British Folk Art at Tate Britain

Straw men, ships' figureheads and shop signs are the stars of Tate Britain’s summer blockbuster. We meet the crafty curator behind ‘British Folk Art’

If you've got size 74 feet and have mislaid a boot, you'll find it at Tate Britain. The museum hasn't been transformed into a lost property office for hobbits, though. The imposing lace-up, which is elevated on a glass shelf so you can admire its elaborately hobnailed sole, is part of an opening salvo of shop and trade signs in the Tate's 'British Folk Art' exhibition. It shares the gallery with, among other oddities, weathervanes, pub signs and a painting of a champion ratter. In short: stuff you won't see every day in the home of British art.

According to Martin Myrone, co-curator of the show, it's about time the Tate tapped this rich seam of our visual culture. 'I've been thinking about this for the best part of a decade now,' he says. 'For me, it's come from the experience of going into museums up and down the country to do regular Tate work, turning around and seeing something like a giant boot when I'm meant to be looking at a Gainsborough and going, "wow! What's that?" As an art historian, you can immediately recognise an amazing object but it might not easily fit the categories we use.'

The show isn't just about giving one type of art preference over another. Throughout, you’ll find questions about classifications of art and design, why some things are valued and others not. As Myrone admits ‘it doesn’t always add up to a coherent whole’. Most of the works on show are anonymous and undated, found in regional museums of industry and craft. But there’s a display dedicated to Alfred Wallis (‘The Blue Ship’, 1934, pictured, far right), the self-taught seadog of a painter who was discovered by modernist artists Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson in St Ives in the late 1920s, and whose ‘primitive’ work is included in Tate's permanent collection.

'Contemporary folk art of the knit-your-own-Mumford variety is banished'

The show's one guiding principle is that its exhibits should have been made for aesthetic consideration rather than as strictly functional objects. It means that furniture and tools are absent: 'lovely though they might be.' Also banished is contemporary folk art of the knit-your-own-Mumford variety. 'There's a sense that since the '60s folk art has become commodified, more self-conscious,' says Myrone. 'So we've steered away from that too.'

It's been a decade since Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane first presented their riotous 'Folk Archive' of wrestlers' leotards, trade union banners and scarecrows, and in that time Tracey Emin's blankets and Grayson Perry's tapestries and pots have helped to transform what we think of as 'proper' art. 'Maybe now we're re-educated,' suggests Myrone. 'We're more able to look at a papier-mâché piece of meat or a giant teapot and recognise their value as art, rather than going: oh that's just popular culture.'

For Myrone this thinking heralds a shift in museum culture. 'The idea of a patrician elite with large moustaches and cravats dictating what good taste is... I don't know if it was ever true but we're a long way from that now. The distinction between high and low just doesn't feel very real any more. And the idea that an oil painting on canvas is the absolute pinnacle, that just feels weird.'

Nowt so queer: see highlights from the 'British Folk Art' exhibition

  • ‘Sun’

    c1720, anonymous

    ‘There’s a lot we know about this cast iron sign’, says Myrone. ‘We know it’s from a pharmacy in Whitechapel, we even know the address [The Golden Sun, 144 Whitechapel High Street]. It’s in the collection of the Museum of London, where it’s viewed a kind of popular antiquity, or a part of urban life. But it’s also a really fantastic bit of sculpture, a really compelling object, and I think that’s an exciting way to think about the objects and about the Tate as a context.’

  • Leather toby jugs


    Often the works in the show aren’t quite what they seem. Like these ancient-looking Toby jugs. ‘There’s an appetite for saying that something is part of a local culture but that usually falls apart,’ explains Myrone. ‘These jugs look like they ought to be part of some deep-rooted ancient rural culture but as far as we know they’re possibly forgeries from the late nineteenth century, designed to pass as something else.’

    Leather toby jugs
  • Boodyware plate

    undated, anonymous

    Made of bits of broken china, seashells and coins stuck to bottles, jugs and plates, ‘boody’ or ‘boudie’ ware emerged from Northumberland in the early nineteenth century, becoming popular in the north east and south west of the country. This example, featuring a doll’s head, had a previous life as a plain tin tray: ‘Whoever made this was expecting it to be admired in some way, even if it was only at home,’ says Myrone. ‘It’s a fantastic object, almost like a piece of contemporary art.’

    Boodyware plate
  • ‘The Dead Christ’

    1800s, Mary Linwood

    Thanks to her meticulous needlepoint versions of Old Masters, which she copied from reproductions, Linwood (1755-1845) became rich and famous, running a successful one-woman exhibition from Leicester Square and even being mentioned by Dickens. ‘She’s one of the people that we’re showcasing because she ought to have a place in the history of art,’ says Myrone. ‘The fact that you can only get a textile artist into the story of British art in the national gallery of British art by this means is an interesting point.’

    ‘The Dead Christ’
  • ‘King Alfred’

    1961, Jesse Maycock

    It’s tempting to see the show as a celebration of lost arts and industry but the exhibits are more complicated than that. Take this straw figure. It seems to denote rituals of an ancient past but it is in fact one of the most recent objects on show. ‘The straw crafts we’re showing were created long after thatching had finished being a living craft,’ explains Myrone. ‘By the 1960s it was being artificially recovered.’

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

    1842-1852, James Williams

    ‘More than 4,000 pieces of woollen cloth go to make up this patchwork coverlet, which is the work of Wrexham-based tailor Williams. No wonder it took him ten years to make. ‘Here we have a maker working on his own,’ says Myrone. ‘But as well as the biblical motifs and idiosyncratic references to world culture there’s one of the first railway bridges and there’s the Menai suspension bridge at the top there, which were completely modern, industrialised. So, in this case, folk art is not about nostalgia, it’s about engaging with the modern world.’

    ‘The Tailor’s Coverlet’
  • Calcutta’ figurehead

    undated, anonymous

    While ships figureheads and carvings are among the oldest and largest examples on show, for Myrone they symbolise both folk art’s shifting status and its fluidity as a measure of national identity. ‘This huge figure was made for a British ship,’ he explains. ‘But it was made by out of Indian hardwood by craftsmen in India in 1830s, so it speaks of empire if it speaks of anything. And when these things are brought on to dry land, they’re often repainted, resculptued. Bits get added on, they become transformed.’

    Calcutta’ figurehead
  • 'The Blue Ship'

    c1934, Alfred Wallis

    'Wallis is the familiar figure,' says Mtrone. 'Probably the one named artist in the show that everyone knows. But here you see Wallis in a different context. You see him not in the context of the 1920s and 1930s British modernism but alongside John Craske, who was a Norfolk retired sailor who became an embroiderer and painter. He’s much less well known but there’s a formal language which is very similar. Is Wallis really that different from every other painter up and down the country who was working in a port or in a market town producing scenes from memory? Is it just a historical accident that a couple of metropolitan artists discovered him? I don’t think there’s an easy answer.'


    'The Blue Ship'


c1720, anonymous

‘There’s a lot we know about this cast iron sign’, says Myrone. ‘We know it’s from a pharmacy in Whitechapel, we even know the address [The Golden Sun, 144 Whitechapel High Street]. It’s in the collection of the Museum of London, where it’s viewed a kind of popular antiquity, or a part of urban life. But it’s also a really fantastic bit of sculpture, a really compelling object, and I think that’s an exciting way to think about the objects and about the Tate as a context.’

Win tickets to a private view of 'British Folk Art'

Win one of 50 pairs of tickets to a private view at Tate Britain

As part of our partnership with Tate Britain, we're giving you the chance to discover the extraordinary and surprising works of some of Britain’s unsung artists in the first major exhibition of British folk art, taking place at Tate Britain 10 Jun - 31 Aug 2014.

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