If You Happen To Be In London


We have been meaning for nearly a year to recommend this article on the relationship between one man and several artists who were otherwise completely unrecognized by the art establishment over many decades. With this man as a champion, after a long effort the artists have finally come into the recognition previously denied to them.

This new show in London reminds us not only to share that article, but to share this review. What explains our interest in this sort of exhibit is the outsider status of the artists. Not “bad boy” outsiders clamoring for attention, but innovators. Thanks to London Review of Books for this review of a current show at the Tate:

‘Proud’ is an epithet that extends from the parade to the workbench. The swagger of troops marching down the street is transferred by the carpenter to the nail that juts out, no less cocky, no less full of itself. There’s much in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, British Folk Art (until 31 August), that straddles both forms of pride. It opens with a fanfare of stout, galumphing tradesmen’s signs: the outsize models of boots, keys, teapots, top hats and so on that dangled over high streets two centuries ago. In the galleries beyond, weighty loads of colour are stitched or collaged onto banners, quilts and pictures in frames. The pigs and pigeons are very plump and each ship at sea is – as it were – ‘the good ship’, her sails unfurled and rigging immaculate. The show’s exultant centrepiece is a gallery painted marine blue in which figureheads redeemed from ship-breakers’ yards surge forward on all sides, dominated by a colossal moustachioed nawab carved in the Bombay Docks in 1831. A unicorn from Portsmouth, opposite it, must be the most manically aggressive equine ever invented. The woodcarver’s dreams of mastery and speed confer on the beast a muzzle of wild, pumped up muscularity: it’s a Bugatti for the age of sail. (It has been repainted who knows how many times since then, but surely the grace note of the lines drawn on the eyes follows the initial artist’s inspiration.)

Martin Myrone, one of the show’s curators, cautiously suggests that the figureheads, with their ‘chunky modelling’, ‘emphatic characterisation’ and ‘vernacular energy’, ‘might be considered as the exemplary form of folk art, construed as an aesthetic category’. ‘Cautiously’, because once you judge anything to be ‘folk art’, the discussion can snarl up in class-based knots. Folk is ‘them’, those not talking proper, not doing the judging: most typically, in this case, the artisans of imperial, industrialising Britain, a century or so either side of 1840. ‘Folk art’ enthusiasts can’t avoid this awkward speech position and, wisely, Myrone and his colleagues Ruth Kenny and Jeff McMillan don’t try to tidy it up. Rather, they let their eyes and curiosity take them on a ramble. If these lure them into an omnium gatherum – in one place, those Indian woodcarvers at work; in another, a French prisoner of war shaving mutton bones to construct a cockerel – well, they can cite contemporary museologists who dignify the effect as ‘polyphonic forms of chattering’.

‘Chunky’ and ‘emphatic’ are Myrone’s stabs at giving folk art a formal – rather than a historical and social – character. But the effort winds you back to questions of what you can say from where. The masterpiece of the show is a very large quilt – some three metres long – completed by the Wrexham military tailor James Williams in 1852, after ten years’ stitching. It is a staggering feat of visual organisation, corralling thousands of offcuts of red, buff, black and blue regimental cloth into eye-dazzling rhythms underpinned by complex harmonies and punchily drawn imagery. Its thematic ambitions seem correspondingly large. Quilting, as the exhibition demonstrates, was a communal pastime in Victorian barracks and gun decks: another, even more vibrant example comes from the Crimean War, and a later photograph shows sailors gathered round sewing machines. Folk art here was a matter of ‘us’, males bonding over abstract or patriotic designs. Williams went beyond that. In his scheme, the four national symbols of the British Isles are upstaged by something like a résumé of human history, ranging through Adam, Cain, Noah and Jonah to Africa and China and the modernity of steam engines and viaducts.

‘Something like’, because whatever Williams might have wished to say was so broad that it baffles paraphrase. His quilt amazes rather than articulates, and for all that it’s a public piece, displayed at eisteddfodau, it stands as a monument to private obsession, rather like the concrete castle built by a retired eccentric in 1950s Hampshire, a film of which forms the show’s last exhibit. There was only so much you could communicate with this kind of art…

Read the whole review here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s