As a child I loved fairy tales and stories from local folklore, as an adult my interest has developed further into what is termed “Folk Art”. It’s a strange term which cover almost anything made from about the middle of the 17th century to the mid 20th century which seems to relate to everyday people – that is to say, not necessarily actual Artists; although some of the items may well have been made by professional craftsmen. Items that fall into the Folk Art category include trade signs, quilts and embroideries, paintings and carved wooden pieces such as ship figureheads. Folk Art is not a term which has previously been in general use in relation to British art history, yet these objects can be seen as an expression of collective identity and of artistic interest and merit. So I was quite excited to see that Tate Britain were hosting an exhibition of British Folk Art this summer.
Exhibition booklet cover Folk Art at Tate Britain
The exhibition curators state in their exhibition guide that they are not attempting to set a narrative or definition for folk art, but instead they have collected the objects together to “offer a series of encounters with different sorts of objects that already have a history as folk art.” The objects are arranged in such a way to suggest connections such as the sea, the town, the countryside or perhaps it is the presence of text which binds them together.
The first room shows a wall of items which were originally shop or trade signs, due to low levels of literacy and no standardised street numbering systems, traders would advertise their premises using symbols which were universally recognised – a barber used the sign of a bear because bear grease was used as a pomade for the hair, the pawnbrokers 3 golden balls are based on the family crest of the Medici family and oversized boots or shoes from a cobbler. From the late 17th century as literacy became more wide-spread and the introduction of plate glass for shop windows, the need for these over sized signs diminished, and they reinvented themselves as objects of curiosity or ‘popular antiquities’.
Painted signs for shops and inns are rich sources as records for social history, many show an artists interest in story telling and the imagery is often accompanied by text.
Postcard showing The Four Alls by D J Williams c1850 (oil on wood panel)
George Smart (c1775-1845) was a tailor working in the village of Frant nearby to Tonbridge Wells in Kent, and the fashionable people of the day would make visits to ‘Smarts Repository’ to see his fabric and paper collages of local people going about their everyday business.
Postcard of the Goosewoman by George Smart c1840 (paper and fabric collage)
One of the things that struck me about this exhibition was the large number of textile pieces on display, and that many of these had been created by men. There is a particularly stunning quilt made by one James Williams of Wrexham which features motifs from the bible alongside those of Victorian engineering. What makes it even more remarkable is that each of the 4500 pieces which make up the design is hand stitched and that the whole took a decade to complete!
Another room draws together items made from natural materials, and have the appearance of ‘ethnographic’ art, yet it seems that the actual history and purpose of these objects is unclear, some being created deliberately to look older than they really are.
Postcard of a Bone Cockerel by an unknown maker c 1797-1814 (bone and wood)
The most striking room was definitely the one containing ship figureheads and other carved wooden ornaments which were used as trade signs. The centrepiece is the giant figurehead from HMS Calcutta which stands 15 feet tall and which has recently been restored by Devon sculptor Rod Hare. It is a truly impressive piece!
I think the most interesting pieces (for me anyway) were the ‘needle paintings’ by a once famous female artist, Mary Linwood (1755-1845). Linwood recreated well-known paintings of the day by artists such as Rembrandt and Landseer in stitch. These works gained her critical acclaim at the time, but as has so often been the case in the Canon of Art History, this type of work, by a woman, has been treated simply as a curiosity and novelty. Indeed it is interesting to note that many textile artists today use similar methods in their work, some even suggesting that they have discovered the technique themselves!
All in all I found this a captivating exhibition and one that I recommend to anyone interested in Social History, Folk Art and traditional crafts.
It is interesting to note that just outside the entry to the Folk Art exhibition is the Duveen Gallery which currently plays host to a massive installation by Phyllida Barlow. To describe it as large-scale is an understatement, it is gigantic! In two parts it is made from everyday materials such as cardboard, fabric, timber, polystyrene, plaster, scrim and cement, and is a response to the gallery, the collections and the river beyond its walls. This distinctive work is focused on her experimentation with these materials, to create bold and colourful three-dimensional collages; Barlow’s tactile and seemingly unstable sculptures often contrast with the permanence and traditions of monumental sculpture. I can’t honestly say that it is to my taste, and in fact it rather reminded me of an enormous pile of scrap waiting to be burned. Still, I do sort of understand it and I am equally sure that there will be many others who will be completely enraptured by it. I suppose it could be termed a sort of contemporary folk art…?
3 views of Dock 2014 by Phyllida Barlow in the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain