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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Charles Darwent bursts bubbles with Pino Pascali at Camden Arts Centre

Art Choice

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).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?