No Baubles - British Folk Art at Tate Britain

When the Royal Academy was established in 1769, it emphatically stated that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted". Baubles were all very well for the drawing room; just don’t bring them into the gallery. 

One might well assume that this measure was intended to bar women from exhibiting; this a mere twenty three years before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published. Art by women has long been devalued and placed firmly in the camp of craft, differentiating it from "masculine" high art; as art historian Roszika Parker noted "historians devalued it ("women's work") in the eyes of society which equated great art with masculinity, the public sphere and professional practice”. Professional practice, of course, was historically barred to the vast majority of women, and even today, the exposés of Guerrilla Girls indicate the extent of the glass ceiling which still exists in the art world. Work by female artists is often couched as female first, and art second, or simply and derisively as "decorative".



But it is not only women that the Royal Academy's proclamation barred; rejection of these "baubles" is in part a question of class. Many male and female artists could only dream of the Royal Academy, with its members wealthy enough to "drop out" in order to turn to a life of painting. Working class artists instead turned to whatever they had to hand for their materials; bone, scraps of fabric, letters and newspapers, pins and beads. Art made from the collections of the rag and bone man.



It is this patchwork art, made from scraps, from snippets of this and that, that we see at British Folk Art at Tate Britain. Literal patchworks are paper pieced with scraps of letters and newspapers. In a time when paper was scarce and expensive, this was the most economical means of hand quilting, even if sacrificing cherished letters was heart-wrenching. Throughout the exhibition we see thrift as evidence of survival and adaptation to trying circumstances, rather than it is often employed today, as guilty afterthought or proof of green credentials. This is make do and mend before the term came into use. The centrepiece is a cockerel painstakingly hand-carved from mutton bone by French POWs during the Napoleonic Wars. The intricacy of this sculpture repudiates the rulings of the Royal Academy almost half a century earlier. It is an astonishing work not simply for the delicacy of the carving, but for the sheer quantity of bones the POWs siphoned off; for the coral wattle and comb which presumably is dyed bone; for the hours it doubtless took to whittle and carve down the bone into individual feathers. The cockerel demonstrates the tenacity of the human spirit; the irrepressibility of imagination.



Time and again walking through the exhibition, the audience encounters art made during hardship. Folk artists have created when incarcerated; when recuperating from illness; when pining for loved ones across the seas.

Whereas needlework and textile craft was thought to be the preserve of middle and upper class ladies in recent centuries (and we do see examples of samplers in this vein), here we see men turning to the medium also, often when convalescing.



Injured sailors and fishermen created woolwork keepsake representations of their ships. Recuperating soldiers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were encouraged to create bright patchworks from their old uniforms. Some might think this emasculating; however, when one takes into account just how heavy duty the serge and twill fabric is, any feminine associations of needlework evaporate.

 An even more macho application of needlecraft is evident in a
frankly terrifying Jolly Roger which flew atop HMS Trenchant in the Second World War. In a gross understatement, the exhibition notes inform us that Jolly Rogers like this one featured "symbols referring to the vessel's various engagements". The "various engagements" are the sinking and capturing of German ships. Appliqué, as employed here, and other textile crafts, have become the site of subversion over the course of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty first century; we see an early subversive, piratical use here. This is textiles divorced from the drawing room and any shred of domesticity; made entirely masculine.  



Alongside the woolwork depictions of ships and “sailors’ valentines” are works of art of a more traditional nature; almost good enough for the Royal Academy.  Appropriately given the flavour of the exhibition, these paintings are by a rag and bone man; Alfred Wallis of St Ives. His naive paintings recall his youth at sea. Unlike the artists who neighbour his paintings, Wallis had some art world success with his work, mostly due to his friendships with the St Ives artists’ colony.

Another folk artist who had success during her lifetime was Mary Linwood, an embroidery copyist of Old Masters. She was not accepted into the patriarchal art establishment, doubtless because her naturalistic, immense silk shadings posed too much of a “bauble”, but nevertheless enjoyed considerable success. However, she fell from grace with the advent of “art needlework”, when, ironically, embroidery artists and designers aped a folk art, pre-industrial style.



As with all that is fashionable, art is cyclical; the Royal Academy may once have been up in arms about the daintily hand crafted, but contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry have made careers from borrowing from craft. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller celebrates folk art in his work, and creates new folk heroes. Doubtless the time will come again when folk art falls out of favour. This would make it all the more vital to celebrate it for what it is; art by the people, for the people.

Crystal Ball

You might remember a number of posts (spanning from all the way back in February to more recently) all about a certain quilt I was (mostly failing at) working on.

Well, now that Big Teeth is finally finished I can set to work on The Constellation Quilt. This quilt is more of a story book or comic strip, telling the tale of the fortune-telling but unlucky in love witchy siren Polly Kettle (a performative alter ego of mine).

As well as spelling out Polly's name letter by letter in square patches, the quilt has a narrative, typewritten below:


In between the narrative and letter patches will be illustrative, playful patches portraying Polly and her accoutrements (crystal ball and all!) Here is one below. It's stitched on to hand screen printed linen by Room39:



And the first (though not chronologically) of the narrative patches, complete with iridescent sequins for shading:


I haven't quite decided which patch to stitch up next; possibly an appliqué of Polly herself. The quilt may have to take a bit of a back burner once again, however; I'm starting my training at the Royal School of Needlework next week, and imagine I'll get fairly busy fairly quickly! A post on that to follow.

Revisiting the Constellation Quilt


The Constellation Quilt has been languishing unloved and uncared for for the past few months, in favour of "quick fix" projects over this time consuming (and daunting!) endeavour. It's not just that though; the quilt just wasn't "hanging together" for me; I wasn't happy with the aesthetic, or with the disjointed narrative of the piece; it all seemed a bit "bitty".

Now that my summer holidays are looming, I'm about to find myself with the time to really take the quilt to task. I toyed with the idea of converting it into a giant fortune teller or cootie catcher structure (and I may still have to make one up in fabric, though on a smaller scale), but it was the concept of the quilt as a giant linear comic strip that most appealed to me.

And so I have written a snippet of text to add into a reworking of the quilt, with much more of a cohesive narrative. I don't think it's quite "done" yet, it needs a decisive ending, and it will be accompanied by a few choice embroidered and appliqued illustrations, but the final quilt will be mostly text; the words will speak for themselves.
I'm excited to make a proper start once my current bee-themed embroidery is out of the way. My hope is that I'll have the quilt ready for exhibition in the Words Over Waltham Forest festival in October. Fingers crossed!

Life! Death! Prizes!


“Life! Death! Prizes!” (complete with exclamation marks) is the rather incongruous strapline of Chat magazine, “your smart real-life read”, aka one of the recent spate of pulp magazines, that, as one reviewer of a book named for the strapline puts it, trade “in human misery by revelling in real-life traumas”.
On a lighter note, I was tickled by the phrase and cross stitched it during my second year at university.
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I chose green as the colour for “life!” due to its association with nature and new life, red for “death!” due to the obvious connotations of blood (alternatively red could have been used for “life!” for the same reason), and a variety of bright colours for “prizes!”, analogous with a flashing neon sign that would be found in an amusement arcade or fairground.
The phrase stuck in my head as I began to plan The Constellation Quilt, and the idea that it could be a neon sign hanging in a fairground made me think that it would make the perfect companion piece to my “fortune telling” patch, with a wheel of fortune or fairground fortune slot vibe.
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When translating the phrase into a patch for The Constellation Quilt, I kept the colours of the text the same (adding purple flowers growing out of the “life!” line), but chose a different font for each word. I think the font of “prizes!” is particularly akin to a neon sign. To add to this effect, I stitched star sequins and purple beads, to tone in with the rest of the quilt, issuing out in rays of “neon light”.
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This was my first time using water soluble cross stitch aida, and I’m largely happy with the results, although as the plastic  texture of the aida makes it difficult to use an embroidery hoop, there is some puckering between the words.
Here is the patch alongside its companion piece. Only three more patches to go, and then it’s the scary part; piecing together the quilt by hand.
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"You will meet a tall dark stranger"


As I mentioned in my previous post, this patch of The Constellation Quilt is all about Polly Kettle’s fortune telling. I couldn’t help but refer back to my Fortunate Cookie Predicts Pavement Proposal embroidery which featured in my project The Cure For Love with this patch; a number of rhyming cookie fortunes are strewn next to Polly’s sparkling crystal ball. I must apologise for taking so long to post this; the “mystic rays” radiating out from the centre of the crystal ball ate up a LOT of thread, and I’ve just been away for the weekend (I know, excuses, excuses!)
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Any Talking Heads fans may notice that I’ve borrowed a bit of a lyric from Once In A Lifetime with the first fortune, “You  may find yourself behind the wheel of a large Land Ranger“:

I decided to make all the fortunes rhyme to add a playful, light-hearted sense to the patch; I don’t think the occult should be taken too seriously! I’m just about to start the companion piece to this patch, in which I will be playing with water soluble aida (or cross stitch) fabric for the first time; I’m excited to see the results!

Stardust


I’m so inspired to complete the remaining patches of The Constellation Quilt that I’ve even been dreaming about them! The next patch will be a playful look at the stars as they apply to fortune telling (appropriate for a quilt based on my character Polly Kettle, a fortune telling siren).
I’ve just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and amongst the reams of gorgeous imagery is quite a bit of writing about the chaos and majesty of the stars, including the below:
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 Yes, it’s a little melodramatic, but so is Polly Kettle, so it seems appropriate! I enjoyed adding all the tiny gold stars (or should I say stardust?) The background fabric of the patch has the slightest gold sheen; I will be interspersing the Polly Kettle letter patches with these, and with patches of a warm yellow-gold colour. I think this “stardust” patch may be the “cornerstone” patch which ends the first “Polly” line of the quilt.

Polly Kettle


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My Polly Kettle patches for The Constellation Quilt are all finished! Next comes the trickiest step so far; getting out the graph paper and figuring out what the proportions of the quilt will be. I envision half size rectangles between these squares, embroidered with found text and my own, and appliquéd with moths (there they are again) and moons.
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I”m so loving the rich colours of these patches, and their mystical patterns.
To get myself in the mood to write and quilt I’ve written a Polly Kettle-inspired piece, which I’m going to share here, although it’s very much free, stream-of-consciousness verse, and I’m not sure if it’s finished or not yet. Polly is an occultist, part witch, part fortune teller, part medium, and so this piece has occult or supernatural themes:
Gossamer muslin blossoming out of gossiping mouths speaking in tongues and sipping mixed spirits, mixing with spirits, leaving ghostly lipsticks on spritzer glasses and crystal tumblers, wiped away with a white ‘kerchief; a parlour full of parlour tricks, above the mantelpiece the old clock ticks. It is well past the witching hour, and we are bewitching, we are divining, and we are divine, on the divan we deviate, we divide and conquer the dead and the living.
We swoon, we cry for the moon, eyes big as flying saucers, full as a saucer of milk. We three sisters, hag, maiden, whore. It has to be one or the other, the spinster, the mother, the fresh-baked home-wrecker with her wrecking ball.
Hush now sisters; I see a tall dark stranger in my future, the future’s mine, the future’s bright, mine eyes have seen the glory of the ghoulish night, and I’m a moth to my future’s white hot flame, my turban is tattered and unravelling, and I’m suddenly a slip of a thing, thinner than a paper moon, and I see a girl naked in front of her lover, I see my lover in soft focus, vaseline smeared on the glass, I must wait for my crystal ball to clear of mist, I must adjust my lens.
As explained in this article, “ectoplasm” that was produced during Victorian and Edwardian seances was, in fact, muslin, or some other thin natural substance, hence my mention of “gossamer muslin blossoming out of gossiping mouths“.
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I’m currently collating all the writing I can on stars to get me inspired for the small passages of poetry which will make up some of the patches spaced between the Polly Kettle squares. As well as writing my own snippets, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is proving a mine of stellar imagery. It was given to me by Pip for Valentine’s Day, and by coincidence was going to have moths as its central motif, not waves… I’m sure this will act as inspiration for the lunar moth(s) I’m going to add to The Constellation Quilt!

The beginnings of The Constellation Quilt


Yesterday I accompanied my Granny to a quilting workshop at the Kilchoan Learning Centre. I went along partially as research for The Constellation Quilt. However, I think my quilt will be rather less elaborate in construction than the table mats we were aiming to make; I didn’t get very far at all, and my efforts came out very wonky!
Despite this, the workshop provided a wealth of inspiration, as Joan Kelly, the workshop leader, introduced us to many quilts she had made over the years, all with their own stories and techniques. I was particularly intrigued by her use of three dimensional applique. A border stem was painstakingly rendered by tucking and sewing the rough edge underneath the flowing shape. Even more inspirational was Joan’s exquisite hand quilting. When the quilt has been finished and bound together, a design is sketched in dissolvable pen, and executed in running stitch all over the quilt. I think I’ll be brave and try this embroidery quilting technique on The Constellation Quilt.
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I particularly liked this jewel print fabric, the backing of a quilt for Joan’s son.
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My paltry efforts!
The beginnings of The Constellation Quilt are going rather more successfully (but then again, I haven’t sewn any of  it together yet!) I am currently spelling out my witchy fortune teller character Polly Kettle’s name in appliqué on squares of African print fabric in rich purples and golds; stardust colours.
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I hope to have Polly’s “surname” finished soon, and then it’s on to embroidered and cross stitched sections of the quilt.

The Knitter, the Stitcher, and the Quilter.

No, this is not a "walked into a bar" joke, or a Perraultian fairy tale.

It's all just in a day's work.


Today, a knitter (Debs), a quilter (Catherine), and a stitcher (me!), gathered to (hand)stitch together Walthamstow's Neighbourly Quilt.

Back in May I was just finishing off my first internship with Catherine at her Walthamstow-based Social Enterprise Significant Seams (I've just begun my second internship there).

My first jaunt at the Significant Seams Hub was based around a community arts project: the Neighbourly Quilt project featured here.

Significant Seams asked residents of E17 to hand in fabric squares decorated using various textile techniques, or attend a workshop to learn a technique with which to decorate their square. The theme of the square was to be either "something which makes good neighbours", or "something which I love about Walthamstow".

We received 68 patches in all; more than we expected, and more than our target!

Catherine and Debs had already spent a couple of sessions hand-stitching the quilt together, and now that I'm back from Scotland, I'm joining in too. Here's our handiwork:








Here's (rather) a few of my favourites:














One of Debs' beautiful pieces