Wool Work: A Sailor’s Art, Compton Verney, Warwickshire

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Needlework done on board ship is far more expressive and inventive than its folk-art image suggests

The work we're looking at is a piece of embroidery, a pretty thing, Victorian, tricked out in coloured silk threads and with a border of roses, thistles and shamrock. It speaks of hours of seclusion, possibly of boredom; of time-consuming delicacy. You can almost see the item being made, the silver needle flashing in a large, brown, calloused hand.

For this is embroidery, but not as we know it. The piece in question, Britannia, is in a show called Wool Works at the stately home-cum-gallery, Compton Verney. The exhibition's subtitle, A Sailor's Art, gives the game away, or partly. Most of us will have seen 19th-century sailors' pictures, probably in Frinton junk shops or on Antiques Roadshow. We will have thought of them as decorative, droll, nice things to hang in the guest loo. What we will probably not have done is see them as historical artefacts, far less as works of art.

This is not altogether our fault. Art history has always had its boxes, and sailors' pictures were long ago consigned to the one marked "folk art". Attempts to re-label this – "naive art" was voguish for a while, likewise "unsophisticated art" – only made things worse. Classifying sailors' pictures as folksy forced a whole raft of expectations on them – that they were technically rough-and-ready, made of coarse materials, related to corn dollies and paintings of prize pigs. Wool Work challenges these assumptions, and comes up with surprising suggestions.

One untitled piece incorporates several. Part of the myth of wool pictures is that they are untraceable because largely unsigned. Patient research by Wool Works' curators reveals this particular image to have been made by a sailor called Charles Weeden, probably in the 1860s. Another myth is that wool pictures did not evolve over the rough century of their making – that, as craft rather than art, they were two-dimensional, stem-to-stern depictions of the ships on which men served. Weeden's picture fits none of these bills.

What it shows is a pair of Royal Navy ships of the line, dressed, as naval argot has it, overall. Between the two sailing ships puffs a steam launch, an admiral's pennant streaming from its mast, its paddles kicking up a choppy wake. Weeden's fascination with this brisk little craft echoes Turner's with railway engines in the painting Rain, Steam and Speed. The sailing ships are stately but antique: here, at a rate of knots, comes the future. Weeden's work is futuristic in other ways, too. If the ship to the left of the picture is customarily flat, the one to the right shows an attempt at foreshortening: its stern is turned towards us, its hull curving away as though in three dimensions. Clearly, no one has told Weeden that he is making folk art. All by himself, miles out at sea, he invents rudimentary perspective.

His nameless embroidery harbours other ambitions, too. It has long been assumed that sailors made art with bits and bobs rifled from the sail chest. In fact, most wool pictures seem to have been made on embroiderers' canvas rather than sailcloth, this being too thick for delicate stitching. The background to Weeden's work suggests he has been looking at other fabrics – perhaps at Florentine flame stitch, whose zigzags he appropriates to expressive effect. Like all the artists in this show, he uses a variety of techniques and materials, few of them necessary to nautical life: running stitch, darning and chain stitch, done in wool, in silk threads, rolled and button threads, embellished with beads and sequins and, in the case of a work called Nelson, with cherubs copied from women's pattern-books. Far from raiding sail lockers, sailors spent their shore leave (and wages) trawling through needlework shops.

This fascinating show raises intriguing questions. There seem to have been traditions of sewing on particular ships, HMS Serapis being one. Did these constitute full-scale floating movements? As with any other art, influence and cross-fertilisation may have played their part: two of the sailors in this show, John Ford and James Holmes, served on HMS Melpomene at the same time. The idea that men, deprived of space and power, turn to making womanly art will send a shiver through gender-studies departments. But, mostly, Wool Works reminds us how narrowly we tend to look at art; how easy it is to see categories rather than pictures, and how limiting that can be.

To 5 Jun (01926 645500)

Next Week

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Head to the Pallant House in Chichester for an exhibition of the designs of Robin and Lucienne Day in the pair's home town. They were hugely influential on post-war British interiors (till 26 Jun). Dip into Nathaniel Mellors' Our House at London's ICA – a surreal, slippery sitcom which screens alongside Mellors' animatronic sculpture (till 15 May).

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