Seeking Nelson’s Victory

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Nelson’s Victory block, October 2015

Last year, when I was working on my Nelson Quilt, I came across an old quilt block called Nelson’s Victory. I made a number of these Nelson’s Victory blocks with the long term aim of designing a quilt with a Battle of Trafalgar theme. I absolutely loathe sewing triangles, so I was quite surprised to find I’d completed eight of these blocks over a month or so – I’d been inspired by the fabled “Nelson Touch” once again.

I have a feeling that the Nelson’s Victory block dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but I don’t have any real evidence to back up this feeling. However, once my interest is piqued, I can’t resist a research job, so I decided to see what I could find out about the history of this block.

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Old sewing books are a great source for old quilt blocks such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Birds-in-the-Air, The Little Giant and so on.  They also provide all sorts of interesting snippets about the making of quilts; regional and national variations in quilt style and culture; and show how the quilting tradition has been constantly evolving over centuries.

I started with Averil Colby’s Patchwork, first published by Batsford in 1958. I found no mention of Nelson’s Victory but the book’s index pointed me to a couple of Nelson references. According to Colby:

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile … the streets of Naples were decked with flags and streamers to welcome his return; among them were banners of blue-printed white cotton, on which the name NELSON was surrounded by a design of acorns and oak leaves. Pieces of this cloth were brought home by a young naval officer and used in a patchwork coverlet begun in the same year and finished in 1805, after Trafalgar. (page 31)

Other victories and occasions of the time do not seem to have been immortalised in patchwork patterns, except for the pieces of the Nelson print and an octagonal panel printed on the occasion of Princess Charlotte’s marriage to Prince Leopold in 1816 (page 112).

I would love to know what happened to that coverlet. Does it still survive? And where did Colby learn about it? Did she actually see it?

All truly fascinating stuff (and another research project for another day) but not quite what I was looking for. And Mavis Fitzrandolph’s Traditional Quilting: Its Story and its Practice (Batsford 1954) may have proved a fascinating read about quilters and rural industries but it didn’t provide any clues about Nelson’s Victory.

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Old Patchwork Quilts by Ruth E Finley

Then I stumbled across a copy of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E Finley published by J P Lippincott in 1929. And there, on page 75, was a diagram of the Nelson’s Victory block.

Finley provides a detailed analysis of different types of quilt blocks and their construction and says that:

The four-patch in general resolves itself into flock, star and wreath designs. But there are notable exceptions, like the Fly Foot and Bow Knot patterns and such well known blocks, based on the same idea yet distinctly different when made up in colour, such as The Pin Wheel and The Churn Dash. Nelson’s Victory, an old Connecticut pattern of the cross variety, is another exception … This pattern was widely used in every-day quilts.

Nelson's Victory Blocks

Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

So thanks to Finley’s book, I can trace Nelson’s Victory back to 1929. The reference to “an old Connecticut pattern” gives me a further clue and indicates that it was an established block by the time she was writing. So I will carry on searching for clues and hopefully will be able to find out whether my 1905 date is correct. Even if I can’t find the evidence, and even if I turn out to be wrong, I know I’ll learn lots of interesting things about quilts and their history along the way.

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905? Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

Quilting Nelson’s Column

Nelson's Column - sample block

Nelson’s Column – a sample block

Just over a year ago I visited the National Maritime Museum in London and saw what I thought was a quilt of Admiral Lord Nelson hanging in the Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition.

Nelson Banner

19th Century Nelson Banner

On closer inspection, the “quilt” turned out to be a banner celebrating Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile (1798) made of cotton, linen and wool, with a red silk border, and Nelson’s likeness painted directly on to the fabric. According to the Museum’s online catalogue, the maker of the banner is unknown.

The banner is one of many symbols of Nelson’s  popularity at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Despite growing scandal in his personal life (an affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, and separation from his wife, Fanny) the Battle of the Nile confirmed Nelson’s place as a national hero. His likeness appeared on jugs, furnishing fabrics, tankards, plant pots, pill boxes – almost anything could be decorated with a Nelson motif and sold to anyone who wanted to express their admiration through their belongings.

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A Sphinx regards my Nelson’s Column Quilt

And admiration was demonstrated publicly too. On a brief return to England in late 1800, Nelson was welcomed by cheering crowds. On 11 November 1800, The Times reported that: “Yesterday morning, Lord Nelson paid his respects to the Admiralty Board, and afterwards, accompanied by a friend, walked through the Adelphi Buildings, and along the Strand, to the Navy Office at Somerset House. His Lordship was in the half-dress uniform of an Admiral, and though in appearance somewhat thinner than when he was last in England, looked in perfect health. He was not recognised until he came into the Strand, where the curiosity of his countrymen became a little troublesome, the inconvenience of which he avoided by going into Somerset House. When his Lordship left Somerset House, a numerous crowd assembled, and accompanied him to Whitehall.”

I like to think that the unknown banner maker might have been amongst the “numerous crowd.”

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square

If you walk down the Strand from Somerset House to Whitehall today, you will pass through Trafalgar Square, where the best known monument to Nelson watches over London. Nelson’s Column is such an accepted part of the London landscape that it is easy to pass by without really looking at it. But if you stop and take a closer look, you will see four bronze panels at the base commemorating Nelson’s most celebrated victories – Cape St Vincent (1797), The Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805).

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Three of the four Nelson’s Column Quilt panels in progress – I made one for each of Nelson’s major victories.

The panels – designed by four different artists – are made from bronze that was melted down from captured French guns. John Edward Carew’s Death of Nelson at Trafalgar was installed in 1849, The Battle of the Nile by William F Woodington in 1850, John Ternouth’s Battle of Copenhagen in 1850, and, finally, Musgrave Watson’s Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1854. Watson, who died in 1847 did not see his work in a finished form: the installation of the Cape St Vincent panel was delayed when it was found that the company charged with making it had cut the bronze with iron. Those responsible were charged with fraud and imprisoned; and the panel had to be recast.

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Quilting in progress

High above the bronze panels stands Nelson himself, sculpted by Edward Hodges Baily RA. Although his statue is 18 feet and one inch tall, it is not possible to see much detail from the ground. However, we know that Nelson in dress uniform is far above us, reminding us that we are an island nation.

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Like Nelson’s Column itself, the quilt gives an impression of Nelson from a distance, with the detail becoming clearer the closer one gets

Having spent over a year studying Nelson’s face when working on my Nelson Quilt, I was curious to know what the face at the top of Nelson’s Column looked like. I spent hours hunting down and studying close up photographs of the statue and ended up with a much better sense of the detail. And then I pulled the Hero of the Nile banner concept and the detail of Nelson’s Column together into one quilt project. I wanted to recreate the banner’s use of Nelson’s face and combine it with the four victories of Nelson’s Column; after all, unlike the unknown banner maker who was sewing in 1798, I know what happened after the Battle of the Nile.

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Nelson’s Column via traditional needle turn applique and hand stitched detail

The resulting Nelson’s Column Quilt is a quilt of contradictions. It is a modern looking piece that features a deliberately repeated design but it has been made using old fashioned hand sewing techniques (needle turn applique, hand quilting, and a traditional rope design for the border). As with the face at the top of Nelson’s Column, at a distance, you see a deceptively outline-only shade of Nelson; close up, you see the detail. I love the contradictions of this quilt – and I love what I learned when I was making it.