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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor