British Folk Art @ Tate Britain

This is the third exhibition at Tate Britain based around a loose theme which gives rise to a very varied and miscellaneous set of exhibits. Folk art has the benefit of being a well-established genre (as the numerous books in the shop at the exit testify) – more so that Ruin Art and Damaged Art, the previous two shows. Still it makes for a a slightly confusing experience, having to consider and assess ship figureheads, naive paintings, pin cushions, thatched figures and ornamental jugs.


The commentary didn’t give a clear definition, more two or three ‘approaches’ to what folk art might be. It is generally made by people who aren’t academically trained artists. It is not defined as ‘art’ by scholars and historians of art. It is not generally bought and sold on the international art market.

The commentary says it was after the Second World War, around the time of the Festival of Britain, that ‘serious’ academic interest first began to be given to these objects. Around the time, in other words, that people stopped making them and that centuries-old traditions of festivals and figureheads and dances and plays were destroyed by the new mass media world of radio, TV, film and rock’n’roll.

My definition would be: artefacts made by (generally anonymous) untrained craftsmen and women which have an obvious non-practical, aesthetic purpose but which, until very recently, were rejected from scholarly consideration by the ‘art establishment’. Of course, in the last generation as neo-liberal capitalism has generated vast surpluses of capital looking for a home, all kinds of things have become vehicles for investment and so I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the hand-made art-works of Napoleonic prisoners of war didn’t now have their own niche and price bubble.


Early on a curator usefully describes the appeal of at least some of these hand-made, home-made objects: it’s the way folk art combines physical toughness and robustness and solidity with whimsy and delicacy and inventiveness. Another way of putting this might be that, glutted with the dead ends of ‘formal’, ‘academic’ Art, thrill seekers and aesthetes have turned in the past generation to objects their forefathers rejected as crude and vulgar.


But the key thing about folk art is it is a very broad genre indeed and the show contains only a miniscule fraction of the vast number of artefacts which homes and local museums must contain all across the land; what the commentary describes as ‘an unknowable multitude of objects, events and memories’.

To give you an idea, the exhibition includes:

  • Trade signs – a room full of enormous objects which would have hung outside shops in the 18th and 19th centuries: a giant wooden fish, boot, key, teapot etc
  • Tobacco rolls, looking a little like beehives and representing a tobacconist’s shops
  • Models of sides of meat hung in butcher’s shops for customers to understand the cuts
  • Warning signs of the Trespassers will be prosecuted type: 18th and 19th century signs warning that beggars and vagrants will be prosecuted
  • Pub signs, presumably one of the most enduring forms of folk art
  • naive paintings of 18th and 19th century cricket scenes
  • quilts, lots of quilts made by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons: one of the most intriguing was one made by wounded soldiers during the Crimean War
  • Napoleonic Prisoner of War art, a genre in its own right, was represented by the extraordinary cockerel made from bones (above)
  • naive paintings of scenes of rural fetes, hunting, rural life
  • harvest jusgs and toby jugs
  • the artefacts, woven and quilted, used for well dressing
  • massive ships’ figureheads, a whole room of them, the biggest of which is not, as you’d expect, a busty woman, but an imposing Indian figure actually carved in India from Indian hardwood, heads of lions and unicorns and blackamoors who stood outside tobacconist’s shops and figures of Scotsmen because, apparently, most of the tobacco imported into Britain came via Glasgow
  • decorative pincushions and pincushion covers
  • a small selection for carved slate which was used to decorate fireplaces in cottages built near the slate mines of North Wales in the 1820s to 1840s

As with the other exhibitions mentioned above, one has the sneaking suspicion that the show was conceived with half an eye to finding a way to display some of the very minor works which Tate has picked up along the way and needs to bring out of the dusty archives. Thus we had sections on a handful of named artists (unusual for generally anonymous folk art):

  • George Smart from Frant near Tunbridge Wells was a tailor with a sideline in creating (and presumably selling) multiple copies of a handful of stock scenes and characters
  • Needlework by Mary Linwood who made a living from fine needlework (in worsted embroidery or crewel embroidery) reproductions of ‘proper’ painted art
  • –- her stuff was exhibited at one of the longest-running shows in art history, yet written out of academic art history etc and, to be honest, I walked looked at the half dozen works here and walked on without a flicker of interest
  • Alfred Wallis, the self-taught painter based in St Ives who was ‘discovered’ and taken up by establishment painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood from 1928. His work stands out here, as at the lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery show which is currently running, for the confidence and boldness with which he captures his vision, like a child arranging his ships, the sea, the houses, the pier of St Ives in the picture plane according to their importance, completely regardless of perspective or realism.

All in all more like being at a production of the Antiques Roadshow than a traditional art exhibition. I liked, for example, Wallis’s paintings or the ship figureheads, very much, but I think I’d have got more out of an exhibition dedicated solely to Wallis or to ship’s figureheads.

Related links

More Tate Britain reviews

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