British Folk Art: A brief reflection

folkartbannerI had been looking forward to viewing this exhibition for quite some time, particularly as a number of the items were brought in on loan from Norfolk’s museum services. Generally speaking, I prefer the offerings of the traditional crafts movement over other forms of creative practice. For me, the tactile nature of handcrafted objects, the rawness that is visibly evident in many (not all) of its works, makes for a more engaging aesthetic. The works of folk craft being functional as well as decorative pieces, always seem to convey a sense of ceremony that is not so often present in contemporary art. I think the greatest attraction for me though, is that I grew up around the production and celebration of this type of art.

My grandparent’s home was always decorated with art they had produced themselves, as well as objects that carried a sense of family memory and identity with them. The hallway was adorned with old horse brasses collected by great grandfather, who apparently had one of the largest collections of brasses in Norfolk. My grandfather, like his father before him, had worked the land with shire horse, cart and plough. I remember him as a large, stern man, who was always very matter of fact. And yet, the love he had for his surroundings was clearly and emotively expressed in the oil paintings he produced; autumnal sunsets over the salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast; water and land doused in splashes of gold and amber; small sailing vessels returning at the end of a day’s fishing. I believe that he painted not only for the joy of the art, but moreover, as a way of recording, of preserving the history of the places he loved and putting the feelings that he refused to convey verbally (at least to us children) onto the form of the canvas.

Together with the craft-works of my grandmother, their lounge was amassed with hand painted teapots and toby jugs, old maps, samplers, needle worked pictures, paintings, cushions and quilts that my family had made. My grandmother, a master quilt maker, continues to produce intricately patterned quilted blankets for the family, all of which take her months to produce and which she invariably uses to showcase her wealth of needle skills through a variety of stitching and pattern formations. She’s a dab hand with a pair of knitting needles too, though I often feel guilt ridden at asking an eighty nine year old to produce ‘wool free’ jumpers for me each winter, particularly as she never lets me pay for the materials.

So yes, much excitement over this recent exhibition, excitement that was sadly not to last. The curation, in my opinion, was poor; too many items per wall, much too little space and not enough information, moreover many of the items were hung well above eye level making it hard to really engage with them. The objects themselves were of course, beautiful, and to be fair there was a logical running order to the exhibition. However, the walls were scattered with objects which were presented in such a way as to detract the viewer from distinguishing the quality and unique characteristics of one piece from that of another. The general omission of information on the history of the pieces, and the craft behind them, detracted from the sense that the works were something special, that they differed from the landscapes and portraiture that adorned the walls of the surrounding gallery halls. I visited the exhibition during the last week of its running and it was reassuringly busy, proving that the Tate did succeed in producing an engaging and relevant show even if it got the overall presentation wrong.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 02.47.53On another positive note, the sheer number of objects gathered was indeed impressive. The collection of sewn maps was particularly interesting (at least it was for a geographer) and the large straw man, an obvious highlight of the exhibition, was every bit as enchanting as you would imagine. The carved wooden signs were also attractive looking objects and as with the maps, there was a rare opportunity for the eye to distinguish the mark of the craftsman upon them. The quilted blankets and tapestries, a few of which dated back a couple of centuries, were another example of some of the more interesting pieces; although presenting the objects flush against the wall meant that the viewer was denied all of the intricate detail of the needlework that was to be seen on the work’s reverse.

Despite the obvious downsides to the show (poor presentation, lack of space etc), I would nonetheless recommend visiting the exhibition when it makes its next stop at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire. I can imagine this second setting being far more in keeping with what the curators were hoping to achieve with the exhibition. The exhibition will run from 27 September to 14 December 2014.

Price: Adults £15, Concessions £13.50.  

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On Norfolk // All Saints

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 01.04.19At the beginning of the summer, I decided to take a trip back to my parent’s house in Norfolk so as to briefly escape the claustrophobia of the city. Norfolk, with its somewhat oppressive, charcoal clouded skies and warren of hedge-lined lanes that wind their way through the patchwork fields of the Anglian countryside, makes for a much quieter environment in which to stop and take stock of things. The perfect retreat after weeks of 18 hour days in order to finish writing my thesis. On the train journey home (I always call it home despite having left over 12 years ago) I can physically feel time slowing down, the crash of the urban sprawl rapidly deteriorates into the undisturbed silence of open fields and bellowing clouds; even the train seems in no rush to meet its terminus, it decelerates to something of a saunter as it makes its way through the northern parts of Suffolk and into Norfolk. It is, as Robert Aickman commented on the region as if ‘time matters less’.

The so-called rump of England, East Anglia has often been the victim of unfair criticism; the whole ‘NFN: normal for norfolk’ myth did little to raise the reputation of the area, neither the horrific tales of inbreeding and webbed footed fen dwellers. Having cities whose only recognised claims to fame are being the home town of a fiction failed radio presenter and the lead singer of a 90s death metal act, Norwich and Ipswich respectively, rarely gain a chance to showcase the unrivalled beauty that the area has to offer. Anglia presents as a dichotomous landscape: its easterly and northern reaches are, in their entirety, sea lined, and offer some of the most diverse coastline in the country; from salt marshes to mudflats, vertical cliffs to expansive sands with dunes and sea bordering pinewoods to boot; W.H. Hudson, amongst others, wrote extensively of the region’s unrivalled beauty in his works of ornithology. The central and western parts of Anglia are instead completely rural, a combination of ancient woodland, meadows and fields. To the south, the Thames estuary creates a natural boundary between Anglia and the South East of England, working to keep London and its encroachment at bay.  And whilst the criticism this region attracts is somewhat irksome to those who know it well, Anglia does feel like another place, somewhere olde, a place where superstition and folklore remains integral to the ongoing customs and traditions of many village’s existence.

This is no archaic romanticism  at the hands of the author, not at all; having grown up in a place where almost everybody I knew had their own tale of a ghostly encounter, where apparitions, giant black cats and ominous spectral hounds remained ubiquitous within local memory, decades (sometimes centuries) after their last reported sightings,  East Anglia, always was, and will continue to remain, a rather haunted landscape for me.  Norfolk, in particular, is like nowhere else in England. Richard Mabey wrote of adolescent trips to the county in a short piece for Blythe’s Place: an anthology of Britain (1981), describing Norfolk as ‘an awkward protuberance’ that was both ‘cryptic and compelling’. Indeed the whole area is drenched in a stark remoteness that is scarcely felt elsewhere in southern parts of England. Unlike the cities and towns of the midlands, home counties and the South proper, Norfolk does not enjoy motorways or high speed rail connections. Norwich, the final destination of Norfolk-bound carriages from Liverpool Street, is quite literally at the end of the line and the feeling of being at the end of somewhere definitely resonates with the train passenger, right down to the the door handles that can only be accessed, with some precarity, by reaching out of the carriage window. Of the landscape, the rich fertile soils and close proximity to the German Sea has resulted in the county being blessed with plentiful crops of cereals and vegetables and the freshest supply of seafood one could hope for. Wildlife is in abundance; myriad rare species choose this region, and this one alone, to make their home, and as such, Norfolk provides a cornucopia of flora and fauna for the budding naturalist to explore, if they have the desire to do so.

You may well be asking yourselves why then, if the place is to be held in such high regard, would the author want to move away from these idyllic surroundings? And you would be right to do so. Whatever yearning I may have for the county, Norfolk is both helped and hindered by its remoteness; on the one hand it feels authentic, quintessentially English and untouched by the outside world. On the other, commercial success and cultural development have been retarded by the lack of decent communications with the rest of the South, there are limited opportunities for employment.

For the most part, Norfolk has been left alone by developers, some larger towns (like the one I grew up in) have expanded somewhat over the last 15-20 years and the extension of the Southern Bypass (a section of duel carriageway that skirts the county’s capital) in the early 1990s has seen an increased traffic flow through the area, in turn the quiet solitude of Norfolk life is probably not what is was, even as recently as thirty or forty years ago. Either way, Norfolk continues to have much to offer in the way of strange spaces and I believe much off the reasoning for this comes down to a combination of this sense of ‘slowing down’ and the permanence of the ruralism that inflects the landscape of the entire county; Norfolk, the eternal hinterland. Maybe not, but it does retain a definite sense of remoteness, of a wildness that is unlike anywhere else I have visited. Needless to say the area is a haven for exploration of all manner of weird and wyrd places, replete with ruins, earthworks, ancient meadows and woodland. All the places where enchantment might be seen to take root, which provides a nice segue for the introduction of the main subject of this post; the ruined church of All Saints, Oxwick.

My journey home had been in part to catch up with family but equally as something of a cheap vacation to celebrate the completion and passing of my PhD. Whenever I visit, at least one person in my family wants to get involved with my research, driving me out to some remote ‘myth’ shrouded location, primed for paranormal investigation. On this occasion, I’d been staying in Norfolk for the best part of a week before my brother and I finally got our acts together and made a definite plan to visit an unusual/haunted site in the area. We got out the maps and trawled the internet in search of interesting locations that were, for us at least, as yet unexplored. Before too long, we had arrived upon a list of sites of archaeological significance and unanimously agreed upon the remains of a medieval church, hidden away in a secluded wooded area, as the subject of our investigation. Jotting down directions on the back of an envelope and hastily packing cameras and notebooks, we made a dash for the car, both excited about the prospect of having discovered a hidden gem in Norfolk’s forgotten ecclesiastic heritage.

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The directions we had written down proved of little use, most of the turns they suggested didn’t appear to exist and the roadsigns were next to non-existent. After about 40 minutes of wrong turns and 20 point turns down ditch bordered lanes, we happened upon across a small area of woodland that extended from the back of an old cottage and out into a field. We parked up and made our way across the soil ridges of the field and towards the trees. A rusty wire fence marked the perimeter of the woodland. Below the trees lay a glimmering carpet of dew drenched emerald blades, each one raised to about knee hight and resting in perfect stillness. No church in sight though. Deciding to walk around the field a bit further, we found a small, overgrown trackway leading into the trees. We followed the route inwards, carefully negotiating low hanging brambles, neglecting to allow for the nettles sitting at calf-height that had been heating up in the Summer sun and which left trails of scorching, match-head sized bumps across the backs of our legs. The discomfort was worth it however, as within moments of walking the trackway, both the trees and the unsavoury undergrowth opened up to reveal a substantial, roofless church building surrounded by rough grasses and neglected headstones.

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The space was silent: no birdsong, no traffic, no breeze. The entire site stood absolutely (and disconcertingly) still. To add to the eeriness of the silence further, the density and height of the surrounding trees, though not excessive, had done much to curtail the sun’s warming of the ruins and so the place suddenly felt a lot colder than the nettle lined peripheries of the field and woods. ‘This place is definitely haunted’ my brother exhaled. In a manner of speaking, it definitely was. The setting of an M.R. James work brought into existence, the church ruins cast an uncanny sense of mourning over the location. We made our way around the chancel and entered the church through a doorless archway leading into the southern side of the nave. The inside was even cooler than the structure’s exterior, heightening my brother’s sense of unease as inexplicably, there was ‘no roof to keep the sun out’. Attached to the side of the archway was a small wooden box containing folded information pamphlets. The container was still rather full; I picked a guide out from the front of the box, it was marked #78, presumably of 100. The pamphlet was dated December 1994, evidently, the church didn’t attract too many visitors. DSC_0383

To the eastern end of the ruins, a large 14th century stone window held fragments of red and white stained glass; sullen looking shards of hand-worked transparency were clasping to their lead linings in a final act of defiance against the dereliction that had enveloped the rest of the building. Under the window lay a bisected headstone, propped up against the knapped flint wall of the chancel. Turning to face the vestry, one gained a sense of the height of the structure, and in spite of the missing arched roof, the church building stood there, towering its spectators, above us. We headed toward the vestry, which appeared to be in a worse state (structurally speaking) than the rest of the church.

In the middle of the vestry was a tall and narrow arched window, different to the kind that were built into the nave and chancel. The surrounding walls were low and crumbling and the southern side in particular was succumbing to the onset of ivy growth. The high pitched gable end stood defiantly upright and in surprisingly good shape, in comparison to its adjoining walls. We looked out through the slender window frame and across the unfolding graveyard, through the trees and into the earthy field beyond. We could have seen anything through that window, but we didn’t. Just the field.  The mind conjured shadowy figures stalking the spaces between the graves, but we only had to look around to see that we were really quite alone out there. If anything, the sense of haunting, of loss, felt in the space was more a grieving for the church and its evident retreat from habitus as well as from local memory. DSC_0393

The information pamphlet drew attention to a number of features on the exterior walls and so we set out in order to find them. Walking clockwise around the vestry and to the northern side of the church, two stone figures, carved in the 14th century, stood guarding the now blocked north doorway. The elements had not been kind to the carvings over the past 600 or so years and the facial features looked badly weathered. As such, the once ornamental carvings had become transformed into rather more malign looking grotesques. The gaping mouth and hollowed eyes of the figure carved on the right side of the archway appeared particularly menacing. The scream of a startled pheasant suddenly echoed against the old flint walls and the two of us leapt in fright, though laughed about the incident only moments later. I still maintain that I only ‘jumped’ as an act of solidarity, you have to do these things for family.

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We carried on shuffling through the sodden grass that surrounded the church, examining headstones as we did so. One grave, that of Thomas Lawrence, was especially Jamesian looking, sporting a carved totenkopf nestled between upturned hourglasses. Suitably macabre for the cold and isolated setting.

Leaving the church via the trackway by which we had entered, we then made a turn to the right and walked along the side of the cottage and onto the road, so as to evade the nettles and thorns that had proved so irritating just an hour or so before. At the end of the track was a grass verge. Raised about half a foot above the road, the verge had two very old looking white markstones, similar to the white markstones that line the roads leading from Fakenham (another small norfolk town) out to the coastal villages, which are, as local legend goes, pre-Roman in origin. The stones seemed like a final gesture from the site to present itself as extraordinary, a way of confirming both its place in the spectral lineage of abandoned mediaeval settlements that lay across the county, and further evidence of the site’s more ancient past.

allsaints markstones Collage