What is Folk Art?

Folk Art, or naïve art, is becoming popular – with L.S Lowry and the American folk artist Edward Hicks selling for over $4 million?

Why is it popular? It’s Art that connects us with the history of the ordinary people and their daily lives. We gain insight into our present through our past, as told by the average people themselves.

So what is Folk Art? It’s art painted BY the farmers, clerks and labourers. It is unskilled, untutored and raw, sometimes called Naïve. It is Art NOT done by the usual aristocratic artists, or for Royalty, but from the point of view of the farmers, clerks and labourers. Excitingly, there is a general trend in the growing appreciation of its importance and value. Take the recent Tate Britain exhibition, the Compton Verney Museum in the UK and the American Folk Art Museum in NY, all devoted to it, and visitor numbers are rising.

Folk Art 1790-1830 in the Aidan Meller Gallery

We are delighted to have a naïve style artwork by an unknown English artist. Few Folk Artworks have the names of their creators, this one doesn’t. The work we have is a painting from somewhere around 1790-1830. It’s a rare work from a bygone age.

Thomas Gainsborough

The irony of this piece is that it is in the style of aristocratic artist Thomas Gainsborough. Gainsborough was famous for his high society portraits, showing wealthy aristocrats situated in their prosperous estate land. He also produced a series of paintings in his later life featuring peasants outside their homes, making a political protest about the treatment of the peasantry and removal common land into private ownership during the reign of George III.


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Gainsborough, The Cottage Door, c.1778
Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with family grouped outside a Cottage Door, 1772-3

What is so fascinating about this work in the Aidan Meller Gallery is that the artist has taken several key features of Gainsborough’s work and turned this into an image very much in his/her own style. Compare the composition of the landscape, cottage, and family – so similar to Gainsborough. Look at the woman and suckling child, the playing children and dog. These are all directly similar features. In contrast, as is more common in naïve art, the perspective is slightly flatter, and the colours are brighter. The children are better-dressed, with rosier cheeks, and the older man sits at a table rather than the floor. Have a look at the little girl reaching out to stroke the cat, and the dog watching the children play ‘ring-a-ring-of-roses’ in a circle. An older son plays jolly pipe music to their dancing, and a scene of joy and happiness is created instantly. The artist is still celebrating rural life and values, but there is a little less of the ‘noble peasant’ tone that Gainsborough uses.

A Unique Style

This artist has a distinctive and personal style, that helps create a direct and fresh atmosphere to the work. This is the skill and power of Folk Art. Perhaps in a similar way, but in their own personal style, the artist was making a comment about the countryside and rural life. It is clear they have followed both Gainsborough and the English folk tradition, creating a scene which results in peasants, ordinary life, politics and art history. In addition, he/she adds a genuine joie de vie, that effuses out of the canvas and reaches us as a viewer. This is a joyous painting.

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The future of Folk Art

Alfred Wallis and L.S Lowry are two of the UK’s most famous naïve-style artists who have continued this tradition into the twentieth century. Their work showing the British landscape and people with a fresh, open honesty is both insightful and powerful. Both Wallis and Lowry reach high prices now there is greater awareness of their importance both in recording ordinary life and their role in British Modernism. Unknown folk artists are still making big money in the auction rooms. We are seeing a rising market. One of my personal favourites at the Compton Verney Museum is the depiction of an old cart-horse escaping the butcher, an incident that occurred in 1811 in Northleach, Gloucestershire.

Our social history is valuable and intrinsic to who we are today. Come and view this mix of daily life, Gainsborough, politics and folk art, all combined in one fantastic artwork from the late 18th/early 19th century, here at the Aidan Meller Gallery.

Price £15,000

Get a viewing, click here


Gainsborough, The Cottage Door, c. 1785 (a third Gainsborough work from this series)