The large open-plan gallery space at Tate Britain is painted in bright primary colours, and on entering one is faced with a selection of oversized objects representing various trades in the simplest form. It initially feels rather like one has stepped into a child’s play area. However, a few steps further on and the exceptional (if eccentric) craftsmanship becomes increasingly fascinating, offering glimpses into a past society that is rarely revealed in such a context.
And it is often highly entertaining. There is a small advertisement for ‘Richards: Artists in Hair’ – produced from a woven mat of hair. There is John Vine’s ‘Three Fat Pigs’ (C19th, below) – similarly testament to an popular decorative trend which is now quite bemusing. There are tavern signs (such as ‘The Laird O Dumbiedykes’, left) and modern parables, all bearing a short ditty beneath the imagery – such as the ‘City Foulers Mark’ of 1840 which depicts the local authorities, shotguns in hand, tracking down a man covertly ‘fouling’ behind a bush, with a few lines recording that, in brief, the smell led them toward their target!
Among all the anonymous artists – she who embroidered a nun’s veil with a silken map of the counties of England, or the sailor who produced woolwork pictures of each vessel, her title picked out in yarn – a few names stand out. The Kentish tailor George Smart’s personages created out of scraps of fabric became famous among visitors to Tunbridge Wells in early C19th and were reproduced to the extent that they became stylistically distinctive (for example, ‘Goosewoman’, c.1830-40, below).
Alfred Wallis is different; as the curators justly point out, he is the ‘great exception to the general neglect and marginalisation of self-taught and artisan art by the British cultural establishment’ (which they are doing their best to put right with a show at Tate). Wallis was ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood at a time when ‘primitive’ or ‘naive’ art was being championed by European modernists – a serendipity of time and place; there must have been countless ex-fishermen through the ages and in every harbour creating images of boats who remain buried in obscurity.
‘A View of Groombridge Place, East Sussex’ (c.1754-60) is a wonderful example of portrait of an estate that attempts to be topographically descriptive rather than simply scenic. The boundary fence and ornate gates are flattened so that one can see the pattern of the metalwork, but look as if they have blown over in a strong wind, while the proud owner of the property stands at the height of the church, were the perspective and scale to be believed. Other oddments gathered together in a display case are a mixture of the practical and the puzzling: blackened leather Toby jugs in the form of buxom female figures, a wood-carved figure who cracks nuts between his jaws (the earliest exhibit, dating form 1595-1605), and the mysterious examples of ‘god in a bottle’ – carved religious symbols contained in glass and glowing eerily.
The following room is dedicated to ships figureheads and figures representing trades. A vast effigy of an Indian man who once adorned the HMS Calcutta from 1831-1908 dominates in garish glory (above right), facing a jaunty highlander (left) who was once a regular sight in the doorways of tobacconists shops (Glasgow being a major centre for importing tobacco).
Mary Linwood is an anomaly, a fact acknowledged by her work being shown in a separate niche in the gallery trail. She straddles the distinction between Folk Art and Fine Art – one of the few facts definitely asserted – with her rather gloomy, though impressively large-scale, needlework reproductions of famous paintings.
Then we are quickly re-immersed in colour in the final display of ‘abstract’ folk art. It is well-arranged, for indeed these pieces – mostly quilts – eschew all recognisable symbolism. And for the good reason that they are not trying to relate a narrative, commemorate a person, sell a product or describe a place. But can we not appreciate them for the incredible feats of craftsmanship that they are rather than having to ‘re-contextualise’ them as some sort of forerunner to the arrogant frivolity of ‘abstract art’? Their ‘form, colour and material’ – those fundamentals of modernist appreciation – are quite apparent, and perhaps even more so, in the knowledge of their real practical purpose. The brief stories bring the work alive; not just arbitrary lines on fabric after all, the pattern of the ‘Clicker Quilt’ (1920-30) mirrors the leather templates used in shoe manufacturing. The ‘Crimean Quilt’ (c.1853-6, below) tells an even more affective tale, the construction of its intricate kaleidoscope of coloured cloth was a form of therapy for injured soldiers of the Crimean war – a fact that does much to undermine the traditional concept of craft as ‘feminine’ (though this has been well proven by previous exhibits already).
In a final epilogue are photographs of some of these diverse objects being created or used in their traditional context: May Day parades and mummers, ship-breakers’ yards and women dousing petals for well-front adornments. The show is refreshing in that it doesn’t preach or teach too much; ‘Folk Art’ is described loosely, the exhibits range widely and we as spectators are left to enjoy the dexterity and the whimsy and make up our own minds what the term might mean. However the curators are tempted at times into treading on eggshells, almost castigating themselves as representatives of the British art ‘establishment’ for having ‘marginalised’ such popular art for so long (in the same way that politicians still feel obliged to apologise for the fact of slavery and colonialism). This is unnecessary, for the objects in the exhibition speak not of repression and discrimination as they fear, but appear more immediately a joyful celebration of community, industry and imagination; it is a paean to British eccentricity through the ages, and one which is now in a more cynical and digitalised age largely lost.