Folk Art at Tate Britain: Mad Men of the 18th Century London

Imagine walking by the streets of 18th Century London: heaving with exotic and novel goods,  crowds gasping at the marvels from overseas and acquiring all sort of merchandises.  The exhibition of Folk Art at Tate Britain opens a window to the colorful world of advertisement, trade and creativity in the 18th Century London. These are the “madmen” of the industrial revolution and world trade:  using symbols and a direct visual language for enticing, informing, and promoting. Walking by, a pedestrian would be able to recognise the symbols of the different trades, as shown in the first room of the exhibition:

(how many of the images can you associate to trades/products?)


Summer 2014-Sketchbook: Original drawing from the exhibition. BAcevedo

From left to right, first row: locksmith, goldbeater (jewerly), sun (as apollo for apothecaries), glove maker. second row: three coins for the pawnbroker, tea sellers, grater (?), bear for barber shop; third row: cobbler shop, key makers, hat shop and pharmacy.

The ingenuity of the different objects reveal what we all know, but seldomly forget: that “everybody is an artist”, and that accessible, popular art has both power and resonance throughout the centuries. That pop art is linked to commerce, but most interestingly, that it also democratices art and beauty, while informing and promoting. The different objects included in the exhibition are just the tip of a whole universe of creativity, everyday lives and ingenuity.  At the same time, this exhibition challenges our perceptions of certain objects:

Take for example the “love pincushions” painstakingly elaborated by soldiers to their sweethearts, pining and pinning… pins, that humble object, was actually a precious commodity and thus the elaborated designs and the symbolic meaning.  Pins were also magical objects, warding off witches, protecting children… mothers were given pincushions after the baby was born (not before because it was believed that it could increase the labour pains.).


Summer 2014-Sketchbook: Original drawing from the exhibition. BAcevedo

Objects  using discarded materials were created long time before our recent trend for upcycling and recycling…objects that also talk about defiance, as this “cockerel” made entirely of bones, by a french prisoner of war using rudimentary tools and discarded materials.  It seems to say, you can reduce me to this prison but you can never take my soul… and this soul goes through my hands to the making, to the object that we are seeing now…  craftivism? (Only Ann Rippin, could answer this…), a disobedient object (see V&A latest exhibition)?

Summer 2014-Sketchbook: Original drawing from the exhibition. BAcevedo

Many other objects like those associated to tobacco shops, also reveal a complex creation of identities: the exotic other, a mixture of East and Africa, the myth of the Negro, a person without a place, a sign of the exotic, without history or roots… an icon that identifies a shop or a trade (and please do not get me started on the “ad” identity of rich cultures like the Mexican, reduced to the chillies and rancheras!)

My favorites, apart of the amazing shop signs, were the decorations of ships, which reminded me of my friend Sam Warren, because many of this come from Portsmouth, but also made me think of a recent conversation with Donna Ladkin, about mermaids getting old…


Summer 2014-Sketchbook: Original drawing from the exhibition. BAcevedo

But overall, this exhibition made me think that perhaps I am actually a Folk Artist…

what does this mean? It is a self-taught artist, an outsider perhaps? A type of art that is democratic, popular, accessible… also called naive, picturesque, decorative, low brow?

Indeed, this is the type of art I do and I would like to do… I love the fact that these objects were part of everyday life, that were precious yet domestic, without the grandeur of being “art” simply being beautiful and thus enhancing everybody’s lives. I thought about 17th century Holland, where everybody was buying art: not only the aristocracy, but the baker, the cobbler, the common man and woman… The same applies in music:  what is folk music: it is old, yet it transcends… the latest album of Dolly Parton, has indeed her greatest hits, and a collection of folk songs that sounds so new, yet so arcane and primordial. And this is what I would like with my art:

that everybody can have a piece of it,

that it enhances lives,

that it is part of your happy memories,

your domestic sense of security,

that you do not need to “read” it or “understand” it, t

hat it is direct, colourful and affectionate… a

nd that with it we can celebrate together our joie de vivre (el gozo de la vida!)


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