The Art of Folk; Terry Grimley Looks at Three Exhibitions Shedding Light on British Folk Art

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Byline: Terry Grimley

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 Barnett 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. …