Mrs Miniver, Sundae, British Folk Art, Tate Britain
Mrs Nancy Miniver and Sundae getting dry after Dolly at Glastonbury. My dear, the noise! The people! Then trudging around the Vale of Avalon in celebration of the folklore of the Ancient Britons – it is all so very now.

There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment that challenges a lot of the orthodoxies of art, craftsmanship, universal myths and the importance of folklore. I popped Sundae around my neck, told her to keep still and strolled into the magnificent Tate Britain to see their British Folk Art exhibition. Now this might sound a bit parochial – and indeed, is there so much to see?

Well, the curators have done more than drawn the line on sausage-dog draft excluders and macramé hassocks and have presented a show deliciously craft-free but craftsmanship-respectful. It has tapped into the zeitgeist first heralded by artist Grayson Perry, working first in ceramics and then, more recently, depicting the current (tortuous) British class system as an update of Hogarth’s Rakes Progress in tapestry.

There are six rooms curated around themes over the past 500 years; shop and pub signs, landscapes, lettering and naval art. The critic Waldemar Januszczak in his review ‘Unsung Heroes’ in The Sunday Times Culture ( defined ‘folk art’ as ‘a happy language driven by important communal understandings’. Co-curator Jeff McMillan it to ‘outsider art’; work by those outside the art system, untrained academically, exploring private worlds and obsessions. I would say that this displays intriguing visions, practical applications outside the canons of what is acceptable as ‘Art’. When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 it banned “needlework, artificial flowers cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles.”  This was artisanal, made by ‘ordinary’ people – most notably women – and was unacceptable. It was not high ‘Art’. So it is nice to see the work of early 19C Mary Linwood, an extremely talented embroiderer who recreated old master and contemporary paintings in extraordinarily skilled detail, or of the tailor, George Smart, with his skilled fabric appliqués of characters like Old Mother Hubbard one could only wish for now. And, to be topical, when someone from the V&A told students at St Martin’s recently that ‘fashion is not art’ he met with mute disbelief. Really?!  thought the fashion communication students. How very, very old school.

But what is core to this – and there have been critics – is folklore, on magic, mythologies, shared mysteries and histories. ( Pick up a copy of Frazer’s Golden Bough and you will find explanations of the origins and practice of many objects in the exhibition. And as such, this show, on so many levels, but this one in particular, opening as it did in the Spring when green shoots do spring forth and lads and lasses wander off into the greenwood together to party with Jack-in-the-Green. These themes are played with a little below, in particular the idea of the hirsute – whether it be straw, hair or fur.

British Folk Art, Tate Britain, London SW1  until August 31.

The mythical Unicorn as ship’s figurehead, British Folk Art exhibition, Tate Britain. This celebration of British folk art chimes in not only with a current trend in exhibition making – last years Venice Biennale showcased self-taught artists working around the official art frameworks. It also taps into the ancient folklores of the Island Race, from Jack in the Green to Old Mother Hubbard. A unicorn is sacred and beautiful – she will act as a charm to protect the ship.

British Folk Art exhibition, Tate Britain, Mrs Miniver

Hearts of Oak: ships’ figure heads at  British Folk Art, the main from HMS Calcutta.

Hearts of Oak, British Folk Art, HMS Calcutta.

Jesse Maycock, an Oxfordshire thatcher made the larger –than-life  King Alfred in 1961, from the Museum of English Rural Life. The straw men, like the Straw Bear events in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany, hark back to the metaphorical ending of winter and welcoming in the spring.  Straw or wicker figures, burnt as sacrifice of course go back to ancient times in the northern hemisphere. This has moved into the realm of sculpture, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who fought off the Danes successfully. This is full of masculine potency – Alfred banished the Vikings from Wessex.

The straw men

AnOther Man's Autumn/Winter 2010 Alister Mackie, Nick Knight. Toothpicks applied to boy’s torso. It is a fabulous evolution of the thatch King Alfred, erotic, peculiar, other. Is the thrill in the process, as on film, or in the result? It goes back to the hirsute man, the hairy man as savage. It is Nature erupting from the confines of man-made civilisation.

AnOther Man, Autumn/Winter 2010, Alister Mackie, Nick Knight

Simon Costin, curator of the Museum of British Folklore with the Whittlesea Straw Bear, photo by Tim Walker, British Vogue July 2011. The tireless work of Simon Costin and the members of the Museum have brought this neglected aspect of our ancient cultures and mythologies into the forefront. The magic and playfulness is beautifully expressed in the work of Tim Walker; it is fantasy-meets-history-meets-exuberant expression of difference.

Simon Costin, curator of the Museum of British Folklore, Whittlesea Straw Bear, photo by Tim Walker, British Vogue July 2011

Simon Costin and friend at the Jack in the Green festival in Hastings, May 2014. Jack is the virile, playful, joyous and carefree spirit of spring. It is he who will fertilise those fecund fields and fillies. Is it pagan? Yes. But please note, Tom Cruise was Jack in the Green in the film Legend  (1985) and nothing could be less wickedly Puck than that. Genius costumes by Charles Knode, also responsible for the haute costumes in Bladerunner.

Simon Costin and friend, Jack in the Green festival, Hastings, May 2014

And while we are talking about folk art, fecundity, virility, magic and Hastings – this detail from The Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070. It is needlework, probably by nuns, made for Bishop Odo, duke of Kent, commemorating the Norman victory over the Saxon king of England, Harold in 1066. Lower part of the frieze: a naked man gestures to a dragon, who has presumably stolen his clothes as it breathed fire over the battlefield. Game of Thrones anyone? They knew it was magic in 1070 too.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, part of the british folklore portraits project by Henry Bourne, shown March 2014 when ‏the Museum of British Folklore launched their friends scheme at Show Studio. You can sign up to help the museum at The Museum of British Folklore website and follow them on twitter @MuseumofBritish.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, british folklore portraits, Henry Bourne, March 2014

Albrecht Durer, Stags head, Durer, 1503, A young stags head, hunter trophy.

Albrecht Durer, Stags head, Durer, 1503, A young stags head, hunter trophy

Alexander McQueen, Dante AW 1996 - 1997. this was the first time that he used antlers in a show. They were supplied by Issy Blow as a dramatic styling motif. The coat was based on one that Lee McQueen saw being worn by a down and out man in London. The collar is Mongolian lamb. This is McQueen as hunter; a hunter who plays with cross gender and drama, and with this highly sexualised show,  one who celebrates Nature – Dionysus – red in tooth and claw.

Alexander McQueen, Dante, AW 1996 - 1997

The hunter has a mystical experience; Eustace, Christian martyr and saint was thought to be a Roman general, living in the second century AD. Here is as  a fashionable young man – see the sable trim to his silk gown, the twisted  blue silk hood worn nonchalantly, the rich trappings of his magnificent steed and his largesse of hunting dogs; confronted by the vision of a crucifix nestled between the horns of a stag, he is converted to Christianity. 1438- 42 Pisanello The Vision of St Eustace, National Gallery, London

Sable trim, silk gown, 1438- 42 Pisanello, The Vision of St Eustace, National Gallery, London

The idea of the North, the savage, or ‘other’ expressed through the wearing of rough furs: 1510-1515  L’homme sauvage en tete du cortege des cavaliers, from The Triumph of Caesar, Chateau de Velex Blanco, Andalusia, credit Musee des Arts Decoratifs.

The savage, furs, The triumph of Caesar

AnOther Man's Autumn/Winter 2010. Styled by Alister Mackie, it’s called  Body Language, photographed by Nick Knight and recorded on SHOWstudio. Are men in furs still ‘wild’; through harking back to ancient dress or by assuming the skin of an animal – to be like the shapeshifting beserkers and wolfshirts of Teutonic and Nordic legend? This fabulous ‘mask’ is made from toothpicks; texture, meaning, aesthetics, mythologies.

AnOther Man ,Autumn/Winter 2010. Styled by Alister Mackie, photographed by Nick Knight, recorded on SHOWstudio, fur

AnOther Man's Autumn/Winter 2010. Fur and paper sculpture. It is the language and dexterity of contrasts which are so interesting – challenging the ideas of textures, luxury and the bestial body – usually referred to at ‘The Other’. Think The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch.

AnOther Man, Autumn/Winter 2010, Fur paper sculpture

Germany pre-WW2 and the incredible photographs of Hans Retslaff. Folk art, folk costume: These men are masked Narros of Laufenburg celebrating the Swabian-Allemanic Fasthecht carnival in the run up to Lent. The masks are called Häs; representing spirits, entities of the forest and are handed down over generations. Costumes handmade, see the fox fur around the figure on the right, wearing a Häs of a young woman. Black Forest, Geographical Magazine, March 1938

Germany pre-WW2, photographs of Hans Retslaff, folk art, folk costume, fox, fur

Hans Retslaff,  A masked  Narros of Laufenburg, his fantastical carnival costume made from playing cards. Black Forest, Geographical Magazine, March 1938.

Hans Retslaff,  A masked  Narros of Laufenburg, carnival costume, playing cards, Geographical Magazine, March 1938

How effectively does fashion deal with folk lore and mythologies? – in this context McQueen, Autumn/Winter 2006/7 . Symbolic of the pursued and abused and banished Scottish highlanders by the English armies, 1746. The rawness of the message has been made ethereal and beautiful with exquisite silk lace. This is the just-jilted Miss Havisham, the woman as force for vengeance. Beautiful, haunting; but folklore, no.

fashion with folk lore and mythologies, McQueen, Autumn/Winter 2006/7, silk lace

Craftsmanship, unicorns and fantasy – a lady putting the finishing touches to the trappings of a unicorn, her monkey assistant holding her gently. Who says unicorns don’t exist? Enter the world of folklore – and fantasy writers such as J.K. Rowling – see her ‘patronus’ narrative. 1470s, Flemish Book of Hours, Master of Nassau, Douce 219 220 fol. 96. The lady, but the way, is informally dressed, but the illustrator marks the similarity of her steeple headdress and the unicorns magic – well – unique horn.

Craftsmanship, unicorns and fantasy
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