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At the heart of English folk

The Fire of Love

David Owen

26 September 2018 - 6 January 2019

This exhibition celebrates David Owen’s output of the last 10 years, welcoming him back to Cecil Sharp House following his exhibition Seeds of Love in 2008. 

Self-described ‘one man advertising agency for folk music’, David draws on the graphic imagery of signs, advertisements and record covers to challenge our preconceived ideas of the genre. Playful and subversive, these works take a humorous look at English folk music and dance, championing folk in all its forms.

David Owen’s work is focused on images of folk song, folk lore and popular culture. He has exhibited at Cambridge Folk Festival, Sage Gateshead, Southbank Centre and Sidmouth Folk Festival and has designed CD sleeves for Jim Moray, Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates and Emily Portman.

David Owen: Cheerfully Subversive

At the turn of the century I’d moved house to Whitby and discovered there a small record shop specialising in English Folk Music. I impressed the owner with my knowledge of obscure folk recordings and duly landed a part-time job... although I ended up taking most of my pay home on CD...

I would sit in the shop and look at his entire wall of the A–Z of folk... until one day it dawned on me that almost every record in the shop had a terrible sleeve design.

It was an A–Z of woodcuts and sepia photographs and pastoral loveliness...

Yet the music on most of these albums was not traditional field recordings of long dead singers and long dead songs... these were modern recordings by young, vibrant musicians, re-imagining and reinterpreting the songs and giving them new life and new power and presenting them fresh for new generations and new ears.

The images on the sleeves didn’t reflect the sounds coming from the speakers.

You wouldn’t want to frame any of the covers and put them on your wall – you wouldn’t want a t-shirt or a badge.

I wanted something on my wall. I wanted a t-shirt. I wanted a badge.

Folk was enjoying a new renaissance and something was happening – something glorious and exciting. But it didn’t have a look. It didn’t have a style. It was “good enough for folk”.

I decided to appoint myself as a ‘one man advertising agency for folk’. My brief to myself was to give folk a make-over. Make it desirable. Put it on modern walls, in modern halls, in IKEA frames and on t-shirts and badges and stickers and mugs and make it new.

I figured if the musicians could update the songs, using different instruments and recording techniques, then I could apply the same principle to my art. Folk as POP. Folk as PUNK. Folk as DADA. Folk as mass market mainstream...

I started off with Morrissey Dancing. It was just a stupid pun. It was just a cut-and-paste. It was barely a sketch. But they loved it. They wanted more. 

Ewan MacColl on the phone. The Folk Police. They loved it. They hated it ! I got emails “is this supposed to be funny ?”
One of his sons complained bitterly. Meanwhile his other son bought a print from me.

Now I knew I was doing something right. Provoke a reaction. That’s what good art is all about. Right place. Right time. And a pinch of good luck.

Posters, prints, t-shirts, badges, stickers and mugs.

I was in magazines. I was getting commissions for CD sleeves. I was asked to provide site art at festivals. I was invited to Exhibit at Cecil Sharp House!

I wasn’t taking the piss. I really love this music – these songs. I knew what was what and who was who. I did my research and I listened and I learned.

I have no folk pedigree. No folk family. No reverence. No respect. I didn’t really care who I upset. It’s all fair game. If you put yourself out there, then expect bad alongside the good. 

Some witty soul dubbed my work CHEERFULLY SUBVERSIVE. I’ll take that. Every time. That’s my mission statement.


Now it’s 10 years later and they’ve foolishly invited me back.

I’ve had trouble picking the 60 pieces in the Retrospective. I could have picked 200+. I’ve been busy over the past 10 years. Every time I think I’ve exhausted the folk joke, another idea pops into my head.

It’s no longer “good enough for folk”. They’ve all pulled their socks up and made an effort. Sepia prints and woodcuts are few and far between now. Folk has won awards and is televised and respected and applauded and cherished.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given, exactly 10 years ago, in Cecil Sharp House, by Malcolm Taylor, Chief Librarian of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library was “the folk police are NOT who you think they are...”. He was right. Some of my greatest fans and supporters have been the last people I would have expected to encourage me to upset the applecart.

And the folk police have given me more than a few quiet warnings. I haven’t taken any notice.

Everything in the exhibition is FOR SALE – each piece is £60 – just ask a member of staff. 

Alternatively, if the piece you wish to purchase is already sold, then please contact me, I can offer multiple options, sizes, editions and formats to suit.

If you wish to complain, commission, congratulate or commiserate, then you can contact me through or on Instagram at davidowenartist.