Friday, 4 July 2014

What links... Kenneth Clark, British Folk Art & Peggy Angus?

How's that for Folk Art? Lady Godiva Clock, Coventry, with tile mural by Peggy Angus
Hooray for Tate B. Not just one but TWO inspiring exhibitions on at the same time. I thought a show devoted to an art historian and cultural bigwig might be a bit dry, but far from it. Fascinating to see the work Kenneth Clark collected, all those delicate Cezanne drawings for example, and the pictures he was looking at during his formative years.

Here was a portrait of an art lover whose watchwords seemed to be refinement and modesty - a patron whose genteel good taste and position in the art establishment greatly assisted the careers of Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and other artists of equally rare sensibility.

A bit of a shock, then, to go from the world of 'Civilisation' to the multifarious oddities of British Folk Art, an exhibition which is probably more popular than its debonair rival but which must have been fairly nightmarish to curate. I mean where do you begin? What do you include? The curators seem to have taken a similar approach to Barbara Jones in her wonderful book 'The Unsophisticated Arts', in that they have gathered together work that shares certain characteristics but without trying to define it too closely or to include everything.

Buy the new edition from Little Toller!
Like the book, it's an eclectic, individual survey of figureheads and shop signs, textiles and amateur paintings - a display put together (it seems) by enthusiasts with a good eye for an object, rather than academics with a point to make. In the same way some of the artists championed by Kenneth Clark picked up on interesting or quirky objects or designs. Eric Ravilious loved weathervanes, shop emblems and junk of all kinds - you could put together a mini-folk art show from his prints and paintings. Edward Bawden too.

Eric Ravilious, 'Saddler' from High Street
And his model... white horse outside a Sudbury pub
But many of the most passionate artist-enthusiasts of the 20th century were women, notably Barbara Jones, Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx (authors of 'English Popular Art'), Olive Cook and Peggy Angus. Each no doubt had their own reasons for admiring folk art, but Peggy for one saw in it much more than quirky or original design. She believed that the beautifully decorated Romany caravans she saw in her youth represented the most authentic kind of art - art made not by specialists to be enjoyed by others, but by people for whom it was an integral part of life.

A work of art in itself... check out more wonderful illustrations here
Peggy taught art for more than forty years, gradually developing a curriculum that combined art history and practical training in a bewildering range of disciplines, and which took her pupils from the most primitive art forms, via the medieval and Renaissance periods, to the experiments of Modernism. Throughout she stressed the vital importance of patronage (which had been impressed on her when she visited the Hermitage Museum on a 1932 trip to Soviet Russia).

Great art, she would argue, requires both great artists and great patrons - people with taste, vision and money. At different periods and in different places patronage has been provided by monarchs, aristocrats, religious organisations and the state. Kenneth Clark pushed the British government into state patronage of the arts when he set up the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1939; Piper, Moore and Sutherland prospered.

Peggy's tile mural in the foyer of Lansbury Lawrence School, Poplar
These artists were employed for a purpose - to record the war in their own way (and provide propaganda images into the bargain) - and you could argue that the relationship between patron and artist is always like this. The artist has certain skills, and the patron a use for them. Whether we're talking about an anonymous carpenter creating a figurehead for a naval ship, or a famous painter depicting a bombed cathedral - or, as in Peggy's case, a designer creating a tile mural for a new school - this is the very opposite of 'art for art's sake'. 

Paintings & wallpaper by Mark Hearld, hung Peggy Angus-style at Towner
As far as Peggy Angus was concerned, art needed to serve a purpose. If you come along to the exhibition devoted to her life and work, which begins at Towner, Eastbourne, next weekend, you'll see the extraordinary things she achieved in her lifelong desire to be useful, from her unique art curriculum to tile designs for Heathrow Airport... And look out for hand-printed wallpaper, hung floor to ceiling in the gallery - much of it based on folk art designs. For a preview of what to expect, have a look at Rachel Cooke's feature in The Observer.

And when you've had a good look round her exhibition, head downstairs to Nathaniel Hepburn's elegant show 'Designing the Everyday', which brings together the work of numerous talented artist-designers. There are Ravilious ceramics that seem, on first sight, to be hovering against the wall with no visible means of support, some striking Shell posters, and, to bring us up to date, a room devoted to the talented designers of St Judes. Highlights include chairs upholstered in printed fabrics and Mark Hearld's wallpaper - the latter proof that, twenty years after Peggy's death, her spirit permeates British art and design.

FFI: Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter at Towner, Eastbourne, July 12 - Sept 21
'Peggy Angus: Designer Teacher, Painter' by James Russell, Antique Collectors Club.
Designing the Everyday at Towner, until 31 August
Kenneth Clark at Tate Britain, until 10 August
British Folk Art at Tate Britain, until 31 August


  1. What a fantistic post! Thank you for writing about Lady Godiva's clock! I was moved by this, as I have an attachment with the clock and its history so I have written a little piece about it on my blog (, many thanks, Lotte

  2. Thanks Lotte - I enjoyed looking at your website, like your illustrations very much