LONDON – Better men than I am have tried, and sometimes succeeded, in defining just what “folk art” is. Art critic Herbert Read in his 1931 book The Meaning of Art called it “peasant art” … “objects made by uncultured people in accordance with a native and indigenous tradition owing nothing to outside influence.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica takes it a scholarly step further, suggesting that it is “the creative expression of the human struggle toward civilisation,” the antithesis of the elite or professional product. I venture to suggest that, within certain boundaries, folk art is what you want it to be. Add the word naïve and/or primitive, where justified, to the description of an object and the limit for today’s collectors is near endless.
We purchased a piece of folk art last weekend. In an otherwise uninspiring collectors’ fair, we found a small but still intact and complete Napoleonic prisoner of war work set of bone dominoes. Each no bigger than a postage stamp, the dominoes were contained in their original pierced and decorated box with sliding lid, also made from bone. The next day we watched the BBC Antiques Roadshow’s Jon Baddeley enthusing about a model of a sailing ship with the same history.
During the period 1756-1816, thousands of captured soldiers and sailors, many of whom had been conscripted or pressed into service and forced to leave their jobs as jewelers, woodworkers and craftsmen, spent years in the prison hulks moored outside this country’s ports. Many were from Dieppe, in Normandy, an important European center for carved ivory. With no money to feed themselves, the men turned to fashioning all manner of intricate articles using the bones from their meager rations, which they sold to support themselves.
The crudest examples were pictures – often of the ships they served on – made from the straw from their bedding. The most elaborate are fabulous bone ship models, the hulls, masts and fitments made from beef bones rescued from their soup, the rigging from their hair.
Some of the most popular among these handicrafts were games and games boxes, playing cards, chess sets, spillikins and other pastimes, which were particularly popular with the French.
Another way to make money (hopefully) was gambling, which explains the prolific manufacture of everything from just a couple of dice in a simply decorated box, sometimes no more than 1 1/2 inches long, and teetotums (gambling spinning tops), to games compendia up to about a foot in length.
Needless to say, the Roadshow ship model was worth thousands, even in its dismantled and somewhat decrepit state. We bargained hard and paid £140 for our dominoes, but they represent what I call folk art: objects made by hand by artists usually self-taught with little or nothing in the way of tools other than their own imagination, motivated by necessity or the desire to add decoration to the otherwise utilitarian.
Embroidered samplers are perhaps one of the purest forms of folk art. These early ones date from the 16th century as a method of recording different stitches and designs. By the 18th century, however, the sampler became an essential tool in a child’s education. Often from a tender age, both boys and girls were taught the alphabet and how to read by stitching samplers, while simple arithmetic enabled pupils to count stitches and calculate the positions in which to start and end decorative borders and patterns.
Scripture training was provided by prosaic verses which adopted moral and religious overtones and when samplers began to carry embroidered pictures of houses, figures and animals such as deer, lions, sheep and birds, the educational value of the art form was complete. Interestingly, woolwork embroideries were made by sailors and convalescing soldiers in the aftermath of the Crimean and the Great Wars.
Naïve paintings of horses and farm animals attract strong interest and prices to match, the larger and more strangely built the creatures appear, the better they are appreciated. Some were done by freelance coach and sign painters while others were painted by peripatetic artists, often with scant ability, who traveled around the country seeking commissions from farmers proud of their herds or an animal that had performed well in the show ring. It paid to flatter, hence the animals’ often exaggerated proportions. Look particularly for those giving the name of the farmer and his prize animal and its dimensions.
The list of folk art is expansive: treen objects (literally of a tree) such as Welsh love spoons wood and bone lace bobbins; Valentines made from shells, carved whales’ teeth, known as scrimshaw, made on long voyages; duck decoys used by hunters to their prey; apple corers made from the knuckle bones of sheep; ships’ figureheads; weather vanes; tavern signs; trench art, items made from the spent shell cases and other detritus of war; early Staffordshire flatbacks, decorative ceramic figures meant to stand on hearth or mantelpiece … let me know when you’d like me to stop.
Tate Britain, currently hosting an exhibition called British Folk Art – it runs until Aug. 31 – is one place to see some of the more unusual items. The show spans some 300 years from the mid-17th right up to the mid-20th century, but the Industrial Revolution sounded the death knell of folk art because the skills traditionally needed to construct utility items were no longer in demand.
The Great Exhibition in 1851, a showcase for Britain’s manufacturing industries, saw its demise. The Victorian age was geared to mechanising production and there was little time left for making one-off artifacts. Or it was until about 1860 when a return to folk style and traditional craftsmanship was led by William Morris and John Ruskin. It was grandly called the Arts and Crafts Movement, which began in Britain and spread quickly across Europe and North America.
Collectors looking to purchase folk art should visit the Antiques for Everyone summer fair at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, which runs from July 24-27. John Shepherd and his partner, Erna Hiscock, who kindly supplied most of the illustrations on this page, have been exhibiting at the fairs there for 20 years and carry a stock of good pottery, samplers, treen, tools, pictures and fabrics, attracting lots of buyers including interior decorators and American trade. The Clarion Events fair is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, and admission is £12 including parking.
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