Monday, 28 July 2014

British Folk Art at Tate Britain

'Folk Art' is a rather odd term and those people at the Tate Britain have put on a collection of it to demonstrate how diverse and difficult to catalogue it is. It seems to encompass virtually anything and everything that isn't 'fine art' or traditionally accepted art, often anonymously produced at any point over the last four hundred years and is still around. The cockerel in the poster for the exhibition is a good example, having been made of cast-off bones by a French soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Napoleonic wars. His name isn't known but his handiwork survives.

There's all sorts of stuff in the exhibition, including embroideries, quilt covers, paintings, leather Toby jugs, 'needle paintings' (ie sewn reproductions of masters from the late 1700s  to mid 1800s), paintings, shop signs and figureheads from ships. You name it, it's in there somewhere.

When you go in you face a bright yellow wall with shelves to hold old shop signs with the three hanging balls for a pawn shop, a giant top hat for a hat-maker, big boot for a shoe shop and a giant key and a lock. I didn't notice what the bear was there for (second column from the right in the photo). It was a shame that most people seemed to glance at them and then move to look at the paintings on the right in the room rather then lingering to look at them properly - I thought they were great fun!

My favourite room was painted blue and held lots of carved figures, from statues of Scotsmen wearing rather short kilts to stand outside tobacco shops to draw the custom in, to figureheads of all shapes and sizes for ships. My favourite was the massive Indian carved out of hardwood and wearing a red turban, blue coat and with a glorious moustache. He was the figurehead for HMS Calcutta built in 1831. He's been fully restored and looks marvellous. I think he lives in a sailing museum in Portsmouth these days.

I nearly burst out laughing when I walked into and took in the room - laughing with wonder and joy that these things actually existed and were so shiny and colourful and so big! There were wistful looking ladies in colourful frocks and acres of bosom who would've sat at the prow of boats a couple of centuries ago, steering the jack tars of old out on an adventure and then home again. There was a lovely, snarling unicorn figurehead next to what I think was meant to be a yellow lion, equally snarling and both were magnificent. When I become a pirate I shall have a figurehead on my ship!

There were also paintings, usually what would usually be called naive and mainly anonymous. One of the most striking was a painting in oils on a wooden panel from 1850 called 'The Four Alls' by DJ Williams. It shows Queen Victoria saying 'I govern all', a priest saying 'I pray for all', a soldier saying 'I fight for all' and a working man holding out his purse saying 'I pay for all'. A bit of early political satire there! It's not a terribly well executed painting but it doesn't need to be - the message is clear and, what's more, it's fun!

Another painting that took my fancy was 'Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day' by Walter Greaves from 1862. It's a riot of colour and people flooding over the bridge and sitting on the cables holding it together. Part of me was surprised that Hammersmith Bridge is that old but there it is in the painting. It's the detail in the melange of colours and shapes that draws you in - the minstrel troupe to the left, the adverts on the horse-drawn double-decker buses, the gentlemen in their top hats and beefeaters in their red tunics and furry hats. All of London is there and determined to have fun. And the rowers in the boat below wearing hats, as is right and proper, of course. It's a lovely painting and I'm delighted to have seen it.

It's quite a small exhibition with only five or six rooms but is well laid out, well lit and full of lovely and unexpected stuff. Did I mention the delicate and detailed quilt made by recuperating soldiers in the Crimea War? Very colourful and full of stars. Or the 'Goosewoman' by George Smart from 1840 made from paper and bits of cloth? No? Well, here she is:

It's a lovely little exhibition so, if you can delight in seeing the unexpected then go and see it - it's on until the end of August so there's still time.

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