Monday, June 9, 2014
On the high seas
Provincial, rustic, folkish, naïve – and fun
A friend remarked that the painted boss in my previous post would look at home on the prow of a sailing ship, and I have to say he’s on to something. The straightforward, slightly naïve carving of the boss is close to folk art, as is quite a lot of the sculpture on churches, especially the gargoyles, corbels, grotesques, and similar carvings on some of our smaller parish churches. Folk art is usually defined as art created by untrained amateur artists who worked outside the tradition of art education, apprenticeship, or art school. Medieval church carvers no doubt served apprenticeships and carved for a living but their style often seems more personal and provincial than the work of the sculptors who decorated the west fronts of the great cathedrals, from Chartres to Wells. Call it rustic, call it folk art, it does have something in common with the carving of old shop signs, puppets, and ship’s figureheads.
I therefore turned to the pages of the several books on English popular art and found, in Noel Carrington and Clarke Hutton’s Popular English Art (King Penguin, 1945), this colourful illustration by Hutton of the figurehead from H M S London. Noel Carrington described the art of ship decoration like this: ‘Marine decorators took their motives from those current in architecture and furnishing ashore, but gave rein to that little extra exuberance for which sailors always seem to have a partiality.’ In Britain’s navy, such figureheads, along with a riot of other carving along the bows and sterns of ships, found favour between the Restoration and the end of the 19th century Subjects varied from goddess to royalty, lions to naval heroes.
The early-19th century figurehead in Hutton’s picture is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Hutton seems to have gone for exaggeratedly strong colours – the actual figurehead has much paler skin and her dress has a more muted hue. Her crown, in the form of a castle or city wall, is a common attribute when the ship’s name is that of a city – the notes on the museum’s website suggest that it may be based on the White Tower, the central structure of the Tower of London and the square structure with corner turrets is certainly reminiscent of this famous castle.
Readers within reach of London who like this kind of thing will find much of similar sort in Tate Britain’s Folk Art exhibition, which opens on 9 June and promises to be spectacular. I’m planning my visit.