A background to British Naive Art

'The Naive Thread in British Art' by George Melly


Before attempting to find a naïve thread in British art, it is as well to be aware that for us there are several inhibiting factors which are evident in works of the time, and that could be confused with naivety.  First amongst these must be the realisation that well into the nineteenth century there was no photography.  To paint horses galloping with all four legs off the ground may look naïve to us but it was an acceptable convention before the camera proved otherwise.


The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries preserved the innocent eye through insular rusticity. 


While the great Whigs were on their grand tour returning with crates of Italian old masters, in some cases of dubious authenticity, their squires and tenant farmers were commissioning these little treasures of innocent anonymity.



This general acceptance of what was accidentally naïve was destroyed by the invention of the camera and the spread of the belief that the photographic image is the only measure of visual truth.  Then too the growth of education, art schools and evening classes, destroyed the general climate in which the innocent eye could survive. Naïve, always of course ignored by the cultured began to lose credibility.  Denied a living, the naïve became a special phenomenon isolated by some quirk of character, a solitary primitive painting for himself alone.




At this point it becomes possible to differentiate between what I shall call, although politically prematurely, Whig and Tory taste.  ‘The Whigs’ – cultivated grandees with pretensions to European culture- embraced the grand manner, while ‘The Tories’ – lesser gentry, squires and yeomen, their interests divided between the chase and the bottle – remained faithful to the particular and the localised.



The same period was a time of agricultural reform and the emergence of scientific stock breeding.  This led to the widespread production of pictures and prints which not only served as advertisements for those animals available for stud but also as a record to reinforce their owners amour propre.




In the case of land-owning grandees, professional artists were employed, but the squires and the prosperous farmers tended to make use of talented locals or itinerant sign painters.


It is known that many of these artists were sign painters, but the inn and shop signs which were their stock in trade have long since vanished.  From 1625 it has been obligatory for all shops and businesses to display a sign; an edict which gave a great deal of employment to a large body of sign-painters, but in 1763 a new law was passed limiting the number of signs in the streets of London. 


Hundreds of sign painters were forced to become itinerant and it was they, in the main, who were responsible for the fat cows and sheep painted for the satisfaction of the rustic squires in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.



A Tribe of One, Great Naïve Painters of the British Isles, George Melly

RONA and The Oxford Illustrated Press Ltd, 1981

ISBN 0 902280 80 5.