As you walk into the exhibition at the Tate Britain you are greeted with a disclaimer on the wall stating that folk art is an ‘elusive, contradictory and contested term.’

I’ve been fascinated recently in how tradition is passed down through the generations. I read a book last year by Alistair Moffat in which he talked about experiments done on birds who were taken away from their mothers and brought up away from them. Under natural conditions the birds made these nests shaped like socks, but in the experiment they weren’t given the materials to build them.

Generations later the bird’s cages were filled with the necessary bits of moss and twigs to build the nests, and sure enough the birds built the nests as if they’d known how to do it all their lives: it was as if it was in their ‘DNA memory’. Variations of the story exist in one place or another, about a bird retaining its particular song though it had never been taught it.

…a world of nameless creations borrowed from various museums and time periods around Britain…

Moffat also talked about how we perhaps are fascinated by certain ages or people in history because it’s in our blood. Isn’t that wildly delicious? That’s why I was so fascinated to see the work displayed in the Tate, much of which was by people who would not regard themselves as artists but more as craftsmen: a world of nameless creations borrowed from various museums and time periods around Britain.There’s something so raw, bare and human about it.

These people didn’t train at St Martins and create innovative conceptual art made out of toilet seats, splashes of paint and matchsticks in useless positions, in boxes or whatever – they just got to work and made something they probably needed to make, like a trade sign or a ship mast, and they made it unique and beautiful, and they made it with great care and skill.

… ‘a giant shoe’…

The best part of my visit to the Tate’s British Folk Art exhibition was when a group of children came in behind me, threw themselves on the floor and shouted with all their might at one of the displays; ‘a giant shoe’, to which the other replied ‘A giant shoe!’

‘A giant teapot’

‘A giant teapot!’

And so on.

…There were giant teapots, fish shaped trade signs, boot shaped trade signs, and brightly coloured quilts…

folkart2I’ve never seen a group of people so excited about art and I trust kids more than adults when it comes to art appreciation, so there must have been something rather special about what I was looking at. There were giant teapots, fish shaped trade signs, boot shaped trade signs, and brightly coloured quilts with Latin proverbs stitched into the patterns, beautiful paintings and a huge thatched statue of Alfred the Great.

There were beautifully sculpted, powerful ship figureheads, the likes of which you take for granted when watching a film so many times, yet in real life they take your breath away. The chicken, featured on the posters and flyers, is named ‘Bone Cockerel’ and was fashioned around 1800 by a French prisoner of war using bones from the kitchen and improvised craft tools. There are small details in the work that give even smaller clues to our history: everywhere there are ship paintings, a mirror to the pride of the English Navy.

…the maker has taken years to work on it as a unique creation…

The Blue Ship ?c.1934 by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942It’s so nice to see contemporarily mundane objects such as trade signs where people have really taken pride in creating them. They seem to mimic the beauty of old buildings, where the maker has taken years to work on it as a unique creation instead of these block storage towers we see so much of today. The act of creation for practicality alone without artistic input seems to me to be void of passion and integrity, and seeing these items that have stood the test of time both physically and in relevance to value makes me wonder if a Topshop display is even made out of the right material to exist in two hundred years let alone be appreciated.

I don’t know if it’s just due to the general mood I was in before I entered the hall but this exhibition was an absolute breath of fresh air. We live in a world where you are either looking too hard for beauty or not enough for it: on one side of us is consumerism and on the other is a world of pretentious arty twiddle. I recommend this exhibition for anyone who has the slightest interest in the heart of Britain, or its identity throughout the years. There were no airs or graces, the work was highly and carefully crafted, simply symbolic at times, always understated: a simple ode to tradition, and what is now past.

… the word ‘folk’ is just something which entails the better part of tradition…

So the romantic in me wants to argue that folk art is in our blood. I want to tell you that it stemmed from centuries of tradition passed down in equal part through the bards, our genes and a Collective Unconscious blowing on the winds of the wild landscapes, through the villages, and the towns and the cities of Britain. But if not, or if that is only partially true, then perhaps the word ‘folk’ is just something which entails the better part of tradition: the good bits that we look forward or back to. Folk might just be the things that we keep alive not for pride or fashion but because it brings a sense of belonging to our identity.

Review: British Folk Art at Tate Britain
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About The Author

Writer, actor and theatre practitioner, aspiring blues guitar player. Fan of Harry Potter and Shakespeare.

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