WARWICKSHIRE, England — Today someone is making mischief in the middle of nowhere. 

In fact, the middle of nowhere is a relatively inaccessible somewhere called Compton Verney. Compton Verney is what the English often call a stately home. It’s marooned in the Warwickshire countryside, far from the nearest train station, in a little valley of its own, scooped out from a bowl of hills. 

The house and grounds were fabricated in the 18th century, for an aristocrat who craved his own little slice of paradise. A big Neoclassical house was plonked down, overlooked by copses of well organized trees, beside a lake. A great garden designer called  Lancelot “Capability” Brown did that job, and a great architect called Robert Adam had a hand in aggrandizing the house. And now it’s a museum, with a permanent collection and a rich and ever-evolving  pattern of changing exhibitions.

It’s all so graceful and somnolent, you may find yourself thinking as the taxi purrs over the lovely arched stone bridge, and you watch the house, with its soaring colonnade just off to the left, swim into view to the well-timed accompaniment of blue sky and late-morning sunlight.

But somnolence won’t quite cut it today because the stone columns of that colonnade, topped by their Corinthian capitals, have been daubed with shrieking colors. What’s afoot indoors?

A man called Simon Costin, in a jaunty flat cap and a shirt with the patterning of a jittery, spluttery Charlie Parker riff, is standing outside the first floor galleries in front of a jazzy poster that reads MAKING MISCHIEF. He is here to introduce Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, the show he has just co-curated about the folk traditions of the United Kingdom — from Morris dancers to maypoles, from May Queens to carnival roustabouts. 

Spencer Horne, “Jack in The Green” (© Henry Bourne)

It’s the first big show of its kind, and exists in part to show off the extraordinary holdings of the Museum of British Folklore, an institution without a home in which to show itself off — the entire collection of around 20,000 objects exists in a warehouse in Dover, praying for a rich patron to unlock its doors, so it can swarm out into the streets …

These ritualistic events and festivals have been happening in towns and villages throughout the United Kingdom for hundreds of years. This exhibition is devoted to telling and showing their story. It all begins with a somber portrait of Oliver Cromwell, which is exactly as it should be. You see, the point about folk rituals is that they are often unruly affairs, stoked up into ever greater displays of unruliness and jaw-dropping wonderment by the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. They are often atavistic, seasonal affairs: burly men dress themselves up as walking trees; a slip of a coy girl is crowned Queen of May for the first and last time in her life.

Some of these goings on rather displeased Cromwell, being a lover of order when he was not making his own version of mayhem by  slaughtering the Irish.

Quite so. These rowdy, carnivalesque capers, and all this wild costuming that we see on display here, are all about defiant displays of unreason, the unloading and uploading of visceral passions greatly at odds with the dreary drone of the “voices of authority.” And it is for this reason that this wild and abundant show is such a pleasure, because it is a delightful, no-holds-barred teeming of costumes and objects. 

Mount the Hobby Horse and fly away with the Fairies, lads and lasses all! 

Horse Costume from the Festival of the Horse and Boys Ploughing Match (photo by Simon Costin)
Sir John Benjamin Stone, The Players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (c. 1900) (image courtesy Compton Verney)
Haxey Hood Costume (© Simon Costin)
Abbots Bromley Horn Dancer, September 2009 (photo © Henry Bourne)

Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain continues at Compton Verney (Compton Verney, Warwickshire, England) through June 11. The exhibition was curated by Simon Costin and Mellany Robinson, of the Museum of British Folklore, and Professor Amy De La Haye at London College of Fashion, UAL, in collaboration with Compton Verney. 

In the spring of 2024 it will travel to the new University of the Arts building at the Stratford Olympic Village, East London.      

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...