From traditional scrollwork to high contemporary art, the artistic influence of Gypsies and Travellers is everywhere.
Non-Traveller households across the country contain pictures of idyllic country scenes with a bow top, reading or ledge wagon in the background. As the scholar David Smith has pointed out, the painted wagon (or ‘vardo’ in Romani) is ‘one of the few acceptable symbols of Traveller society’. It has certainly had a huge influence on how we understand English rural life. Gypsy families like the Boswells have helped maintain our pride in this contribution to British culture.
Carved scrollwork and bright colours were first used by Travellers on the wagons, drays and trolleys they depended on for livelihood. Both have been part of the British visual landscape for over 200 years. But this only a small part of the influence that the Travelling communities have had on art and decoration.
Depicting horses and horse culture is one of many Gypsy traditions in visual art. It had a huge impact on many artists, such as Sir Alfred Munnings and Augustus John. Fishtail lettering can still be seen on the country’s travelling fairs: it was invented by Showmen and Travellers.
The Showmen specifically did a lot for the popularity of ribbon work, which even influenced military designs. When we imagine a typical British pub, we will usually think of the cut glass behind the bar and in the windows. Again, it was the Travelling communities who popularised it by building cut glass panels into their living wagons.
Perhaps the most common Traveller design to be absorbed by settled British culture is adorning of china crockery with fruits, flowers and birds. Not many people would look at a cup and saucer decorated with a chaffinch or berry bush and think “We owe that to Travellers”!
The Traveller traditions of craftsmanship are still thriving today. Gypsy and Roma artists have exhibited at the highest levels of the fine art world, and English Gypsies have worked alongside Roma artists from all over Europe, even showing at the 2007 Venice Biennale, the biggest art event in the world. Artists like Ferdinand Koci, Daniel Baker and Damian and Delaine Le Bas are reclaiming the Travellers’ artistic heritage.
For too long, depiction of Travellers has been done exclusively by Gorgers, but this is changing. The GRTHM poster competition has received some fantastic entries from young Travellers so keep up the good work: some of you will be our community’s top artists in the future!
About this story
This story originally appeared in the first Gypsy Roma Traveller History events Magazine of last year. Demand far exceeded supply of this publication, so we've reproduced some of the stories from that issue on this website.
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