Smith in Southampton, 1908. He was the son of a steam ship captain and spent much of his childhood on and around boats and in amongst the bustle of the seaside town. He often told of his fascination with the liners that came into the harbour with their awesome funnels, the noise and decoration of the trams, the troops on leave, the elaborate displays in shop windows, the vans driving past full of props and scenery for the local productions at the theatre and the visiting fair. The illusions of the theatre, such as dressing up and scenery for make-believe became an intense interest, whether in the theatre or the cinema.

Sam’s impressions of these early years were to have a lasting influence on his life’s work. By the time Sam was ten years old his interest in observing people was fully developed as well as his obvious artistic gift.

Sam went to boarding school in Jersey and on to Bournemouth School of Art, followed by the Westminster School of Art in London. Following Sam’s years at Art School, he had early ambitions to be a painter, an admirer of the works of Ronald Searle, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravillious, Christopher Wood and Paul Nash. When he was seventeen one of his pictures was accepted into a show at the Royal Academy, but only this once.

Finding it hard to make a living as a painter, Sam took on other work, and by 1935 he had become an odd-job man and gallery assistant for Muriel Rose who ran the Little Gallery in London. He began making small wooden objects for her and soon began making little toys for sale as gallery gifts. At this time he also did graphic design work, designing advertisements, greeting cards, cartoons, illustrations for books and as well as, for example, designing a catalogue for Fortnum’s & Masons.

When the War started, Sam’s craft work was interrupted and he was sent to work at GTC Redbridge Bailey Bridge Company drawing offices, at Christchurch, Hampshire, where he drew bridges for their engineers. Even here he used his comic and artistic skills to produce spoof company publications and performances. This experience also taught Sam technical drawing methods which he used in his own working drawings for the rest of his life, once he returned to making wooden objects after the war came to an end.

From 1935 Sam exhibited his work at The Little Gallery, and after meeting Henry Rosthchild in 1945 he started having shows at Primavera, London and later at The Portal Gallery, London. As Sam’s work proved popular he expanded his production, and began supplying toys to department stores, other shops and for private sales. After 1955 Sam widened his circle of outlets to include The Arnolfini, Bristol, Design Research, New York and Massachusetts, USA and The Chair House in San Francisco, USA. In the States in particular his work was extremely well received. In fact at this time he gained far greater success and popularity and an almost cult following in the States than he did in his home country. In fact it was reported that ‘visitors from Seattle landing at Heathrow asked to be show Buckingham Palace and the home of Sam Smith’!

Building on the successes of his exhibitions in London and his popularity in the States, Sam was encouraged to develop his ideas and expand his work into more elaborate and ambitious pieces. Over the years Sam had attracted a number of dedicated supporters and promoters of his work within the Craft movement and in 1972 Sam had his first major retrospective exhibition at the Bristol City Art Gallery (traveling on to Camden Arts Centre, London and Beaford Arts Centre, Devon). This show was very successful and marked a turning point where Sam at last gained the recognition within his own country that he had already achieved in the U.S.

This exhibition was followed by other shows including, Rochdale Art Gallery (1978) and Caerphilly Castle (1979), as well as contributing to a wealth of other shows around the country and in the States, Canada and Europe. In 1976 an award-winning BBC Arena film was made about Sam and his work, and in 1980-81 Sam had a major exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery, London. Unfortunately this show coincided with Sam falling ill and he died in 1983.

Since his death Sam’s work has continued to be shown, contributing to a variety of exhibitions, and one-man shows including Plymouth Arts Centre in 1984, and Southampton City Art Museum in 1986. Sam’s work is also represented in many public collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Welsh Arts Council, the Crafts Council, the Arts Council of Great Britain, Southampton City Art Gallery, Plymouth Art Centre, Bristol City Art Gallery, and Rochdale Art Gallery, reflecting the significance of his work and where it continues to intrigue and delight those who see it.