Folk from all over the place

Tate Britain has sought out the weird and wonderful for its celebration of three hundred years of British folk art

In America, ‘folk art’ has long enjoyed a home in several important collections dedicated to the tradition. Search online for ‘folk art museum’ and the first page of results refers solely to institutions in New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe. In Britain, indigenous folk art is spread far and wide across various archives held by local museums, trusts and private collectors, and while the internet has helped some of those hoping to bring it to a wider audience over here (the Museum of British Folklore is looking for a physical home after a two-year exhibition programme, for example), a new show at Tate Britain claims to be the first to engage with the genre at a major UK art gallery.

Tate has searched far and wide to source the exhibits for British Folk Art, which range from paintings, collages and signage, to quilts, straw crafts and leatherwork. Objects on loan from collections held in Bristol, Edinburgh and Northampton sit alongside pieces from the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, The Living Museum of the North in Beamish, County Durham and Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery. To fill the room given over to 19th-century ‘figureheads’, the imposing wooden sculptures which once jutted out from the prows of ships, Tate has called on the Portsmouth Royal Dockland Historical Trust and the Historic Dockyard Trust in Chatham; places, one imagines, that rarely deal with requests to send their huge brightly-painted objects out on tour.

This collaborative approach is an important part of what makes much of British Folk Art so interesting. It also relates to one of the central questions the exhibition raises – that of whether in removing each object from the context of its own social history (maritime, agricultural or otherwise) the papier maché ham or the cockerel made of bones is altered by its placement in a room reserved for art. Do we look at this work differently in this context? And if so, why? (A similar thought-process awaits visitors to the V&A Museum’s new Disobedient Objects exhibition on design for protest and social change – see page 46 – the clash of content and environment adding to the wider debate.)

Aside from the aesthetic impact they might have, many of the objects on display in British Folk Art separate themselves from what we might expect to find in Tate Britain by virtue of the fact that they once also had a function. The shop-front trade signs, for example, can still be decoded: oversized boots, gloves, hats and padlocks indicate what kind of products would have been for sale, while other signs use a more oblique visual language – the balls of the pawnbroker’s sign link back to the Medici family crest, the bear symbol used by barbers referred to a kind of hair pomade made from the animal’s fat. In its day, the giant leather football boot advertising Timpson Ltd’s shop would no doubt have caught the eye of passersby. But would anyone walking underneath it have considered it as art?

According to the show’s curators, Tate’s Martin Myrone and Ruth Kenny and US artist Jeff McMillan, each of the pieces in the exhibition is already situated within a particular “collecting history”. The now obsolete trade signs, for example, have long been considered as popular antiquities; while at the other end of the market, interest in Alfred Wallis’s paintings (probably the most well known works on display here), has only increased since artist Ben Nicholson first encountered the fisherman’s work in St Ives in the late-1920s.

Wallis’s primitive style and use of found materials appealed to the emerging avant-garde – rather than being a response to it – yet the commercial worth in cultivating an image of the ‘eccentric artist’ is also evident in a few examples in the Tate. In the work of Tunbridge Wells tailor George Smart, for example, small portraits fashioned from off-cuts of cloth were so well-honed as to constitute a contrived house style that Smart would regularly turn out for eager customers.

While there is a determined effort by the curators to move away from presenting folk art through its formal stereotypes (think patchwork quilts or wooden dolls, for example), some of the most interesting objects in the exhibition reframe what we might normally think of as the cosier, more rustic aspects of the folk tradition. One of the stand-out textile pieces in the show was created by a soldier during the Crimean War. The workmanship, carried out as a form of therapy, exudes military precision and is almost a textile version of his commitment (or submission) to wartime systems and order. Another piece, known as the Bellamy quilt, a highly detailed cloth designed by Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Springhall in the months before their wedding, can be read as a contemporary visual record of the kinds of things that occupied their everyday lives. Here, textile design functions in two divergent settings, each challenging the perceived notions of the artform.

A further section includes several pieces which illustrate the folk traditions and beliefs that surrounded the communities in which these artefacts were produced. In a dimly-lit cabinet things take a darker turn with master thatcher Jesse Maycock’s straw figure of King Alfred standing alongside a range of objects including corn dollies, leather toby jugs and talismen carved from horse vertebrae. There are four examples of the ‘God in a bottle’ trick – wooden structures suspended in liquid-filled glassware – while, in the penultimate space, a ‘boody’ tray decorated with pieces of broken pottery is shown next to a hefty dartboard made solely out of wood and wire. Following on from the paintings, embroidery and agricultural fare, the ever-widening range of media and materials here suggests something of the enormity of the curatorial task.

As if to reiterate the difficulty of their mission, the Tate’s final room contains old photos of numerous other folkloric traditions, street artists, fun fairs and carnivals. There are mummers and ‘paper boys’ from Gloucestershire; images of the Edinburgh Burryman and the Cornish ‘Obby ‘Oss troupes. Each image reveals an object that could have featured in the Tate’s exhibition, if indeed it still exists.

One of the photographs shows the gates of Castle’s Ship Breaking Company, the yard which in 1908 dismantled the Calcutta, the vessel whose giant figurehead now features in one of the preceeding rooms in the Tate – the original Castle’s site was in fact based a short distance away from the gallery on Millbank. One hundred years ago, this enormous object embarked upon its second life just down the road from where it will now stand for the duration of the show. To see it return here, amid all these other strange and wonderful objects, is a rare treat.

British Folk Art is at Tate Britain in London until August 31. See tate.org.uk

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