Kenneth Clark and British Folk Art at Tate Britain, London

Kenneth Clark Tate banner advert

I was a bit apprehensive walking into Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) exhibition – other than completing a market research survey many months ago I knew nothing about the man and the huge exhibition rooms in this part of the gallery mean you’re going to have to concentrate on a lot of stuff before you come out the other side.

But the exhibition works. It gave me an introduction to the man and why I should care about him and I was thoroughly impressed by his knowledge of Leonardo Da Vinci, his love of Japanese prints as a boy and the 1930s society pictures of his wife, including a Man Ray photograph. I also envied his position as head of National Gallery at just 30 years old and enjoyed looking at the Cezannes, Degas and other works he purchased for the establishment and the varied works of art he bought for his own collection (albeit skipping over many exhibits as there’s just so much there).

The crescendo of the exhibition is probably his patronage of British artists and it is here that fans of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland will get their fix. I really enjoyed seeing these works by familiar artists taken from collections that I had not seen before. However, it is all quite a serious and scholarly show, representing a very traditional trip through the art world, albeit it from one individual’s perspective.

So what could be better than to follow this up than with a folk art exhibition of brightly coloured walls and quirky, interesting and fun exhibits? Not much, it was a pretty perfect and the slight headache that had been forming drifted off.

Trade signs at British Folk Art exhibition

Tate Britain deliberately don’t define ‘folk art’, but pieces in the exhibition are artistic works that may not have been created by trained artists or were perhaps made for reasons other than a purely artistic function. For instance, as you enter the exhibition you face a bright yellow wall covered in large trade signs such as the pawn broker’s three golden balls, the locksmith’s padlock and the cobbler’s boot. It’s a brilliant feast for the eyes.

Goose woman, George Smart at British Folk Art

Goose Woman, George Smart

Other parts of the exhibition do look at individual artists in their own right and I loved George Smart’s (c.1775-1845) paper and fabric collages and I can definitely see why people made their way to his tailor’s shop to buy these quirky pieces of art.

One piece I particularly admired was a patchwork sheet made of white scraps of material sewn together with red stitching, and throughout the exhibition are other such pieces that could be used as inspirations for artists and artisans today.

It seemed fitting that the last exhibition I saw in this space was TS Lowry – another artist with a folky feel that never quite found acceptance in the art historical world, but who continues to be enjoyed by an enormous number of people nonetheless.

Kenneth Clark – Until 10 August 2014 – £11
British Folk Art – Until 31 August 2014 – £14.50

Combined ticket – £17.50

Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG


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