The British artist was all at sea until he came across a druid ceremony which ignited his art and set him off on a new path as a documentarian. “It made me re-plug myself back into humanity,” he tells Russ Slater Johnson
“I was going through a transitional period,” Ben Edge tells me, sharing the moment in 2016 which changed the course of his life. “I was a bit lost. I was doing some work around London, [looking at the] different folklore of London, but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. Then I went to the Tower of London as I was interested in doing a portrait of the Ravenmaster and on my way there to try and approach him, as I came out of Tower Hill station, I noticed a line of people in white gowns in the distance and ran up. It was a druid ceremony taking place. I describe it now as a druidic epiphany, because it awoke something within me that started an obsession.”
Prior to that, Edge had submitted a painting shortly after finishing art school, in 2009, for the BP Portrait Award. His portrait, The Animal Handler, was of his grandfather, a porter at Smithfield Meat Market who was an animal handler in his spare time. It was selected for exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. After that initial success, Edge began to lose his way. “I had it in my head that I was going to spend my 20s developing a style and not really worry about exhibiting, and working all kinds of crap jobs, but looking back, once I’d got to the end of my 20s, I’d been through quite a bout of depression. I’d become disconnected to myself and disconnected to some kind of purpose bigger than everyday worries.” On New Year’s Day 2016 he got a phone call saying that he was no longer needed for his latest job and he decided the time was right to become a full-time artist. Then, he met the druids and their Spring Equinox ceremony on Tower Hill. “A world of seasonal folk customs opened up to me,” he remembers. “There was something about that moment and then discovering seasonal customs that made me re-plug myself back into humanity, back into nature and all the bigger things that help you remember, you know, what we are.”
From then on, he began documenting Britain’s folk customs, both in his artwork and through filming them, becoming an unexpected documentarian in the process. “I started filming stuff on my iPhone and sending it to my wife, saying ‘look at this,’ and she enjoyed the footage. Then I started putting it on Instagram, and people started responding to it. I realised there was a power to this footage.” However, without thinking how the films would be used he recorded it all ad hoc in portrait on his phone. Then Doc Rowe, a famous documenter of British folklore had a word: “One day he just said, ‘for God’s sake, turn the phone round, film landscape, because you’re getting some stuff here.’”
Edge went to see the Burryman in South Queensferry, Scotland, the Summer Equinox at Stonehenge, the Hallaton Hare Pie Scramble in Leicestershire, the Straw Bear of Whittlesea, Mari Lwyd in South Wales… he documented 20 British folk customs, creating a portrait of each, with additional film footage. He dubbed this work Frontline Folklore and it was featured at the exhibition Ritual Britain, a collaboration with Simon Costin from the Museum of British Folklore, that took place in London’s Crypt Gallery in 2019. Comedian Bridget Christie, Edge says, went to the exhibition four times. She ended up writing a column on it for The Guardian, in which she concluded: ‘I was expecting to love this exhibition. I wasn’t expecting to leave it feeling proud to be British.’ Christie later asked Edge to be Folklore Consultant for her Channel 4 comedy, The Change, which aired earlier this year.
By this time, Edge had become ensconced in British folk music. He’d arrived at it through punk, which he discovered in the late 90s. “When I was about 13, I saw a Sex Pistols record in a shop window and just bought it,” he remembers. “I got obsessed with trying to listen to every punk record ever made from the late 70s.” Surprisingly, this created a bridge into folk music. “Billy Childish was a big early influence, he made an album called At the Bridge as Billy Childish with the Singing Loins. That record blew my mind, it’s this kind of raw folk, early raw folk. I also got into Patrick Fitzgerald, who played acoustic and sang punk songs. He had a song called ‘Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart’… It’s fantastic. From there I got into raw music, reggae, ska… punk was my original thing, but that fed into folk, and I see them both as kinds of folk music to be honest.”
“I was really into Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, then with the British scene I got into the more traditional-sounding folk… I remember hearing [Shirley Collins’ Lodestar] and it was another mind-blowing album, still one of my favourites to this day. Then The Unthanks’ ‘Magpie’ song has that droney folk sound I love, and opened the door into other things.” Edge is also a musician and his own musical journey follows this road of discovery. One of his first bands was Thee Spivs, late 70s British punk with punchy hook-laden fistfuls of vitriol, then came Ben Edge & The Electric Pencils, incorporating more nuanced influences, from avant-folk comic-book artist Jeffrey Lewis (who Edge states is “the greatest living lyricist”) to The Kinks and The Cramps. 2019’s New Tradition came later; released under his own name, it showed Edge’s love of folk through a switch to acoustic guitar, a love that has gone hand-in-hand with his research into British rituals. “What really inspired me was a song about the Burryman by Daniel Patrick Quinn where he got a local to tell the story of the Burryman over this incredible droney violin. That sparked something.”
For his next project, Children of Albion, Edge will combine a series of paintings, a film and an album, which will include contributions from Angeline Morrison, Elspeth Anne and Kathryn Roberts Parker (“a specialist in medieval instruments”). “I don’t know how or when they’ll all come out, or how they’ll sit side by side, but it’s all influenced by each other, so I’m kind of bouncing ideas,” he says. He’s also still promoting Frontline Folklore, now available as a documentary, which he will be screening in London on December 15, with Bridget Christie leading a discussion, and which he will then make available online for free from January 1, 2024. Edge has not only plugged himself back into humanity and nature, he’s found a community, and his place within it.
+ This interview appears in our January/February 2024 (#194) issue (on sale from December 15).
+ Ben Edge’s Frontline Folklore documentary is being screened at All-Hallows-on-the-Wall, London on December 15. Click here for more details and ticket information.