Monday, 22 March 2010

Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A: Part One

On Wednesday I was one of a number of quilting bloggers invited to a preview of Quilts 1700-2010, the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, its first major exhibition of British quilts.  It is an extraordinary exhibition and it was wonderful to be able to explore the exhibition thoroughly without the crowds - in fact fellow-blogger Angela - - and I go locked in briefly, we were so loathe to leave (though as Angela said "we would have been warm"!)

I had intended to write just a brief and straightforward review of the exhibition but it started getting longer and more complex - the more I though about it, the more the ideas flowed: above all it is an exhibition that makes you think.  So I intend to write, in addition to this piece, at least two others about the matters and issues raised by the exhibition.  These will appear some time in the course of the next week or so.

This is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition: valance and hangings in clamshell patchwork made of an assortment of fabrics, including silks and indian chintzes much sought after at the time (between 1730 and 1750).  This, like all the early quilts in the exhibition, was a luxury item, something of a status symbol - far from the stereotype of "make do and mend" often stated as the reason for patchwork.  It is true, however, that such luxury items are more likely to survive than those in less wealthy households where quilts got used to death.  Even so, there were few if any quilts made in the poorest households, where there would not have been the materials or leisure to make them.

The first section - titled The Domestic Landscape - includes quilts for cots, beds and other items, some made by relatively well-to-do women with skill and leisure-time, some made by professional makers.  Many look toned-down in colour to us now: in others, with a little imagination you can guess how vivid they must have been before they faded:

It is in this section that the first big surprise comes.  You are admiring the subtlety of the early quilts when you  round a corner and come face to face with this quilt


the work of contemporary art quilter Jo Budd.  This piece - one of my favourites by an artist who has long been a favourite of mine - is called Winter/Male and responds to the seasons, the colours of the natural world, but is also a reference to her partner and their love of the land.  It has enormous impact partly because of its size and colouring but does not jar against the antique quilts; instead it complements them.

The second section, Private Thoughts, Public Debates,  includes a range of quilts, taking the viewer into the noneteenth century.  One of the most remarkable, by an unknown maker (as are most of the quilts in this section), is a coverlet with a central applique panel depicting George III reviewing the troops:


The body of the quilt, which dates from 1803-5 is made up of a series of intricately pieced blocks, whilst the border is a series of vignettes of scenes from contemporary prints and paintings.

There are a number of exquisitely-pieced quilts in this section, which also includes works by two contemporary quilt artists, Sara Impey's Punctuation and Diana Harrison's Box .  Amongst the antique quilts is one of my favourites, a wholecloth "strippy" from Penparc in Wales


The third section, Virtue and Virtuosity, includes quilt intended for display rather than domestic use.  One of my favourites was an applique quilt with silhouettes in various fabrics:


 There are contemporary quilts by Caron Garfen and Nina Saunders and a range of quilts made by men, including this quilt made of tiny hexagons by a soldier, possibly Francis Bailey in about 1864-77:


British troops in India had time on their hands, and were encouraged to take up stitching: it helped to keep them away from drink and gambling.

One of the most disturbing quilts in the exhibition is the one designed by artist Grayson Perry and completed in 1993, a commentary on the American abortion debate of the 1990s:


 Perry's commentaries on the quilt refer both to the way a bed can be a place of danger, and the way in which hard-line anti-abortionists committed acts of violence:  this left me wondering whether a work of art with a "message" should need a commentary, given the quilt, with its title, could be read otherwise.  Having looked at it a number of times, however, the ambiguity can be seen as important...

The section on Making a Living had a particular impact for me, in that my great grandmother and her mother made wholecloth quilts for sale in Maesteg in South Wales.  This section includes work produced by professional quilters in Northumberland, South Wales and Northern Ireland, and also includes work by artists Pauline Burbudge (one of her beautiful Applecross quilts) and Susan Stockwell - a commentary of the Chnese economy pieced from new and used banknotes.  Another piece. produced by final-year textile student Kirsty Fenton, Threaded Wrists is a powerful commentary on poverty and childhood.  Another of my favourites, by quilt artist Jane Whiteley (originally from the UK but now living in Australia), is Sides to the Middle, Fingers to the Bone, which refers to the "make do and mend" ethos of post-war Briteain:


The final section of the exhibition is an extremely powerful one.  Called Meeting the Past, it includes quilts which celebrate major life-events and quilts as memorials. 

One of the latter, by Jennifer Vickers, is made of stitched squares of paper, mostly plain, but some with tiny photographs.  Each square represents someone who died during the Second Iraq War; the photographs are those of military personnel, the plain squares represent civilian deaths.

Three prison quilts stand out: one made in collaboration with Fine Cell Work by inmates of Wandsworth Prison: each of the prisoners involved stitched an image/message on a hexagon - some serious, some humorous, provide a unique expression of what prison life is like.  The patchwork coverlet made by the Changi Prison Girl Guide Group (one of whom was actually present at the preview) had to be stitched in secret, away from the eyes of the guards, from bits of prison uniform (surreptitiously shortened by tiny amounts) and scraps of any fabrics they could find.  The third of the prison quilts is to my mind the most remarkable - the Rajah Quilt, made in 1841 by women convicts on a prison ship bound for Tasmania, a huge quilt made using meterials donated by an organisation started by social reformer Elizabeth Fry.  This is the first time this quilt has been shown outside the National Museum of Australia.

The exhibition ends as it began, with a four-poster bed: this time To Meet My Past by artist Tracey Emin.  The first impression is of a luxurious rather beautiful bed:


When you look closer you see the appliqued and embroidered messages relating to periods of pain and despair in her life: one reads "I can't believe I used to be afrad of ghosts".

The exhibition continues until 4th July.  In addition to the hudge range of exhibits, it is beautifully arranged and lit, with exhibits supported with a variety of documentary material.  Sue Prichard, the curator, and her team have done a wonderful job.  For anyone in London this spring/summer it is not to be missed.

The majority of the images in this post - used with permission - are those of the V and A and are their copyright.


peneller said...

Thanks for doing this Sandra. Not quite the same as seeing it live, but a real treat for those of us who may not be able to get there.

Julie said...

I'm hoping to go and see the exhibition Sandra and your excellent report has made me even more keen to go.

gill said...

thank you - i would love to go and see this exhibition


margaret said...

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary - it will be all the better to see the quilts "for real".

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Thank you for sharing your wonderful review of this important show. I like the fact that the museum has brought together such a wide range of quilts to be presented in this superb venue.

Ros said...

Very much enjoyed your considered review of this show. An introduction to whet the appetite. Look forward to your further reflections.

Sue said...

Enjoyed your review. I went on Saturday and I am going back next Sunday. I just need to take it all in again.

Tiggy Rawling said...

Thank you so much for the review. Now I really must book my ticket and go! I think a whole day will not be enough - plenty to see, and think about.

Linda said...

A mouth watering review, can't wait for the following 'episodes'!

Sandra Henderson said...

Thank you for posting this and thanks to Pascale for linking it. I mentioned this not long ago on my blog and some info. May I post a link to yours for those interested and reading it?
Sandra at:

zquilts said...

OMG! Thank you so much for these two posts! I was just contemplating spending the money for this book - what think of the book? Shall I just order it?! These are wonderful posts and oh! How I wish I could have flown over to see it with you !