“What is Folk Art?” I hear you cry and not only you but also the curators of the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain. Almost every explanatory panel makes a plaintive argument for it as a proper subject for an exhibition at the Tate, every other paragraph in the audio guide seems to pose the question. They should have more confidence: Folk Art is a stunning exhibition that deserves to be as popular as Matisse is at Tate Modern. Folk Art is “stuff” that is made by talented crafts people; discuss.
A bright yellow wall arrayed with outsized trade symbols is the first sight that greets you. The familiar three balls of the pawn broker (some time back a friend asked what the origin of the sign was but it is only now am I able to answer, that it stem from the devise appearing in the coats of arms of the Medici’s, the Italian Banking family), a self-explanatory padlock for Locksmiths and more puzzlingly a bear; this is for barbers and alludes to the fact that bear grease was used as a hair pomade. These symbols would have dominated city streets in the time before most people could read, advertising goods and services to shoppers.
Folk Art is the stuff that you see around you; discuss. Old signs from the time when sign writers really did write signs. Pub signs from when they were painted and not mass produced. Turn your back on the on the trade signs and you are greeted with a wall hung with such signs. One wonderful example shows the four ‘Alls’; All Govern shows the Queen, All Pray – a priest, All Fight – a soldier and All Pay – John Bull.
Folk art is the work of untrained artists; discuss. Turning anti clockwise the next wall takes the sea and the sun as its theme. Two dimensional paintings and embroideries of ships mainly rendered by the men who sailed in them are topped with carved wooden suns. In the middle are map samplers stitched by the women who remained at home. At the far end of the wall are paintings of ships that look remarkably similar to all the others but these are the work of Alfred Wallis and are part of the Tate collection. Wallis was a fisherman who lived in St Ives and once ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicolson and Christopher Wood, his work became much sought after. Looking at his work and that of the other unknown fishermen you have to wonder if every port held an artist waiting to be discovered.
Folk art changes with the times; discuss. An enormous straw man dominates one corner of the exhibition. Straw men have been around for centuries. This one represents King Alfred and is not ancient, it was made for an Oxford Ball in 1961 by a roof thatcher. He had not made a straw man before but deployed the techniques of his craft to make the striking figure. Folk art is womens work; discuss. Scattered around the exhibition are pin cushions and quilts mainly (but not exclusively) made by women. One room is devoted to the work of Mary Linwood, in her time she was famous for her intricately worked needlepaintings that depicted Old Master and British Paintings. During her lifetime she was not permitted to join the Royal Academy as her work was not seen as art. When she died in the 1845 her work was treated as a mere curiosity.
My Mother is extremely arty-crafty. Corn Dollies, Hardanger embroidery, patchwork, needlepoint and many others have, at one time or another filled my Parent’s house and my Mother’s attention. I too have dabbled but alas have inherited her enthusiasm but not her skill. Fine art is all well and good but what adorns my own house is Folk Art, I’ve always felt that maybe I should be smarter or trendier. Maybe the answer to “What is Folk Art?” is that its what the stuff that real people make, buy and have in their homes.
As ever, the exit is through the gift shop and this gift shop is full of things to set you on your way to creating your own Folk Art. Anybody for a knit your dog kit? If making is not your thing then there are some fine Welsh Blankets to be had.
Light refreshments in the environs of Tate Britain need to be sought out. The gallery itself has a café and restaurant with walls painted by Whistler, but on this visit the coffee was nasty and bitter. On the way out I decided to try the Cheeki café, which is really for the students of the Chelsea College of Arts but members of the public are welcomed, and had a decent cup of coffee.
FOLK ART June 10-August 31 2014
Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Open every day 10am-6pm
Admission: Adult £13.10, Concessions £11.30