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About the Art: A Fellow Painter Has the Last Laugh

The folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries has a simple charm not without humor. But often it is the naivete of the artist and his serious endeavor to express what was beyond him that we now mistake for humor.

This painting of a white ewe of strange shape and proportions is a case in point. It was one of a pair painted by William Bagshaw in 1846. He was listed in a regional directory under "plumbers and glaziers." His patron was one "R. Smith." An inscription on the other picture, of a white ram, declares it was "bred and fed by R. Smith. Weight 58 lbs."

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Both paintings are in a collection of English folk art now owned by the Peter Moores Foundation in Compton Verney near Stratford-upon-Avon. It will open to the public April 9.

In his book "English Naive Painting 1750-1900," James Ayres quotes aptly from the memoir of Thomas Bewick. Bewick's fame rests on his lively and superbly crafted wood-engravings of birds and animals. He brought a fresh, authentic observation to the natural world. So, Mr. Ayres writes, "Bewick found the demands of some clients incompatible with his art." Bewick records that his drawings of a fat sheep were not approved by its owner, who unashamedly preferred the work of compliant artisans like Bagshaw. They "figured [the animals] monstrously fat," as requested.

By refusing to paint what he "could not see," Bewick lost the commission, but he suggested in his memoir that the fashionable exaggerations would one day be "laughed at."

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