Why folk art is no longer the endangered species of the art world - Museums Association

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Why folk art is no longer the endangered species of the art world

How Compton Verney is engaging with contemporary communities to build on its extensive collection of folk art
Folklore
Annelise Hone
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Detail from one of the paintings in Compton Verney's folk art collection Compton Verney

We describe folk art as objects and paintings made by people with no formal training as artists, but who made use of their innate abilities or skills acquired as part of their trade or training for a particular craft. Folk art is grounded in real lives and grew out of the long-established craft traditions of local communities in an era before mass production.

The collection of folk art at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, has an important place in its history in the UK. It was collected by the Hungarian-British art dealer Andras Kalman (1918-2007), who was the first to take this work seriously.

Calling folk art “the endangered species of the English art world”, Kalman championed it between the 1950s and the 1980s, amassing a large collection that toured internationally. It found its permanent home at Compton Verney when it was saved from being broken up by the gallery’s founder Peter Moores.

A Pair of Pigs from Compton Verney's folk art collection Compton Verney/photo Hugh Kelly

We now hold the largest collection of folk art in the UK, and almost all pieces are on permanent display. As such, it’s an important reference collection for the history and character of folk art, and is also one of the most popular collections with our visitors, who love the warmth and quirky humour of many pieces.

As Kalman’s daughter Sally says: “My father had a rare, discerning eye for the fresh and original. He said ‘naïve art has a freshness, crispness, originality’. He loved the humour, charm and colour.”

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The folk art we hold represents the everyday interests of the ordinary people who made the objects so it provides unique insights into their lives, especially in rural areas. While grand portraits and paintings survive to detail the lives of kings, queens and politicians, folk art is often the only visual record we have of ordinary people.

For instance, the Hogarthian painting entitled Three Sober Preachers (c.1860) humorously lampoons attitudes towards drinking, and includes clues about its unknown artist. Folk art authority James Ayres explains: “This painting includes lettering and wood graining of a type that would have been within the scope of a sign painter.”

Recently, we worked with academic Jenni Hunt, who undertook research into the lives of disabled artists and makers, and of the representation of disabled people in the collection. This culminated in a display entitled Disabled Lives, which is in our folk art galleries.

Displays of folk art at Compton Verney Compton Verney

We are planning an exhibition of costumes relating to British folk customs in collaboration with the Museum of British Folklore and London College of Fashion. This exciting exhibition will open in 2023 and will feature items from Compton Verney’s collection, offering another lens through which we can consider these objects.

Indeed, our folk art collection is incredibly popular with visitors and, as with all our collections, we are seeking different ways to engage with new audiences.

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There are, for instance, a variety of contemporary issues that we can address through the narratives in our folk art collection. Folk is a living thing and there are many traditions, old and new, that are practiced by communities across the UK.

We want to engage with these contemporary communities to ensure that our folk art collection represents the rich tapestry of traditions and lore found across the Midlands region. This includes representing South Asian, African, Caribbean and LGBTQ+ traditions.

Annelise Hone is the exhibitions and collections manager at Compton Verney in Warwickshire

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