Terry Grimley looks at three exhibitions shedding light on British folk art
When Compton Verney acquired the Kalman collection early in its short history, it immediately became a nationally important centre for British folk art.
With the later addition of the Marx-Lambert collection, the permanent display of naive paintings, shop and inn signs and miscellaneous crafts is as meticulously presented as everything else in this superb conversion of an 18th century mansion into a contemporary art museum.
However, its location on the top floor – traditionally the site of servants’ quarters in such houses – reflects the Cinderella status of folk art in Britain. It is useful to be reminded from time to time that many other countries take their folk culture more seriously.
But the opening displays of the 2011 season have allowed at least some of the folk exhibits to escape the attic and rub shoulders with high art in the ground floor galleries.
In the exhibition What the folk say... artist and curator Paul Ryan has invited 18 colleagues to join him in selecting folk art to juxtapose against works in galleries devoted to Neapolitan and north European art, British portraits and Chinese bronzes.
Participants include Pop Art pioneer Sir Peter Blake, Turner Prizewinner Jeremy Deller and Birmingham artists’ collective Juneau Projects.
Many of their “interventions” give an upstairs-downstairs double-take on a common theme. For example, Blake puts an 18th century rocking horse beside a spectacular bronze horse from the Han Dynasty. Pointedly, the name of neither maker is recorded.
Some pairings have a more provocative feeling, like Carolyn Flood’s placing the watercolour West Bromwich Sweep, showing a mid-Victorian Black Country bruiser receiving first aid in mid-bout, alongside a laborious painting of Aeneas receiving similar treatment by the 17th century Italian, Francesco Solimena.
But the most pithy combination, and my personal favourite, comes from Juneau Projects.
Placing a sanctimonious Victorian wall plaque with the words “Prepare to Meet Thy God” beneath a painting of the Holy Family by Luca Giordano seems less about affronting high art than revealing a kitsch kinship.
Alongside the exhibition Compton Verney has invited the public to submit its own examples of folk art, and the most remarkable find has been a collection of around 250 ballpoint drawings made by Albert H Bennett while working as a yardman at a Birmingham gasworks in the 1970s.
Drawn from memory and recording various forms of pre-war vintage transport, shop fronts and advertising, they have an intensity which belies their humble medium, and a selection of them has been given a special display in the cafe area.
There is little doubt that the most celebrated British folk or naive painter of the 20th century was Alfred Wallis, who began painting at the age of 68 after the death of his wife and a working life as a sailor and marine scrapman.
Wallis was discovered by the modernist painter Ben Nicholson on the day he first visited St Ives in 1928. Wallis’s childlike paintings of boats and harbours chimed immediately with the kind of semi-abstract language Nicholson was developing at the time.
Born in 1855, Wallis was a contemporary of the artists who formed Cornwall’s first artistic colony in Newlyn in the 1880s (he was actually two years older than the best-known of them, Stanhope Forbes).
The Newlyn painters, progressive in the context of British art of the time, were realists. Ironically, Wallis bypassed realism to paint in a more conceptual style akin to that which children instinctively adopt – thus jumping generations to become allied to the avant-garde artists of the inter-war years.
As well as his avoidance of conventional light and perspective, Wallis worked on any materials that came to hand including scraps of cardboard of irregular shape.
This served to heighten the sense of the paintings as unique objects – another idea which feeds into Nicholson’s evolving style. Wallis, incidentally, is represented in the Compton Verney collection by a painting on a tin tea tray.
Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson explores the relationship of these two artists, who were stylistically close but worlds apart in background and education.
It is notable that almost all the works following on from the first encounter in 1928 come from the private collection formed by Tate Gallery curator Jim Ede, now on public display in his former house, Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge.
It is interesting to register, too, that Wallis’s influence on Nicholson was renewed when he returned to live in St Ives in 1939.
For a time he simultaneously produced both pure geometrical abstracts and semi-abstract landscape with affinities to Wallis – perhaps because the latter were a better commercial proposition. However, Wallis enjoyed no commercial success, dying in a workhouse in Penzance in 1942
The exhibition is an interesting illumination of a key encounter in 20th century British art, but there is a third artist in this story – Chistopher Wood, who accompanied Nicholson on that first visit to St Ives, but is glimpsed only by reflection in some of the earlier Nicholson paintings.
Completing a trio of exhibitions on the theme of folk art, Wool works: A sailor’s artis a pioneering exploration of the embroidered pictures – usually ship portraits – which became a hobby for many sailors around the mid-Victorian period.
* Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson and Wool works: A sailor’s art are on view until June 5, What the folk say... is on until December 11 at Compton Verney, near Kineton, Warwickshire (Tue-Sun and Bank Holidays 11am-5pm. Admission £13, concessions available. www.comptonverney.org.uk)