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.

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.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

breakfast with the herons and other adventures

A couple of weeks ago I visited Llangollen to see the Quiltfest exhibition organised by Val Shields.  Unfortunately part of the exhibition was closed on the afternoon I arrived: the museum volunteer had had to leave early and I was unable to see the Effie Galletly and Liesbeth Williams exhibitions.

However, my overnight stay in Llangollen was enhanced by discovering that fellow exhibitor and Contempoarary Quilt member Ros Crouch was also staying at the Royal Hotel - we spent a pleasant time over a very good chinese meal.  Also the following morning by enjoying an excellent breakfast whilst watching the herons on the River Dee - a rare treat (the picture above is unfortunately not by me but by JMW Turner - one of the bird studies currently on exhibition in Leeds City Art Gallery.

The next day I spent at the Breakthrough exhibition, a selected exhibition of work by members of Contemporary Quilt, a subgroup of the Quilters Guild of the British Isles.  I did set the machine up as I was supposed to be demonstrating but in fact ended up doing much more talking than sewing.  The two stewards from Gresford Quilters, Jane and Jill (hope I have the names and the spellings right) were excellent company and though we didn't have masses of visitors, it being mid-week with heavy snow the night before, there were not only a number of interested quilters but also a number of local artists and art-students all of whom were really impressed by the quality of the art-work and the way it was presented - praise is due to Val Shields, the organiser, and to Hilary Gooding, exhibitions officer for CQ.

I haven't included any detailed photographs of the quilts as I didn't want to breach any copyright here, but here's a photo of stewards (nearest the camera) plus Ros (furthest away facing) which gives you a flavour of part of the exhibition and the beautiful building it was housed in:

If you have a chance to see this exhibit it will be well worth it: the artwork is amazing - I'm not easily impressed but I was amazed at the quality and ended up wondering how I got selected (but then as Ros put it  "Don't we all feel like that about our own work?")  One of the features that visitors particularly enjoyed was a folder of  swatches, one for each quilt, showing the techniques used, which could be examined more closely and handled, coupled with statements from each artist.

The exhibition itself was in the most wonderful setting, in the grounds of Plas Newydd, where the Ladies of Llangollen - two women who had fled unwelcome arranged marriages - set up home and entertained the great and the good of their day, including Lord Byron (who, incidentally also stayed at the Royal Hotel - wonder if he contemplated the herons over his breakfast?).

The other half of the Breakthrough exhibition can be see at the Quilt Museum in York from March 26th, and the whole exhibition will be on display at the Festival of Quilts at Birmingham NEC in August