The distinction between high and low art is one that has long been jealously guarded by both artists and connoisseurs. The Royal Academy, for example, established in 1768, stated explicitly in its founding charter that “no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted”. Nothing, that is, that wasn’t the work of professionally trained artists or the top echelon of amateurs. “Baubles” belonged to a different intellectual and indeed social realm.
British Folk Art: The House That Jack Built at Tate Britain (June 10- August 31) is a survey of the bauble makers — the quilters and sampler stitchers, the ships’ figurehead carvers and straw weavers, the shop-sign makers and the bone whittlers. These artisans, now termed naïve, folk or outsider artists, embody a parallel tradition to the familiar narrative of the art world.
If trained painters and sculptors represent British art’s received pronunciation, the self-taught artist-craftsmen represent its vernacular. While the former, in its most knowing incarnations, frequently takes delight in the incomprehensible, the latter revels in simple expression. Folk art, as one writer has noted, is “a catch-all category for misfits”.
The exhibition, which spans the period from the mid-17th century to the mid-20th, does not pretend to offer a comprehensive history but instead shows something of the variety of British folk art — a native arte povera — and in doing so perhaps it also recognises a sense of ennui with much over-intellectualised, solipsistic or cynical contemporary art.
Most of the artist-craftsmen in the show are anonymous; a rare exception is Alfred Wallis, the St Ives rag-and-bone merchant whose pictures of ships, painted on scraps of board and paper, were discovered in 1928 by Ben Nicholson (or in some accounts by Cedric Morris). His paintings were seen by the Modernist generation as representing an instinctive form of primitivism and individualism and were co-opted to further their own intellectual aims. Otherwise the most familiar artist on display is George Smart, the Tunbridge Wells tailor of the early 19th century who fashioned pictures from scraps of textile. His collages of bent-backed local people such as the postman and goosewoman made him a minor celebrity, mentioned in guidebooks and doggerel poetry (“scenes which gratify the mind,/ And you may purchase, if inclined!”).
What many of the exhibits do is reveal now-forgotten traditions. One example is the extraordinary patchwork quilt stitched in the early 1850s by a wounded Crimean War soldier. It comprises more than 10,000 pieces of military fabric and was made not just as an aid to recuperation but as part of a specific army initiative. Quilt making was promoted as a means of distracting soldiers from the lure of alcohol and gambling. Because of the thickness of the serge and worsted cloth pieces it required both strength and precision. By the 1870s soldiers’ industrial exhibitions had been established that awarded prizes for a whole range of military endeavours, from rifle skills to embroidery. The Great Exhibition of 1851 included 30 quilts made by soldiers. One quilt was made from 28,000 pieces. The tradition died out with the new century when the introduction of khaki superseded the brighter colours of earlier uniforms.
Other lost traditions include figurehead carving. A large number survive because unlike more quotidian crafts they have long been thought worth preserving. Many were removed when the ships themselves were decommissioned or salvaged from shipwrecks. On dry land they were sometimes reused as shop signs or displayed as curiosities. Hogarth’s painting Canvassing for Votes, for example, includes a figurehead of a red lion that sits outside a pub door while the election shenanigans take place around it. Britain’s maritime ascendancy meant that figurehead carving was big business, with some 150 firms active in the 18th and 19th centuries. Between 1830 and 1860 the Hellyer family firm alone, which worked largely for the Royal Navy, made figureheads for some 234 vessels.
The tradition of shop signs is just as rich: while some such as giant boots or locks clearly signified shoemakers and locksmiths others had more historical roots. The pawnbroker’s symbol of three golden balls, for example, comes from the crest of the Medici banking family, while barbers frequently used the seemingly incongruous sign of a bear, a reference to the bear grease that was used as a hair pomade. The profusion of signs — suns and moons, fish and lions, Turks and wheatsheafs — became so dense that in the late 18th century prohibitions were issued banning much street furniture.
One unifying feature of folk art is its use of humble materials. This was predominantly working-class art so that rather than using marble or paint it utilised inexpensive and often cast-off materials such as bone, wood or straw. Indeed one of the most inventive items in the exhibition is a horse vertebra painted to resemble a preacher with his arms raised mid-sermon. This strange early-19th-century object is sometimes thought to be a caricature of John Wesley. The genre was once common enough to have its own name: Bishop Bones.
This exhibition does not make great claims for many of these objects’ standing as what would generally be termed works of art, that is of being intentional expressions of emotion. Rather, it presents them as evidence of the endurance of tradition, of a universal horror of empty space, of the human need for creation and the myriad forms that invention can take. It pays the makers the compliment of taking them seriously rather than patronising them. It recognises too that our communal past is as much or even more that of these unknown men and women as it is of the salon artists whose names we revere.