Monday, 29 March 2010

V&A Quilts 1700-2010: Part 2 - the stories

Every quilt has a story.  Making a quilt is a meditative process and our thoughts, memories, all the things we experience are stitched into them.  Looking at my quilts instantly brings back events during its making.  Sometimes the fabrics have memories of their own.  But the "hidden histories" and "untold stories" - to quote the subtitle of the V&A exhibition - rarely come to light: usually we keep them to ourselves and do not record them: even present-day artists' statements give only a brief nod to the thoughts and events that went into their making.  And most of those who made the older quilts in the exhibition remain anonymous. 

However, some quilts do come with something of the stories of their makers.  One such is amongst the earliest quilts in the exhibition, a cot-quilt made by Priscilla Redding at the end of the seventeenth century.

We know something of the turbulent events of her and her family's life because she also left behind a diary which tells amongst other things of her father's persecution for his beliefs, and the death of one of her children.

The George III Coverlet (image in previous post) contains a series of applique panels depicting both private and public events from the beginning of the nineteenth century; as V&A curators discovered, through painstaking research, a number of the panels are based on contemporary prints.  However the maker has included what is thought to be a self-portrait in a number of the panels, emphasising her role as onloooker.


The Elisabeth Chapman coverlet (above) arrived at the V&A complete with its history: it was made as a wedding coverlet,  including a love poem and paper templates cut from love letters.  Much of this proved to be myth.  The "love poem" turned out to have been written by a dentist who embalmed his wife's body after her death - he continued to receive her dowry only while she remained above ground.  The "love letters" turned out to be receipts, copybooks, household ledgers and so on.  The quilt also - rather bewilderingly - contains a panel commemorating Wellington's victory at Vittoria.

Some of the most poignant stories are those stitched into the prison quilts.  One of the women involved in making the Rajah  quilt, stitched on board the transportation ship of that name, had been sentenced to transportation as a seventeen-year-old after stealing at the age of fifteen a length of cloth.  Happily she lived to become a pillar of the community in Tasmania, where she settled.  But imagine all the sadness and anxieties stitched into that quilt.

One of the women present at the preview had been one of the girls who had made the quilt whilst a civilian prisoner at Changi Prison in Singapore.  She told of how the quilt had been made from scavenged scraps, stitched in secret (the guards would have beaten them had they been discovered) using the thread from unpicked clothes.


The most recent of the prison quilts is one made by men at Wandsworth Prison, organised by the charity Fine Cell Work.  Each of the hexagons was made by an inmate, choosing his own illustration and/or message:


Another of the contemporary quilts is that made by Quilt Art member Sara Impey:


 This beautiful quilt, called Punctuation, contains the phrases never did like puntuation and see you suddenly one day found in a letter amongst her mother's possessions after her death.  The letter suggests there was a relationship between her mother and a family friend - the rediscovery of a "hidden history".

But possibly the most poignant of the stories relates to a piece I was unable to take a photograph of (it was behind a glass case), a tiny piece half of a larger piece that had been embroidered with a heart.  It comes from the Foundling Museum: this piece was left by a mother with her baby whom she was forced by poverty or some other circumstance to leave at the Foundling Hospital.  The other half she kept with her, intending to reclaim her baby when circumstances improved, using the piece she kept to prove that she was the mother.  In this case, as in many others, she never did return.

Interestingly, there is a link between this and the final piece in the exhibition, one which I also find profoundly moving, the installation by Tracey Emin (shown in the previous post).  There is currently an exhibition of work by Tracey Emin at the Foundling Museum on the theme of lost children.

1 comment:

PaMdora said...

Thanks for these two reviews Sandra. I'd heard about this show but it was nice to be able to see the images as well as read your descriptions of the show and the stories of the artists.