The title chosen for the Tate Britain’s exhibition “British Folk Art,” may sound axiomatic; yet its interpretation raises some complex and loaded questions. Should folk art be considered art? What is its relevance to the contemporary world? “British Folk Art” at the Tate Britain seems set on taking on the modernists.
The exhibition features exclusively antique British Folk Art, a vast selection of carefully crafted oddities spanning from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. Curated by Martin Myrone, Ruth Kenny artist Jeff McMillan, the exhibition is rife with inspiration, from textiles to 3-D, sculptural objects.
Today, the term “folk” tends to inspire thoughts of Jonie Mitchell and sun-drenched craft fairs reminiscent of the Summer of Love; of Etsy-esque clothing, of lost worlds and crumbling traditions.
Overall folk is associated with most, if not all things home-spun, yet where art, music and fashion are concerned, this singular definition can be elusive.
Careful not to tread on the toes of fine art, folk art succeeds in marrying decoration and function, an enigmatic offshoot of the creative and the commercial – Sound anything like fashion?
Indeed, much of the Tate’s selection of Folk Art includes material work that designers may consider to use in their collections; from ornamental embroidery and knit patterns to mixed media-inspired textiles and hand-sewn beadwork. Many of the artists’ names remain a mystery, yet their pieces stand alone in establishing a lasting cultural legacy.
If you’ve never visited before, the impressively large appearance of the Tate Britain’sbuilding is something to behold. Inside the gallery the amount of space devoted to the Folk Art exhibition is impressive – especially when considering the genre has never been touched by a British museum.
After handing over my ticket to a doorman who gruffly stated that picture-taking was not allowed, I entered the first wing. A bright yellow wall was hard to miss, its space dominated by what resembled life-size figurines made of wood and metal, not unlike what you would find on a charm bracelet.
It was not uncommon to be illiterate during the early nineteenth century and these figures were used as signage; hanged outside a shop, they would indicate the service provided. The signs included the obvious – top hats for milliners and keys for locksmiths – and the less obvious; a wood-carved bear advertising bear grease (used as hair pomade), and three large, golden spheres, the logo for the Italian banking family, the Medicis.
Next on the exhibit menu was a collection of fabric and pencil collages, many depicting bucolic scenes of small English villages. George Smart’s 1840 Goose Woman is an excellent example of the clever use of mixed media in scene portrayals. With delicate paper hands and basket as well as a red coat made from felt, the craftsmanship was amazing to behold. The red felt on the little woman had maintained a rich colour after all these years, serving as an example of the quality of materials craft folk used in the early nineteenth century.
The wall adjacent to that held a large glass case containing three pincushions, all elaborately decorated with glass beads and wool thread fringe. One pincushion in particular had a date embroidered upon it with a brief poem, presumed a token of affection to a loved one.
I was surprised to learn that British soldiers, injured during WWI, sewed delicate objects like these for rehabilitation purposes.
Interestingly enough, men were the ones largely responsible for most of the original quilt work and embroidery on display. it was inspiring to see that much of the work, otherwise deemed as feminine, was in fact the work of male soldiers, shop keepers and fisherman.
One woman to note, though, was the evidently talented Mary Linwood (1755-1845). Linwood amassed large-scale needlepoint portraits that took inspiration from painting Masters such as Rembrandt. Employing this classical aesthetic, Linwood used wool thread to create painstakingly small stitches, mimicking the finer brush strokes of paintings. The level of her mastery was displayed in one case that revealed the backing of one of her works.
Textiles and needle work were not the only pieces on show. A case of large, glass bottles contained miniature wood structures submerged in water, called “whimsies,” or a “God in a Bottle.” The origins of these bottles remain unknown, but they are thought to relate to Irish Roman Catholic Diasporas.
One of the final rooms displayed towering masthead figures, many elaborate and rich in colours. Most of the mastheads on display served their original purpose as tall ship decorations until around the turn of the century when they were repainted and displayed as historically prominent, sculptural works.
As I left the “British Folk Art” exhibition, my thoughts on the relevance of folk art to fashion had become clear. Realising that fashion designers are masters of a craft of functional and that they rely on time-honoured traditions helped me to see folk art in a new light.
Many of the artisans behind folk art were just that: artisans who created aesthetically pleasing, yet functional objects.
Yet today’s yearning for depth and authenticity may be fuelling a return to the home-spun that makes craft and folk art relevant again. This relevance ushers folk art from its place in the elusive shadows to the threshold between art and artefact.
10 June – 31 August 2014
Every day, 10.00–18.00
Adult £14.50 (without donation £13.10)
Concession £12.50 (without donation £11.30)