After visiting the Kenneth Clark exhibition, I went along to the British Folk Art museum, also at Tate Britain. This exhibition comprises collections from across Britain which have been described as folk art, a term generally used in connection to social history or folklore studies. It is the first major exhibition of its kind in the country, and covers work from the seventeenth century to the middle of the 20th, which is when folk art supposedly began to become more commodified.
The first section of the exhibition consisted of a selection of painted, carved or constructed signs outside buildings which were used to denote the kind of business and as an early form of advertising. Some of these signs are obvious, such as a boot or a shoe to denote a cobbler, and a padlock or key for a locksmith. Others are less so: a bear was often used outside a barber’s (as bear grease was commonly used on the hair), and the three golden balls outside a pawn shop represent the family crest of the Medicis, wealthy Italian bankers. The detail and craftsmanship evident on some of these signs is incredible.
In early 19th century Frant, a village near Tunbridge Wells, a tailor named George Smart created and sold pictures made from textile scraps, which he then sold to tourists. “Smart’s Repository” produced some amazing pictures of fascinating village figures, including the policeman and an old woman in a red coat. Many folk artists painted pictures relating to rural life and landscapes, including images of the sea and sky. One notable such artist was Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), a rag and bone merchant and self-taught painter from St Ives, who created paintings based on his early career at sea.
Some folk arts were classed as crafts, including the mysterious “god in a bottle” sculptures (wood and liquid in glass bottles), straw crafts and leatherwork. Some were carved figures, such as the Highlander which was kept outside a tobacconists, and ship figureheads such as the huge HMS Calcutta, made in Mumbai 1831 of Indian hardwood.
I was hugely fascinated by the work of Mary Linwood (1755-1845), a woman who imitated the Old Masters and British artists to recreate their work in needlepoint. Her fantastically detailed works showed an incredible amount of talent, yet how to categorise an artist who, while incredibly able, does not create original works?
Towards the end of the exhibition there were displayed assorted sculptures, artefacts and textiles, from places such as Beamish Museum in County Durham. These reveal the wide-ranging skills and talents of folk art practitioners. At the end, archival photographs displayed some other examples of folk art, including one man who transformed his back garden into a wonderland, and the chapel built in Orkney by Italian prisoners during the Second World War.
Overall this was a fascinating exhibition, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is on until the end of August, so do try to catch it if you can.