Andrew Lambirth

Why did it take so long to recognise the worth of British folk art?

The Tate’s new show of Brobdingnagian shop signs, evocative stitchery, glorious figureheads from ships and collaged pictures is both timely and hideously overdue

Why did it take so long to recognise the worth of British folk art?
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British Folk Art

Tate Britain, until 31 August

Keith Vaughan in Essex

The Fry Art Gallery, Castle Street, Saffron Walden, until 14 September

British folk art has been shamefully neglected in the land of its origin, as if the popular handiwork of past generations is an embarrassment to our cultural gurus and the kind of supposedly hip commentators who sneer at morris dancing. Last May I reviewed the archive display at the Whitechapel Gallery of Black Eyes and Lemonade, which re-visited the 1951 Whitechapel exhibition of the same name, a survey of vernacular art in Britain curated by the artist Barbara Jones; but that show, more than 60 years ago now, was probably the only specifically folk art exhibition in a major museum or public gallery to take place in recent years.

Certain individuals have tended the folk art flame in the interim, chief among them Andras Kalman (ironic that it should take a Hungarian émigré to recognise the artistic worth of British folk art), who built up a collection that was formerly housed in a small museum in Bath, but has now joined the allied collections of designer Enid Marx and historian Margaret Lambert at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Compton Verney holds the most substantial permanent display of British folk art and it is appropriate that this show should travel there after the Tate (27 September to 14 December). And finally, after years of indifference, there are persistent signs of a change of heart, particularly on the museum fringe, and once again among artist-curators, as alternative traditions become fashionable. The Tate’s current celebration is thus both timely and hideously overdue.

Although it has been criticised for not venturing far enough into the confused territory of popular art, the show is full of colour and interest, visual drama and variety. It is immensely enjoyable if a little melancholy. How can it be anything other than cause for shame that virtually all of the exhibits are historical, rather than reaffirming and continuing a living tradition? We have lost contact with our heritage because we think (for some bizarre reason) it’s so much smarter to rely on mass-produced artefacts and the dangerous prop of technology. Anyone who thinks that folk art is laughable should step out to Millbank and have their sense of wonder reawakened by Brobdingnagian shop signs, evocative stitchery, glorious figureheads from ships and collaged pictures.

The show begins with giant trade signs (padlock or top hat, leather boot or cast-iron sun) and the Bellamy Quilt, a 19th-century engagement embroidery that puts the tapestries of Grayson Perry in their place. At once we see the effortless reassertion of the handmade and particular over the machine-made and generalised. When we stopped making our own things, what richness we lost. Nowadays, advertising fills our minds with dreams of having exactly what everybody else has. The fat pigs and racing pigeons are familiar, but not the Tailor of Frant, George Smart (c.1775–1845), who made pictures from textile scraps, or indeed ‘The Tailor’s Coverlet’, a marvellous inlaid patchwork that took James Williams ten years to finish.

‘Harrow Hill 1972 III’ by Keith Vaughan
Among the most notable exhibits are ships of all sorts, by fine-art heroes such as the painter Alfred Wallis or the embroiderer John Craske, or soldier and sailor pincushion art made in the long watches between action. (My own mother’s father became a skilled embroiderer while serving in the British army in India.) A vast straw figure of King Alfred made in 1961 for an Oxford ball by a master thatcher; a black leg of ham trade sign like a William Turnbull Venus sculpture; a room of figureheads and tobacconists’ signs dominated by the enormous ‘Calcutta’ (1831); a very elegant 1920s Clicker Quilt from Norwich; and Boody ware (broken china) from Northumberland. The variety and inventiveness are sheer delight.

For some years now, I have periodically written about the need for an exhibition of Keith Vaughan’s landscapes. As the flurry of publications that appeared around his centenary in 2012 amply proved, Vaughan (1912–77) actually painted more landscapes than he did figures, yet he is celebrated these days almost exclusively for his depiction of the male nude. I have no intention of belittling his achievement as a figure painter, which is unassailably substantial; I simply want to see a proper exhibition of his landscapes, rather than the presence of a token two or three in a corner of rooms full of naked men. Now the Fry Art Gallery, with its emphasis on showing (and collecting) the work of artists connected with north-west Essex, has mounted a delightful show of some 23 oils and gouaches that Vaughan made in his Essex years.

This is the kind of small, intently focused exhibition that the Fry does so well (such as last year’s John Aldridge show). The catalogue, with an informative essay by Gerard Hastings analysing Vaughan’s approach to depicting the Essex landscape, is particularly useful, and excellent value at £5. It also contains a number of Vaughan’s own photographs — and especially a group of recently discovered shots of the cottages he bought and renovated in 1964 as a weekend retreat in Harrow Hill Lane, very near Michael Ayrton’s house at Toppesfield. The buildings had been taken back to their supporting beams and studwork, and these photos of internal structure are extremely revealing about the way Vaughan composed his paintings. He was a committed photographer and made constant use of the photos he took of friends bathing, or of the landscape and its scattered buildings. Some 40 photos intersperse the reproductions of paintings in the catalogue and add considerably to our understanding of Vaughan’s art.

However, the exhibition is not devoted to landscape alone: at least six of the paintings include figures, sometimes as their raison d’être. Since Vaughan was much exercised by the formal and pictorial relationships between figure and landscape, and this exhibition does not pretend to be just a landscape exhibition, this is all very right and proper. The unspectacular Essex countryside inspired Vaughan, and particularly the abstract relations of blocks of colour (black barn, white snow, green foliage, blue sky or water — to put it at its crudest) against the verticals of trees or figures. He was really exploring the patterns of the grid: the interweaving of verticals with horizontals, but always with an organic and representational slant. Vaughan was too interested in the visible world to adopt any kind of pure abstraction. Look through the cubistic facets of his sensually brushed landscapes and recognise a church tower or a gable end, a woodshed or a tree trunk, emerging from the flurry of vivid marks. ‘Tilbury-Juxta-Clare’ (1970) is a lovely example of this, and the simple-looking but slabby complexities of ‘Troy’s Farm’ (1960), ‘Cust Hill’ and ‘Cattle Shed’ (both 1972).

The Fry is always a joy to visit, but with the new hang of the permanent collection featuring recently donated work by Michael Rothenstein and Michael Ayrton, and a whole wall of Ravilious paintings (a dozen watercolours including the particularly fine ‘Tea at Furlongs’, gifted by Jane Tueley) making an extraordinary splash opposite the vivacious wall of Edward Bawden’s work, the gallery is looking even more splendid than usual. The Vaughan show is a pleasure, but is still not the landscape exhibition I have been waiting for. Let’s hope that it’s not too long before some other adventurous museum sees its way to organising such a valuable study.