Stitched Sea Shanties – a work in progress

Sewn Shanties - work in progress

Sewn Shanties – work in progress

I have spent most of my sewing time over the last five months working on the Nelson Quilt, but I have also found a little bit of time for other projects. One of my works in progress is another quilt on a seafaring theme – a quilt made up of Shanties and Sea Songs.

When I was very small, my Dad had a great recording of Sea Shanties that I loved. It included The Leaving of Liverpool, Little Sally Rackett and Admiral Benbow. I was terrified by Lowlands, a song full of haunting lament which I still find unsettling, and exhilarated by a rousing rendition of Round the Bay of Mexico.

More recently, I spent about four years trying to track down this recording. I was hindered by the fact that I didn’t know the name of the band or the singers and so I searched out recordings of individual songs in the hope they would be the right ones. I ended up downloading lots of sea songs and shanties but none were what I remembered and most of them were far too tame for my taste. There were two notable exceptions: I came across the magnificent Storm Weather Shanty Choir from Norway and their stamping, raucous, joyful singing of Boney (“Boney was a warrior, a way, hey, YAR!”), Reuben Ranzo and South Australia, and the heartfelt melodies of The Maid of Coolmore and Swansea Town (“Fare thee well to thee sweet Nancy, a thousand times adieu. I’m bound to cross the ocean, girl, once more to part from you…”). I also relished recordings of Pump Shanty and Liverpool Judies by Straight Farrow and the Windjammers.

Eventually, I established that the recording I was looking for was made by the Twelve Buccaneers in 1967 and, sadly, is no longer available unless you can hunt down an old vinyl LP. I managed to get my hands on a copy and found something on which to play it on. As soon as the mouth organ on Round the Bay of Mexico started up, I knew I finally had what I’d been looking for.

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers

All this searching for an old recording means that I’ve listened to lots of sea songs and shanties and, along the way, I became interested in their meaning. There are songs that are sung on the voyage out; songs for the times when well underway; and songs for the return home. There are also songs about sailors’ exploits ashore – mostly involving drinking and women and being duped by one as a result of the other. Many of the songs are cyclical – the singer tells of going to sea, his privations on voyage, the return home and determination to stay on land with his wages, and, after a night involving alcohol and women during which all his pay is spent or stolen, embarking (not always willingly) on another voyage. Other songs are laments at leaving a lover and yearning for reunion, and still others tell of the cruelty of a captain and hardship on board ship. And there is a difference in their status – shanties are work songs and traditionally only sung aboard ship, while sea songs are for relaxation and may be sung aboard or ashore.

Music from Sea Songs and Shanties collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner (published by James Brown and Son, 1926)

Music from Sea Songs and Shanties collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner (published by James Brown and Son, 1926)

Traditionally, it is unlucky if women sing shanties so I decided to sew them instead. I chose extracts from songs and put together a background in shades of blue, grey and white in an order that would represent a narrative flow comprising:

  • Leaving home
  • Under sail
  • Storms and privations
  • Homeward bound
  • Ashore (and starting out again)

Sea songs and shanties often involve language and sentiments that are very much of their time, including some highly colourful slang and particularly gendered swearing. I’m no prude but I wasn’t sure about how I felt about quilting some of the words, particularly those relating to women. I took a quick poll via twitter and the consensus seemed to be that swearing on a quilt would be acceptable on a wall quilt but not on a bed quilt – a distinction I hadn’t considered, and a view not necessarily shared by other quilters. So I haven’t made a final decision about all the wording yet – I have an idea about which lyrics to use, but I’m still wrestling with the realities and meaning of songs that have passed down the generations since the 19th Century and how to represent them in 2015.

Outward Bound shanties

Outward Bound shanties

The Nelson Quilt: Faces of Nelson

The Nelson Quilt, December 2014

The Nelson Quilt, December 2014

Horatio Nelson must be one of the most recognisable faces in British history. This is largely due to the number of portraits, engravings and statues that were created both during and after his lifetime. On a recent trip to the Isle of Wight, I was delighted to find a copy of Richard Walker’s Book The Nelson Portraits (Royal Naval Museum Publications, 1998) in a second-hand bookshop. Walker catalogues 238 portraits, their provenance, the collections that hold them, and the background to their creation. In the book’s introduction, Richard Ormond, the then Director of the National Maritime Museum, notes that We all have an idea of what England’s greatest naval hero looked like, slight, attractive and romantic: not a conventional sea dog, but someone sensitive as well as formidable.

One of the most famous portraits was painted in 1800 by Sir William Beechey and is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London*. The portrait was commissioned by the City of Norwich, who wished for a formal portrait to celebrate their most celebrated son.

NPG 5798; Horatio Nelson by Sir William Beechey

NPG 5798; Horatio Nelson by Sir William Beechey

I seem to have known the Beechey portrait of Nelson since childhood. I was given a National Portrait Gallery calendar when I was about ten, and I remember that it contained this picture. I can’t recall which month featured Nelson (I would hazard a guess at October) or any of the other eleven people featured, but I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by the Nelson picture. There was something about the colour that, as a child, I really disliked, but I also felt guilty about being insufficiently enthusiastic about Nelson’s portrait. I knew from Blue Peter and Ladybird books that Nelson was England’s Hero, so why couldn’t I just accept the portrait?

Of course I now feel differently – the Nelson Quilt is based on the Beechey portrait. I’ve studied the portrait in some detail while working on the quilt and never tire of looking at it. I learned that the strange line around the head, which gives a halo effect, resulted from Beechey altering the shape of Nelson’s hair, to give it the same shape as that shown in a subsequent full length portrait. Nelson is shown with brown eyes although he himself said they were blue. He didn’t seem to mind: during the sittings for the portrait and its five preliminary sketches, Nelson and Beechey  became friends. Nelson was honorary Godfather to Beechey’s son, Charles, and gave Charles the cocked hat he wore at the Battle of the Nile (Charles Beechey, perhaps unsurprisingly, went on to become a Naval officer).

Comparing the Nelson Quilt with portraits by Beechey

Comparing the Nelson Quilt with portraits by Beechey

Unfortunately, the original Beechey portrait isn’t on display at the National Portrait Gallery at present. I visited a few weeks ago and asked an attendant where I would find Nelson. The answer was impressively quick: “He’s in Room 17, next to Lady Hamilton.” Alas it was another portrait of Nelson: a painting from 1800 by Heinrich Fuger and the only known portrait of Nelson in civilian dress which was hanging next to a picture of Nelson’s “dearest beloved Emma.” Given that the Gallery holds 85 portraits in which Nelson appears as a sitter, it is fair enough that a variety of them get an airing. I’ll just have to make a special appointment to see the Beechey portrait when the Nelson Quilt is finished.

In the meantime, a reproduction of the Beechey portrait can be seen in the everyday bustle of the Southbound Bakerloo Line platform at Charing Cross Station. Among the various faces that represent the nearby National Portrait Gallery, there is Nelson, in black and white, next to various Plantagenet and Tudor Kings and Queens. It’s always quite a shock to see Nelson there, watching the trains go by.

 

* The Portrait of Nelson by Sir William Beechey is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and is reproduced here under the terms of the Creative Commons license.