British Folk Art

British Folk Art  – Tate Britain – 10 June-31 August 2014

There is a wide range of artefacts, covering a period of over three hundred years (from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries) displayed in this exhibition. From a gigantic figure of King Alfred made out of thatch, towering colourful figureheads for ships and massive trade signs made to be hung outside shops to advertise their wares, such as a padlock for the locksmith and a giant boot for the cobbler. To the smaller scale, more domestic pieces such as coverlets, paintings and pincushions.

As expected the majority of the creators of these items remain anonymous, but what was surprising was the number of named artists in the exhibition. Along one wall a cluster of detailed map samplers are displayed near a group of paintings by the Cornish self taught artist Alfred Wallace (1855-1942).

A series of paintings depicting country life have the hallmarks of naive painting, skewed perspective (fencing drawn flat on the ground) and difficulty in maintaining a sense of scale.

One of the most curious objects is a remarkably  lifelike and intricate sculpture of a cockerel, made out of mutton bones. The use of left overs, whether scraps of material or inedible remnants from meals as this was, could almost be a leitmotif of the exhibition. The piece was made by a French prisoner of war during the Napoleonic wars. Evidently the prisoners were allowed to use their time doing craft work and the resulting items could be bartered with, or sold to, people in the local community.

Patchwork and quilting are well represented in the exhibition and include ‘The Tailors Coverlet’ made over the ten years 1842-1852 by James Williams and the colourful quilt made out of the felt wool of military uniforms by convalescing soldiers from the Crimean War.

There are several examples of Mary Linwood’s (1755-1845) needlework copies of famous paintings by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough.

Collages by George Smart (c1755-1845), a Kent tailor who made three dimensional pictures out of left over fabric depict local characters such as‘Old Bright’ the postman.
[This is best viewed in the larger image mode, as this gives a better idea of the 3D aspect of the picture]

The exhibits come from museums across the country and this fact exemplifies the difficulty with this type of art; in this country folk, naive, or popular art hasn’t been considered ‘true’ art. It has been seen as belonging in museums – not art galleries. Happily this dilemma is now being addressed, as this is the first major historical exhibition of British folk art at a national art museum and the exhibition will move to Compton Verney Art Gallery where it will be on show 27 September to 14 December 2014.

Significantly, the Warwickshire art gallery holds the largest collection of British folk art in the country. Indeed many of the pieces in the exhibition come from Compton Verney, as does the sign for the Swann Inn, the image at the head of this post. So it is particularly fitting that the gallery will host the exhibition later in the year. So if you live in Warwickshire do take this opportunity to see it.