I once shared a house with the weaver Jill Maguire, and as the house was small I had to share my bedroom with her loom; but although I watched her at work I never developed an interest in her art. So the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern was an eye-opener to me.
Albers (1899-1994) took up weaving rather reluctantly at the Bauhaus, where the weaving department was called the women’s workshop, but she discovered its artistic potential and even while still a student produced original and technically adept textiles that worked as abstract art. She seems to have become absorbed in the complex possibilities of weaving, which requires planning thread by thread, spatial reasoning and a grasp of permutation and combination.
She moved to the the USA in 1933 as the Nazis descended on the Bauhaus, and found work at Black Mountain College, where her practice was enlarged by the study and collection of the traditional weaving of South America. The equipment of these weavers was simple but their fabrics showed advanced mathematical thinking. Albers worked with twisted warps, double fabrics and floating wefts, pushing the boundaries of the craft. She was commissioned by forward looking industrialists who saw the commercial possibilities of her advanced methods. She demonstrated weaving to be a place where art, mathematics and manufacturing meet.
We made the two-hour drive to Compton Verney to see the exhibition of automata, prompted by memories of the little museum of mechanical toys that there used to be in Covent Garden in the 1990s, and stayed to see the folk art from the collections of Andras Kalman and Enid Marx and Margaret Lambert.
Marx started collecting in the 1930s, though her interest began earlier. She said she was influenced by what she learned from her father’s paper-making business, and at the RCA she failed to get her diploma from the painting school because her work was thought to be too vulgar. Kalman, a Hungarian emigré, began after the war, collecting mainly untutored paintings of the late 18th and early 19th century, usually rural, often of favourite animals, sometimes unintentionally funny. The Marx-Lambert collection includes print ephemera, scrapbooks, valentine’s cards, paper peepshows, children’s books, ceramics, corn dollies and toys and, from the period after the war, vanishing crafts. Deeply unfashionable at the time, these items could be picked up for pennies in junk shops.
Marx’s, Lambert’s and Kalman’s collecting coincided with the relaxing of the severe modernist contempt for anything traditional, un-functional or Victorian. Marx and Lambert’s When Victoria Began to Reign was published in 1937 and English Popular Art in 1951. 1951 was a significant date for folk art and Victoriana. Barbara Jones’s exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, a Festival of Britain event about English popular and traditional art, was put on at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1951, and her book, The Unsophisticated Arts – about fairground decoration, tattoos, seaside architecture and funeral ornaments – came out in 1952. (For long hard to find, there is a new edition.)
This interest in the vernacular and the curious mitigated the modernism of the Festival of Britain, which stimulated interest in the period of the Great Exhibition a hundred years earlier. The Festival Funfair at Battersea featured Rowland Emett’s whimsical and nostalgic “Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway“. And so, full circle – Emett’s railways were a feature of the automata exhibition at Compton Verney.