The British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain was ‘the first major historical exhibition of British folk art at a national art museum’ and encompassed work from the 17th to the mid-20th century. As the exhibition was at pains to point out Folk Art could include an extremely diverse range of objects and this exhibition can only hope to highlight a narrow range of themes because, as the booklet mentions, Folk Art is an ‘elusive, contradictory and contested term’.
The first thing we are confronted by is a wall of shop signs, ranging from gigantic shoes to tobacco rolls made from a range of materials. It was interesting to note that the reason for the decline of visual shop signs was related to the increase in literacy of the general population and the availability of plate glass for shop windows.
There was a decent range of paintings of various types including what we would now call mixed-media. I was particularly impressed by the ‘wool-work’, often carried out by sailors in their spare time. Essentially they are stitched pictures, but not the small stitches of tapestry, they usually incorporated longer lines of thread which build up to form the scene.
Of the all the images on display the one I found most amusing was the painting The Four Alls (c.1850) by DJ Williams. It is unusual to know the name of specific folk artists as most were untutored and usually ignored by the art establishment (except for the few who became collectable and well known in their life-time, such as George Smart and his Goose Woman pictures). DJ Williams was not one of the ‘known’ artists but a painter of signs – The Four Alls is a tavern signboard from Pant, Caerhun, near Bangor, Wales – and I love it, because it’s as truthful today as it was the day it was painted (as can be seen below).
There were a few examples of work by Alfred Wallis who was one of the rare folk artist who were lauded by the art establishment during his lifetime and is still collectable; but I found his work a little contrived or forced. He may well have begun painting in this style but I felt that, probably due to his popularity, he had to maintain that particular form of the naive and to me the pictures on display looked laboured.
I found the most impressive pieces were probably two quilts and a cockerel made of pieces of bone.
One quilt was made by a couple (Herbert Bellamy and Charoltte Alice Springall of Great Yarmouth) in their engagement year (1890-91) and is a lovely record of many aspects of their shared life and interests.
The other quilt was made over a decade by a tailor, James William, in his spare time and features a diverse range of items including Noah’s Ark, a Giraffe, and a steam train crossing the Cefn Railway Viaduct. It was one of the few items that was exhibited a number of times and at least once in Williams life time (1876 at the Wrexham Art Treasures Exhibition) and was also exhibited by his grandson at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London.
The cockerel was quite magnificent and made by a prisoner of the Napoleonic Wars, incarcerated in the Norman Cross Depot near Peterborough. The prisoners would not have been allowed tools or knives so they must have improvised tools – apparently small shard of broken glass have been found at the site of the prison amongst other small carved bone items.
The room full of ships’ figureheads was for me a bit of a waste of a room – one or two would have been enough, or maybe because I grew up near an historic naval town they did not hold the same level of interest.
The most perplexing items on display were the ‘God-in-a-bottle’ – strange, intricately carved wooden objects (often ladders, crosses or fans) contained in glass jars full of water. Their true meaning has been lost, but it is believed that they acted as a collective charm to protect a household or group of workers.
This bizarre, ritualistic element of the exhibition was a welcome twist on the generally wholesome theme of the exhibition and lead nicely into the film I had planned to watch that evening: The Wicker Man – what else!
Overall it was an excellent exhibition and about time! This was the art of real people, the vast majority who lived on and worked the land – a million miles from the Turners and Constables of the era, and possibly more relevant to our understanding of the past.
My one complaint was that it should have been much bigger (at £14.50 entry fee it really should have been!) – I would have liked to have seen more items and explored some of the more ‘elusive’ and ‘contradictory’ aspects of the lives of our agrarian and seafaring ancestors.
The exhibition at Tate Britain has ended (10 June – 31 August 2014), but it has transferred to the Compton Verney, Warwickshire and will be on between the 27th September to 14th December 2014.