British Folk Art



Tate Britain

Until Sun Aug 31

  • ‘Sun’

    c1720, anonymous

  • Leather toby jugs


    Leather toby jugs
  • Boodyware plate

    undated, anonymous

    Boodyware plate
  • ‘The Dead Christ’

    1800s, Mary Linwood

    ‘The Dead Christ’
  • ‘King Alfred’

    1961, Jesse Maycock

    ‘King Alfred’
  • ‘The Tailor’s Coverlet’

    1842-1852, James Williams

    ‘The Tailor’s Coverlet’
  • Calcutta’ figurehead

    undated, anonymous

    Calcutta’ figurehead
  • 'The Blue Ship'

    c1934, Alfred Wallis



    'The Blue Ship'


c1720, anonymous

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Don't be put off this by memories of school trips to county museums, this really isn't about rural nick-nacks.  Both moving and interesting: quilts stitched by traumatised Crimean War soldiers, sculptures made from chicken bones by Napoleonic PoWs, sailor's "woolworks" woven during endless hours in cabins...  And visually beautiful curation, but take the time to read the blurb/ get the audio-guide, it all means so much more in context:

Curated London

This exploration of British Folk Art is something only the Tate could do, and something they do very well. It might not sound terribly appealing, and at most other galleries it wouldn’t prove very popular. But, because it’s the Tate, sometimes just because it’s included in the membership, many more people will see this excellent exhibition than might do otherwise.

The curators seem at pains to explain what is and isn’t included in the scope for this show, and I suspect they never did agree on a definition. It’s what might elsewhere be called ‘naive’, or ‘outsider’, art. Here, even these categories feel a little too rigid. Suffice to say, many of the artists have little formal training, although many of the techniques used are complicated and must have taken years to master. 

The exhibition opens with an impactful display of the first of its main thematic groupings: shop signs. In the days before mass literacy (and so street names and building numbers), shopkeepers used intricately carved signs, often in three dimensions, to advertise their services. Some were straightforward (boots for cobblers, keys for locksmiths) and others less so (bears for barbers, and balls for pawnbrokers). 

These signs very much set the scene for the rest of the show. Some of the pieces are beautiful, but most you wouldn’t want on your wall. The exhibition’s real value is its history, notably of British arts and crafts that existed away from (and long before) the establishment. Much of this is linked to our maritime history, with many sailors’ embroideries, paintings of ships and a whole room devoted to spectacular ships’ mastheads.

The curators’ use of a bold colour palette (in some rooms, all four walls are different colours) together with clever lighting and other curatorial wizardry bring the various objects to life. With so much history underpinning the exhibits, the audio guide is a great way to get the most from the exhibition. While there is very little here you’d want to take home, there’s plenty to take away.

For more art in plain English, check out