Quilting the Thames

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High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

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The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

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Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

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Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

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Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

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Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

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I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

The Magic of The Box of Delights

Box of Delights - overview

Quilting the Box of Delights

In the run up to Christmas, many people all around the UK watch a BBC Children’s television series first broadcast in 1984: The Box of Delights directed by Renny Rye and starring Devin Stanfield as Master Kay Harker, Robert Stephens as the villainous Abner Brown, and Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy Man who “dates from pagan times.” Some time their viewing so that they watch an episode a week to finish on Christmas Eve with Leave Us Not Little, Nor Yet Dark – just as the 1984 series was transmitted.

The outpouring of love for this series seems to start annually in November, as aficionados declare that Christmas won’t be Christmas without the Box of Delights, or that hearing the theme music (The First Nowell from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony) heralds the beginning of the festive season.

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The Box of Delights by John Masefield

The original book was written by John Masefield (1878-1967). He is now perhaps best remembered for The Box of Delights and another adventure featuring Kay Harker and Abner Brown, The Midnight Folk. The language of these books is so evocative – with possets, pirate tea, Oliver’s time, pudding time and pagan times, and the provisioning of toy boats to sail on the floods – and who can fail to be stirred when they hear that the Wolves are Running?

For me, one of the pleasures of reading Masefield is his knowledge of the sea, ships and sea lore – developed while he served on HMS Conway as a youth. His sea songs and shanties run through the Kay Harker stories and include the raucous pirate song from The Box of Delights, sung by the Wolves of the Gulf after much rum punch: We fly a banner all of black, With scarlet Skull and Boneses, And every merchantman we take, We send to Davey Jones’s. Masefield, who was Poet Laureate between 1930 and 1967, also wrote the much loved Sea Fever (I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by).

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Sea Fever by John Masefield, celebrated at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Box of Delights has been delighting children of all ages since its publication in 1935. Forty years before the much-loved television series, The Box of Delights was adapted for radio. As part of Children’s Hour, the BBC Home Service broadcast three six-part adaptations “for older listeners.” The book was adapted by Robert Holland and John Keir Cross in 1943 (with John Gilpin as Kay Harker and Hay Petrie as Cole Hawlings), in 1948 (with David Page as Kay and Harcourt Williams as Hawlings), and in 1955 (with Patricia Hayes as Kay and Deering Wells as Hawlings). Charles Hawtrey played Mouse in all three productions.

Over the years there have been multiple radio broadcasts of The Box of Delights, most of which were adapted by John Keir Cross (1914-1967) – a prolific writer, radio adaptor and broadcaster. He presented a radio book club in 1951, which suggested books for family reading, and Connoisseurs of Crime, which explored crime novels and real life cases with detective authors. He also wrote the first radio adaptations of Pamela Brown’s theatrical novels for children, The Swish of the Curtain and Maddy Alone in 1944. *

Box of Delights - The Wolves are Running

The Wolves are Running

In 1966, John Keir Cross told the Radio Times that “Some twenty years ago I wrote a serial version of The Box of Delights, and still, to this day, I am asked when it might be repeated. Recently, writing a script for The Archers, I made a passing reference to this unusual tale; and from all over the world came letters from its secret addicts who wanted to know if it was still in print – as in fact it is.”

It seems that The Box of Delights secret addicts club is still alive and thriving. Every year, the cry that The Wolves are Running goes up – and people join in the adventures of Kay Harker once again.

Box of Delights - times

Quilting a favourite section from the book: “First there were pagan times, then there were in-between times … then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time.”

* I found out about radio adaptations thanks to the wonderful BBC Genome Project which gives BBC listings information from the Radio Times between 1923-2009.

Glimpses of a lost silent film: Far from the Madding Crowd (1915)

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

For me, there are few things more tantalising than stumbling across an old theatre programme for a play that closed many years back, or reading about a film that was made a century ago but has not survived. You might know who the players were, the parts they took, even what they wore, but the chance to see what was performed is long gone.

For people who love silent film – and, in particular, British silent film – glimpses of performances past both frustrate and enthuse. It is estimated that 80% of British silents are lost – you come across a reference in a book or magazine, perhaps see still photographs or find musical cue sheets, read a contemporary review or see an advertisement – but you can’t watch the film itself. The missing reels are constantly out of reach.

I’m seeking information about the lost British silent Far from the Madding Crowd (1915). I came across it by chance when researching a fine (extant) film, East Is East (1916), directed by Henry Edwards, who also played in the film. Edwards went on to become one of the big stars of British cinema, and can be seen looking back over his career in this delightful British Pathé film.

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

East is East featured the very talented actor, director, writer and producer Florence Turner. I was intrigued to learn that this was not the first pairing of Edwards and Turner; the previous year they had both appeared in a version of Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Turner’s friend and business partner Larry Trimble.

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Edwards played Gabriel Oak and Turner was Bathsheba Everdene. Malcolm Cherry played Farmer Boldwood and Campbell Gullan was Sargeant Troy. So what did this Far from the Madding Crowd look like? Where was it filmed? How did the actors play their parts?

Well, if their pairing in East is East is any indication, Turner and Edwards would have played well together as Bathsheba and Oak in a well-received “quality” picture based on a respected novel (and if you don’t know the plot, please note that the following contemporary reviews contain spoilers).

The Hull Daily Mail on 28 February 1916 said: “The mere fact that so great a novel as Far from the Madding Crowd by so skilled an author as Thomas Hardy should be produced  as a picture play is of sufficient importance to warrant the keenest interest of the public. Far from the Madding Crowd is the life story of an impulsive, capricious, but fascinating woman upon whom tragedy and suffering is brought by her own actions. Her innate inability to refrain from misleading and torturing those whom she captivated by her alluring ways was the cause of the heartbreaking of Gabriel, of the death of Troy, and of the final doom of the morbid Boldwood. But, at the end of it all, the happiness of rest and peace must have been intensified by the turmoil that had gone before. The part of Bathsheba is taken by that favourite and appealing cinema actress, Florence Turner. It is refreshing to have brought to the memory the scenes of Wessex country life; and some of the pictures of farm life are if intense interest because they are so realistic.”

Florence Turner in 1915

That favourite and appealing cinema actress Florence Turner in 1914

On 29 February 1916, the Manchester Evening News reported: “Film versions of popular novels will always be welcome if they are so well done as Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The picture has many gripping moments as well as scenic and sylvan beauties, and Florence Turner acts the leading part with distinction.” The Rochdale Observer, on 30 August 1916, reported that the film was a “particularly fine production. The setting was admirable and the natural beauty of the scenes depicted added much to the attractiveness of the film. The career of a wandering shepherd and his mistress was followed with much interest.”

I also know a little about which elements of the source novel were filmed. On 3 March 1916 the Hull Daily Mail reported on the strongest scenes: “Great flocks of sheep on the Downs, the catastrophe to Gabriel’s herd, his fall in the world, the saving of the hayrick in the lightning storm while Troy and the others are in drunken sleep, and the unhappy two loves of Bathsheba Everdene.”

Again, courtesy of the Hull Daily Mail (17 November 1915), I learned that “there are several moments of real dramatic intensity in this film. One incident stands out, however, from all the rest – that of the moment when Bathsheba, gazing into the coffin of Fanny Robin, discovers the overwhelming proof of her husband’s misconduct – an episode powerfully acted by Mr Gullan and Miss Turner.”

What I don’t know is whether my favourite scene – Hiving the Bees – was included. But just in case it wasn’t, I’ve been sewing some of the text of that beekeeping scene for my next quilt project.

Hiving the Bees - quilt work in progress

Hiving the Bees – quilt work in progress

And I’ve got a pile of Pictures and the Picturegoer magazines from 1916 to hunt through for more clues about this intriguing lost Far from the Madding Crowd.

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Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck and Admiral Lord Nelson

This post contains spoilers about Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck.

Regency Buck Pan Paperbacks

A sewing session provides a perfect opportunity to get lost in a good audiobook. I have spent many happy hours listening to the novels of Georgette Heyer – the perfect sewing companion – and was delighted when, on 5 June, 2015, her childhood home, 103 Woodside in Wimbledon, London, was given a Blue Plaque by English Heritage.

Earlier this week I was listening to an old favourite – Regency Buck (1935). This was Georgette Heyer’s nineteenth book and the first set in the Regency period (1811-1820). It isn’t my favourite Heyer novel but I have a soft spot for it because it was the first of her novels I read. I love the strong heroine, Judith Taverner, who flouts convention by driving her curricle to Brighton in an unladylike race with her brother, takes snuff, battles against the restrictions places upon her by her guardian, and ensures that looking like a mere Dresden china miss is offset by a decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth.

Regency Buck Hardback

While listening to Judith’s story unfold, I was stitching the Nelson Quilt. To my surprise I heard something I had never noticed before: daring, unconventional Judith Taverner has been an admirer of Admiral Lord Nelson since her childhood. And this admiration is used to signal the traits of a couple of her acquaintances. Firstly, it is clear that Judith’s uncle, Admiral Taverner, is going to turn out to be a bad sort:

To relieve the awkwardness of the moment she turned to the Admiral, and began talking to him of the Trafalgar action. He was pleased enough to tell it all to her, but his account, concerned as it was merely with his own doings upon that momentous day and interspersed with a great many oaths and coarse expressions, could be of little interest to her. She wanted to be hearing of Lord Nelson, who had naturally been the hero of her school-days. It was her uncle’s only merit in her eyes that he must actually have spoken with the great man, but she could not induce him to describe Nelson in any other than the meanest terms. He had not liked him, did not see that he could have been so very remarkable, never could understand what the women saw in him – a wispy fellow: nothing to look at, he gave her his word.

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

In contrast, the Duke of Clarence, a good humoured easygoing Prince known as the Royal Tar, has much to recommend him. He joins Judith on a phaeton ride around Hyde Park:

He was not at all difficult to talk to, and they had not driven more than half-way round the Park before Miss Taverner discovered him to have been a firm friend of Admiral Nelson. She was in a glow at once; he was very ready to talk to her of the admiral, and in this way they drove twice round the Park, extremely well pleased with each other.

I hadn’t picked up on the Nelson references in Regency Buck before. I probably wouldn’t have paid them much regard had it not been for the Nelson research I’ve been doing as part of the Nelson Quilt project.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015. 300 squares to go.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015 – 300 squares to go.

I now feel I know Judith Taverner a bit better – and I would bet that some of her flaunting of convention was inspired by Nelson himself. Given Judith’s habit of taking snuff, I imagine that she would have had a decorative box to carry with her such as this one, inscribed England expects every man to do his duty, which is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Or she may have had a commemorative pill box in her reticule:

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the   National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Georgette Heyer was a meticulous researcher and very knowledgeable about the period and people of whom she wrote, weaving real events and individuals into her narratives with great skill. Judith Taverner’s admiration of Nelson would have been no accident. I’m really pleased to have found it and understood its significance while working on my own Nelson project.

Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck: Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck:                           Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Reflecting on The Reluctant Widow

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

 PictureShow, 13 May 1950

A few months ago, I blogged about some fabric depicting Regency Costumes that I had found at Quilters Trading Post which made me think of Georgette Heyer’s heroines. The fabric brought to mind a film adaptation of Heyer’s Reluctant Widow and, when the British Film Institute showed this film on 17 March, I was invited to introduce the screening. I did some further research into the film for the introduction, and here it is:

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

On August 6 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that “at last British Studios have seen something that has been staring them in the face for years – it is the amount of good screen material to be found in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.”

Between 1921 and 1974, Heyer wrote over 50 novels, most set in the Regency period. She remains incredibly popular today with a dedicated fan base. But unlike many bestselling authors, very little of her work has been adapted for the screen. A rare example is The Reluctant Widow which was published in 1946 and released as a feature film in 1950 as the last of the period dramas made by Two Cities Films during the late 1940s. So why is so little Heyer seen on screen?

The answer might lie with Heyer herself. Her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer) was of the view that “Georgette Heyer’s books with their brilliant plotting and distinctive style and language should be naturals for film and television, but not, perhaps, with their strong-minded author at the director’s elbow.”

Reluctant Widow Editions

In principle, Heyer was open to having her novels adapted, as this could have increased her earning power. Despite earning significant income from her writing, she always felt short of cash and worried excessively about her tax bill. In 1939, there were discussions with Alexander Korda about filming her novel about Charles II, Royal Escape, but these came to nothing, as did proposed films of False Colours to star Anna Neagle (a Heyer fan) and to be directed by Herbert Wilcox, and a mooted production of An Infamous Army.

When The Reluctant Widow came to be filmed, Heyer found that she was not in control of her story – and she didn’t like it.

Screenwriters Gordon Wellesley and Basil Boothroyd made alterations to supporting characters Becky and Nicky (who, as written, are great examples of Heyer’s shrewd old governesses and hilarious younger brothers); added a mysterious smuggler; and, most significantly, created a new character – Madame de Chevreaux played by Kathleen Byron – who does not appear in the novel at all. A very exciting duel scene, made much of in advance publicity, is not in the book; and London scenes featuring Guy Rolfe are inventions of the film makers. There is also a very strange second marriage, which makes no narrative sense. And Heyer was powerless.

Jane Aiken Hodge quotes her as saying “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham (Studios) … I feel as though a slug had crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” She cannot have felt reassured by a review in the Daily Express that described Jean Kent having “a whale of a time. She has a part … that is a cross between the Wicked Lady, Forever Amber, and the barmaid at the local.” (April 28 1950)

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller) reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because, “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting.”

Heyer ultimately refused to see the film, so she didn’t get to see what the director, Bernard Knowles, had made of her work – and her refusal meant that she missed seeing some of the very interesting aspects of the film.

To start with, she was wrong about Jean Kent, who played the role of Elinor much as written for much of the film. Guy Rolfe, who played Lord Carlyon, is now mainly remembered for playing English villains, but in The Reluctant Widow he had a rare opportunity to play the romantic lead and did so with conviction.

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Heyer also missed out on an early screen appearance of Julian Dallas as Francis Cheviot. Advance publicity from Two Cities tells us that the Rank Organisation saw Dallas as “the new James Mason” and said that “if his acting and personality come over on the screen successfully he may be offered a long term contract.” Dallas was, indeed offered a long term contract, but not by Rank. Under his real name, Scott Forbes, he went to Hollywood under contact to Warner Brothers in 1950. After appearing in a number of films, he starred in the popular television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, from 1956-1958. According to Forbes’ 1997 obituary in The Independent, It was a well-kept secret … that Jim Bowie, with his deep Southern drawl and astonishing good looks, was played by an Englishman educated at Repton and Balliol College, Oxford. The promoters of the series, feeling that the US public would not accept a frontiersman played by an Englishman, launched him with a fabricated biography, claiming that he had been born in South Africa and grown up in eastern Pennsylvania.” (29 April 1997)

Heyer’s world was created on screen by Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios. Dillon was the first woman to win an Academy Award for set decoration, for Hamlet in 1948 – having overcome opposition to her work in the 1930s when she overheard someone saying, “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job.”

Dillon caught the mock-gothic settings of The Reluctant Widow with her usual excellence. In the novel, Elinor jokes about the character of Highnoons, the house she inherits, saying:

“The house is clearly haunted. I have not the least doubt that that is why only two sinister retainers can be brought to remain in it. I dare say I shall be found, after a night spent within these walls, a witless wreck whom you will be obliged to convey to Bedlam without more ado.”

With props to add to the sense of chaos of a neglected, crumbling mansion, notably in the decadent master bedroom, Dillon’s work resulted in a convincing Highnoons.

For the London scenes – also created at Denham – Dillon depicted architecture in the style of William Kent, who designed Horse Guards Parade, and she created views – seen through windows – of St James’ Park and the Treasury Building as in 1815. Props included a campaign sheet of the Peninsular War printed in 1815; a copy of The Morning Post borrowed from the British Museum, and some bombards, small shells used in the Battle of Copenhagen. Research was undertaken into the regiments stationed at Horse Guards in 1815 to ensure that the costumes were correct.

Overall, the film is an interesting addition to the history of British costume drama. It is particularly notable given its status as a very rare feature filmed based on a novel by Georgette Heyer – and, perhaps, answers the question “Why are books of this very popular author so rarely filmed?”

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

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.

 

A Thousand Squares of Nelson

Nelson - 1,000 squares

Nelson – 1,000 squares

This week, I reached a significant milestone with the Nelson Quilt. The thousandth square (in a shade of reddish-brown) was sewn in.

Pausing to take stock, I realise that sewing together these thousand one inch squares has involved around eighty thousand stitches (all by hand); four snapped needles; two colours found to be wrong, resulting in many squares being unpicked and replaced; various train journeys (to Portsmouth, Rochester, Hassocks, Manchester and Birmingham) all spent sewing feverishly; a stitching session on Ventnor Beach on the Isle of Wight; and approximately one hundred and forty hours’ work.

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

What else have I done during those one hundred and forty hours apart from sew and cut?

I dislike stitching in silence so I get through a lot of audiobooks. I usually have more than one on the go at any one time, and dip in and out according to mood. The listening menu for the first thousand squares of the Nelson Quilt has been:

A biography of Nelson himself by Victoria Carolan, read by Joy Gelardi.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, brilliantly read by Nicholas Boulton.
Anton Lesser, a favourite narrator, reading a number of C J Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries.
Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax read by Daniel Philpott.
A BBC dramatisation of The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown – a fondly remembered childhood pleasure.
Another BBC dramatisation – P G Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey read by Derek Jacobi.
Two books by Hilary Mantel, her memoir Giving Up the Ghost read by Jane Wymark, and the best reading of all – Simon Slater narrating Wolf Hall.

Nelson on the Wall

Audiobooks are a great hand sewing accompaniment. I’ve got two thousand two hundred squares to go – and a whole set of novels by Charles Dickens to listen to. A perfect activity for the winter evenings!

Nelson from the back - 1,000 squares

Nelson from the back – 1,000 squares

The Fabric of Wolf Hall

I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction. From the age of about ten, I devoured novels by Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Margaret Campbell Barnes, and particularly enjoyed their books about Henry VIII. I had an especial fondness for Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal and Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes. Both books were about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and both featured a villain – Thomas Cromwell – who tortured musicians and brought down queens. My early ventures into reading Tudor fiction meant that I always thought of Cromwell as a Very Bad Man.

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

But in April 2009, a new book was published and this book changed my viewpoint completely. This book featured Thomas Cromwell as its central character: Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall. As Mantel’s hero (or should that be anti-hero?), Cromwell is witty, charismatic and slippery, loyal to his friends and ruthless to those who cross him. A devoted family man. A patron saint for administrators, archivists and minute writers. And a man who knows about cloth.

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

Re-reading Wolf Hall recently, I was struck by the number of references to textiles, and how beautifully they are described by Mantel. Velvets, brocades, silks, wool, sables, satins all burst from the page.

As a youth fleeing England, young Thomas Cromwell meets “three elderly Lowlanders”, traders in cloth, who show him their “woollen samples and discuss among themselves the weight and the weave.” Cromwell learns about cloth and concludes that “with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth hard to weave, he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” He understands what clothes of the right fabric can do; on meeting the poor but beautiful Helen, “mentally, he takes her out of cheap shrunken wool and re-dresses her in some figured velvet he saw yesterday, six shillings the yard.”

As Cardinal Wolsey’s man, Cromwell admires a tapestry of “the woollen monarchs,” Solomon and Sheba: a tapestry that depicts a woman he has known and that weaves its way throughout the book. When Wolsey falls, Cromwell watches the cardinal’s finery being packed away: “bolts of fine holland, velvets and grosgrain, sarcenet and taffeta, scarlet by the yard.” Cromwell knows its value. “In public the cardinal wears red, just red, but in various weights, various weaves, various degrees of pigment and dye, but all of them the best of their kind, the best reds to be got for money. There have been days when, swaggering out, he would say, ‘Right, Master Cromwell, price me by the yard!'” And in a spirit of thrift that will be appreciated by patchworkers everywhere, this fabric has a second life after Wolsey’s death: “The cardinal’s scarlet clothes now lie folded and empty. They cannot be wasted. They will be cut up and become other garments. Who knows where they will get to over the years? Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner or ensign. You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat.”

Sewing the binding.

Sewing the binding.

Cromwell’s wife, Liz, does “a bit of silk-work” and complains about “the price of thread.” Their sheets are of fine linen and they sleep “under a quilt of yellow turkey satin.” In one of my favourite scenes, Liz embroiders shirts for their son Gregory “with a black-work design; it’s the same one the queen uses, for she makes the king’s shirts herself. ‘If I were Katherine I’d leave the needle in them,’ he says.” In this world, sewing is a weapon. Does Anne Boleyn pull the stitches out of her sister’s embroidery? How can his niece’s “awkward little backstitch” be used to protect Cromwell’s letters? Will a book of needlework patterns wrapped in kingfisher blue silk be taken from Jane Seymour? Who will unpick embroidered pomegranates, representing the badge of Katherine of Aragon?

As readers may have guessed, I know the text of Wolf Hall very well. It’s my favourite book, and as well as reading from the page, I find the excellent unabridged audiobook, read by Simon Slater, the perfect sewing accompaniment. And in 2014, my enjoyment was enhanced even further by the magical stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Playful Productions.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

I was lucky enough to see the plays in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and was so swept away by them that I simply had to sew something. Mantel’s Notes on Characters, written for the plays, say of Cromwell: “You don’t say much about your past, but you tell Thomas Cranmer, ‘I was a ruffian in my youth.’ Whatever this statement reveals or conceals, you have a lifelong sympathy with young men who have veered off-course.” I love that sentiment  – and it formed the basis for a little quilt tribute to Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton, and the cast, musicians, production team and backstage crew of the plays that I enjoyed so much.

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

* The image of Thomas Cromwell from the National Portrait Gallery, London is used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

Sewing Regency Romance with Georgette Heyer

Regency Plate Blocks

I like to listen to audiobooks while I sew. Charles Dickens, Hilary Mantel and Josephine Tey are all in my listening library; another author who also features strongly is Georgette Heyer. The drama of Devil’s Cub, the humour of The Unknown Ajax, the tribulations of April Lady – all these make good quilting accompaniment.

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was an incredibly prolific writer, with 40 historical novels and 12 thrillers to her name. Her most popular books are her Regency romances. Many people do not take Heyer’s work seriously, but her books are engaging and well written, and her background research impressive. Heyer was a thorough researcher and stickler for authenticity. She kept meticulous, extensive notebooks about the historical periods about which she wrote. These notebooks were filled with her drawings and references relating to styles of dress, types of carriages, and even slang usage.

Given my listening habits, I was delighted to find some Regency Costume Panels at Quilters Trading Post which immediately reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s heroines.

Georgette Heyer Block

Could this be Sylvester’s Phoebe? Or The Grand Sophy? I don’t think it is my favourite heroine, Horatia from The Convenient Marriage,  but it could be Regency Buck’s Judith.

Despite their popularity, hardly any Heyers have been adapted for film or television. There is a German television version of Arabella and a British film adaptation of The Reluctant Widow, directed by Bernard Knowles and released in 1950.

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

In principle, Heyer was keen for her novels to be filmed, partly as a way of easing her financial worries. Unfortunately, she found the filming of The Reluctant Widow an unpleasant experience. Her 1984 biographer Jane Aiken Hodge, quotes Heyer thus: “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham [Studios], and am trying to think what I can do about it. I feel as though a slug had crawled over me … They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” Perhaps Kent’s earlier ‘bad-girl’ roles in films such as Caravan and Good Time Girl influenced Heyer’s perception.

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because: “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting that it is putting me right off the stroke.”

The Reluctant Widow

Heyer failed to have her name removed: the opening titles of the film read: “Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe in The Reluctant Widow. Based on the novel by Georgette Heyer.” She did not see the film herself, but her son did – and walked out, furious, half way through.

Had Heyer seen the film, she may well have found it turgid rather than salacious; there is no chemistry between Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe as Elinor and Lord Carlyon; and the novel’s exciting sub plot about French spies is rendered dull, even though the usually excellent Kathleen Byron is one of the plotters. The character of Nicky – one of Heyer’s impeccable comic creations – is no longer an irrepressible youth sent down from Oxford University following a prank involving a bear, but a callow boy who wouldn’t play a prank of any kind.

So, if you don’t know Georgette Heyer, I wouldn’t waste time seeking out this poor film adaptation, but go straight to the novel – Heyer’s irresistible take on the Gothic romance. Or better still, get an audiobook and sew along to it.

Reluctant Widow Editions

Travelling in Time

image

When I was eight years old, I read A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. First published in 1939,  A Traveller in Time tells the story of Penelope Taberner, who, when visiting her aunt and uncle in Derbyshire, is transported back to 1582. She finds herself in the midst of the Babington Plot which aimed to free Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity, and place her on the English throne in place of Elizabeth I. I found this book completely magical and it led directly to my desire to study history.

Uttley’s vivid recreation of the Derbyshire countryside and the people who lived there was enhanced by her evocative descriptions of objects. The magic of an old chest containing “cashmere shawls, the silk-embroidered waistcoats, the pistol with its mother-of-pearl and incised roses and leaves,” and drawers full of “old bits of jewellery, silver buttons, jet and amber brooches, and broken earrings,” still make me want to dig around in forgotten corners of antique shops. I read about Mistress Foljambe’s Book of Hours and dreamed of the illustrations that captivated Penelope.

Most tantalising were the fabrics. How I longed for a sewing workbox like Aunt Tissie’s, full of “curious spools of silks”. I wanted to make a rag rug from an old waistcoat, trousers that were a hundred years old, and a scarlet soldier’s coat. I dreamed about the embroidery sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots, and, years later, was delighted to find some of it on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The best thing of all was some wonderful, abandoned patchwork:

“There was a needlecase with a cover of ancient blue taffeta, like the kirtle of Mistress Babington’s gown. I had found it in Aunt Tissie’s patchwork bag, where there was a storehouse of treasures, ancient silks and faded velvets, and scraps of half-made patchwork, each with its lining of stiff paper. I saw faded writing and crabbed words and odd spelling, with poems and hymns half-concealed in the squares and diamonds of the patches. Some of the paper was parchment, I was sure, but Aunt Tissie said they were only old documents she had found in an oak chest when she was a girl, and cut up for her quilt linings.”

How could I fail to become a quilter after reading that?