‘British Folk Art’ at Compton Verney • 27 September ∼ 14 December 2014

I love so-called ‘folk art’ – that created by untrained, non-professional artists – without always being sure entirely why. Possibly because I have a bit of a taste for the eccentric and individual (and occasionally surreal). I was more familiar with the wealth of American folk art portraits than the British tradition, as it  is much larger and better known. I suppose that’s because for so long the new colony lacked trained professional artists, so untrained painters stepped into the gap to paint the new American middle classes of the 18th century. I also like later ‘naive’ artists like the French Jean Dubuffet.

George Smart Goose Woman

George Smart, Goose Woman, 1840, Photo © Compton Verney

But of course, Britain has its own tradition too because amateur artists have been creating their own work for centuries. It’s lovely to discover talent in somebody who was not in a position to receive formal training, or just to see work that is terribly original because it was created purely for somebody’s pleasure, and had no need to conform to every established formal convention. The brilliant exhibition ‘British Folk Art’ includes a number of such paintings, as well as artwork in different forms created for different purposes (sign boards, pin cushions, quilts, trade signs, ship’s figureheads, and other items). I like the broader perspective that all of these items should count as ‘art’. I saw the show at the Tate Gallery and it has now returned to Compton Verney in Warwickshire who own many of the artifacts, and where it will remain until 14th December. I understand that it is the first major survey of British Folk Art.

Below is my very favourite painting held by Compton Verney: ‘Three Sober Preachers’ (unknown artist, English School), 1860. The captions on the walls read: “I Say Brothers, We Are Three clever Fellows, to Preach Against Tippling”  “Tippling Do you say, I Call this Down Right Hard Drinking.”  “You may say what you Please Gentlemen, but I think WINE makes Our Hearts Merry”. I think that the funny shape behind the mirror must be an attempt at shadow, and I love the bookcase with its crazy angles.

Three Sober Preachers

English School, Three Sober Preachers, 1860, Photo © Compton Verney

One familiar figure in the exhibition was the ‘naive’ painter Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman and untrained artist ‘discovered’ by those famous Cornwall-dwelling painters Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood. Having little money Wallis often painted on cardboard ripped from packing boxes and used paint bought from ships’ chandlers. In some cases – rather wonderfully – the boxes were not even trimmed down into a rectangle but just flattened out and painted up to the edges of their flaps The barely literate Wallis painted seascapes often from memory because the old fashioned boats he remembered had been replaced by steam power, and the paintings with their lack of perspective or consistent scale reflect this emotional viewpoint. Some of them seem to contain both a front and a bird’s eye view of a landscape simultaneously. Wallis’ new found local celebrity didn’t suit him, he believed that his neighbours believed him to be secretly rich and to be jealous of him. He died in poverty and his work only really reached a point of recognition and fame much later on. Here is one of the paintings included in the exhibition. Others are displayed at the Tate Gallery and at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

Wallis The Blue Ship

Alfred Wallis, The Blue Ship?, 1934, Photo © Compton Verney

Some paintings I really enjoyed in this exhibition (including the image at the top of this article) were by a George Smart of Bath, a local tailor who lived from 1775 to 1845 and who alongside his tailor’s business spent his spare time using leftover textile scraps stuck onto hand painted or lithographed backgrounds, to create pictures. He became quite famous in his day and was reported in tourist guidebooks and poetry. I think they are charming, and not least because they remind me a little of playing with Fuzzy Felt – remember Fuzzy Felt?! Below is his ‘Old Bright, The Postman’ from 1830.

George Smart The Postman

Alfred Wallis, ‘Old Bright, The Postman‘, 1830, Photo © Compton Verney

This is an interesting example of a male embroidery tradition and one of the many crafts practiced by sailors away at sea to while away the days. These crafts included macrame, woodwork, engraving whale bones and teeth, carving shells, ivory and coconut husks, cut paper and glass portraits and of course the famous ship-in-a-bottle. As sailors’ on-board duties included repairing sails and uniforms all sailors were apparently required to have rudimentary needle skills and some made decorative pictures like these in wool on canvas with silk touches. There were some wonderful textiles in the show which is great because textiles aren’t usually seen as high art.

The Taylor's Coverlet

 James Williams, ‘The Taylor’s Coverlet‘, 1842-52, Photo © Compton Verney

James Williams’ ‘The Tailor’s Coverlet’  is a great example of a tailor’s artwork. This intricate patchwork coverlet made by a Welsh tailor in the early-mid nineteenth century took him 10 years to complete and includes 4,525 pieces of woolen cloth. I love the combination of geometric background and figurative elements. In the top left corner you can see the Menai Suspension Bridge, and in the middle a steam strain crossing the Cefn Railway Viaduct. In other areas you can see a Chinese pagoda and a man hunting a horse, interspersed with familiar biblical scenes (my favoruite is Jonah and the Whale, with Jonah’s legs disappearing into the whale’s mouth.) It’s wonderfully eccentric and skillful all at the same time. As a purely biblical coverlet it would have had more logic to it, but Williams clearly wanted to express his pride in technological and engineering advancements of the time as well. In the corners a rose, thistle, leek and shamrock represent the four nations of the British Isles. The coverlet reflects a long tradition of patriotic or political exhibition quilts, which interestingly enough were mainly produced by men (nice to see Grayson Perry happily exploring this tradition).

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