Last weekend we visited the British Folk Art exhibition at the Tate Britain in London. Your first question may well be ‘what is folk art?’ – please don’t ask me, as I’m still not sure. As far as I can tell, it is objects which have their roots in tradition rather than gallery walls, and their expression in mostly self-taught amateur skill. It takes in hobbyists and artisans and amateurs and craftspeople, and ends up in a beautiful and slightly wonky muddle of wooden fish, enormous figureheads and tiny stitching.
Whatever ‘folk art’ is and however snooty some reviewers had been, I was pretty sure it was up my street.
(Photography is not allowed in the exhibition, so I can only show you a few things where pictures are available.)
Each wall or section of the exhibition is painted in a different bright pastel. The buttercup yellow behind this collection of old shop signs helps to re-create them as the works of art that they are. Did you know that the three golden balls of the pawnbroker are related to the Medici family crest (six balls)? And that the melancholic bear would have sat outside a barber’s shop, because barbers used to use bear grease?
There were a few embroidered ships, mostly done by retired sailors who had perfect working knowledge of the cat’s cradle of ropes in the rigging.
James Williams was a tailor who used 5,300 scraps of material and ten years to make this striking bedcover – even its subjects are a patchwork of elephants, biblical scenes, trains, bridges and geometric patterns.
I find this painting completely charming, I would hang it on my wall in a flash. The eponymous angry bulls, the hare which has caused all the fuss, the gentleman who has tumbled into the stream and that soft glowing sky.
And the star of the show, a chicken made from discarded pieces of bone. Its detail is entrancing, its expression is defiant. I hope that it stared down those skeptical reviewers who felt these pieces to be beneath the Tate Britain. How could they not think it beautiful.
More details and images at the Tate Britain website.