Caught by the River

The artistic merits of folklore

29th October 2020

Artist Ben Edge shares his paintings, and the British folklore traditions which inspire them.

Over the past 5 years I have been obsessively researching, documenting and painting the seasonal customs and folklore of the British Isles, and recently, I have also been responding in song. My fascination for folklore began as a child, when my grandfather would tell me stories about the Green Man, and how on occasion you could catch glimpses of him walking through the woods. This both excited and terrified me and the subject has inspired me ever since. It wasn’t until a chance discovery though that folklore would truly take me over creatively. 

One spring morning I was on my way to the Tower of London to meet the Raven Master, who I was working on a portrait of at the time. There are a minimum of six ravens kept within the Tower’s grounds at all times, as it is believed that if one was to escape or fly away that the ‘crown would fall and Britain with it’. It is the Raven Master’s job to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Anyway, I had just come out of Tower Bridge station and noticed a group of strange individuals dressed in white robes, ceremonially walking along the street, before assembling a circle and performing some kind of strange ritual. I was completely captivated and ran over; listening in, I soon found out that I was witnessing a Spring Equinox ceremony performed by the ‘Druid Order’ — of which I later discovered that William Blake was a founding member. I went away completely awe-inspired, and began obsessively researching and visiting the seasonal customs of the British Isles. Off the back of this serendipitous experience, I felt a rekindling of my childhood excitement for folklore.

Based on my research and growing archive, I have since nearly finished a series of paintings and an accompanying documentary film focussing on 20 folk customs of the British Isles (that I will be exhibiting with Simon Costin’s Museum Of British Folklore next year), as well as writing and recording my debut solo album New Tradition — which is undoubtedly inspired by my travels and experiences on the frontline of folklore. From the Burryman of South Queensferry — a man covered in sticky burdock seeds who endures an 8 mile hike through town, and who is given whisky through a straw by locals to help ease his burden — to the Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary, where locals set alight huge wooden barrels full of tar and paraffin and run through the packed streets, my life has been enriched. 

Folklore for me is a cleansing force that reconnects us to the past, future and to the seasons, and therefore to the land itself. As we stand in a time of climate crisis, I feel that folklore is more important and valuable than it ever has ever been before.


You can view more of Ben’s work via his website. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter.