A Year of Sewing Nelson

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year's work

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year’s work

I have just looked at the calendar and realised that I started the Nelson Quilt a year ago today. The project still isn’t finished but, in terms of piecing the squares, there isn’t that much more to do now. Soon I’ll have to face the challenge of working out how to quilt him!

The last year with this project has been so exciting. From an idle question (“I wonder what Nelson would look like as a quilt?”) to speaking at the NoRMMA Network‘s Performing Stardom Symposium about Nelson’s place in World War One film propaganda and the link between research and creativity, I have never felt so energised by a sewing project.

Explaining the Nelson Quilt Project at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photo courtesy of Dr Catherine O'Rawe

Showing the Nelson Quilt at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photograph courtesy of Dr Catherine O’Rawe

It feels strange to say that a quilt project can enhance film research but I have definitely found this to be true. Had I not started the quilt, I would not have become so interested in seeking out Nelsonia, visiting Nelson-related locations and finding out about the long legacy of sewn Nelson commemorations. All this additional research has definitely enhanced my understanding of the 1918 silent film about Nelson, directed by Maurice Elvey, and why it was such a significant piece of film propaganda at the time.

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015

This quilt started out as an experiment – and proof of this remains in some of the fabric squares. Anyone who looks closely will see that the weave on some dark brown fabric is looser and the squares therefore slightly thicker than the rest of the quilt. Why? Well, when starting out, I wasn’t sure if the project would work or whether it would be something I would try for a couple of weeks and then abandon. When I found I hadn’t bought the right shade of dark brown for the quilt, I used whatever was to hand – in this case a different weave of fabric – because at that stage it didn’t really matter. By the time the project had grown to a reasonable size I thought about replacing those squares but didn’t get round to it. And now I like the evidence of the uncertainty and ambivalence of the early stages of the project. It reminds me that sewing can take one in unanticipated directions and can lead to so much more than one ever expected.

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year on.

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year on.

A Silent Film for the Trafalgar Sail Project

Given the inspiration that Nelson has lent to my quilting projects over the last year, I was very excited to read about a community project organised by the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the launch of HMS Victory. The Trafalgar Sail Project calls for contributions of small textile pieces measuring 6″ x 6″ or 6″ x 4″, which are to be joined together to form a Community Trafalgar Sail art installation in the summer of 2015.

I watched, via Twitter, contributions featuring flags, signals, hearts of oak, and Nelson himself being submitted (search for #250trafalgarsail if you would like to see them). I knew I wanted to take part but I couldn’t think of a design.

The 1 June deadline for submissions was drawing ever closer and I was floundering. But, while preparing a presentation about Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film for a forthcoming conference, inspiration struck. There, in my research notes, was one of my favourite film advertisements:

Maurice Elvey's 1918 Nelson Film

The advertisement shows a romantic couple, Donald Calthrop as Nelson and Ivy Close as Lady Nelson (not, as one might expect, Lady Hamilton, who was played by Malvina Longfellow). HMS Victory can just be seen, set against a First World War battleship – echoing one of the central motifs of the film: the development of the Royal Navy. The advert refers to “Britain’s greatest film production” about “Britain’s greatest Naval hero” – claims that are overblown in terms of the film itself, but that clearly indicate the ambition behind it. I made my first attempt at printing on to fabric – and I was off!

Printing the Nelson advert on to fabric

Printing the Nelson advert on to fabric

I don’t usually make small pieces so working on a postcard-sized quilt was quite strange but very enjoyable. I’ll be posting my contribution off to the National Museum of the Royal Navy later this week and I hope they like it. I hope also that people who see the Trafalgar Sail when it is displayed might see this tiny little piece, wonder about this film poster and think about how a silent film about Nelson, with scenes taken on HMS Victory, was made during the First World War.

FullSizeRender (3)

The Nelson Quilt at Portsmouth

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

Over the last few weeks, I have been having a slightly frustrating time as a result of working on the Nelson Quilt. All the stitching over papers using the English Paper Piecing technique has strained my arm and I have developed tennis elbow. So no progress is being made on the Nelson Quilt at present, but that does not mean that the associated research project has ceased.

On Friday 1 May I took the Nelson Quilt to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I wanted to visit HMS Victory as part of the preparation for a paper I am giving at a conference later this month about how research into Maurice Elvey’s Nelson film led to my making the Nelson Quilt.

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory

Visiting HMS Victory is fascinating. Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar represents an important piece of Naval history and there are many well-informed guides on board who are keen to share their knowledge of and enthusiasm about the ship, Nelson and Trafalgar. On this visit I learned about the latest theories about the damage to Nelson’s eye (damaged not lost and he did not wear an eye patch); his migraines; and his role in promoting his own image as hero. I found out about cooking on board and the type of food available to the crew; how the crew stashed their possessions during the chaos of battle; and the heirarchy of dress in the Royal Navy in the 1800s. I also learned details of Nelson’s fatal wounding at the Battle of Trafalgar and how, his face covered to try to hide the news of his injury spreading amongst the crew, he was carried down the steep steps from the quarter deck where he fell to the orlop deck where he died.

I also had some time to reflect on some more recent events on the ship. In 1918, Maurice Elvey was given special permission by the Admiralty to film scenes on board HMS Victory for his Nelson biopic. In Elvey’s own words, “the Admiralty let me work on the Victory, actually in the cockpit. The most moving thing I’ve ever done was to reproduce the death of Nelson. This was something that frightened me – I’d never do such a thing again.”  I can’t help thinking of Elvey, his camera operator, Mr Frenguelli, and the rest of the film crew struggling up and down the steep steps on board with very heavy camera equipment. And in 1918 the ship was not in dry dock but on the water, so the movement under foot must have added to the challenge.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is well worth a visit. Not only is HMS Victory there, but it is also the home of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (which has an excellent gallery of Nelsonalia); the Sixteenth Century flagship, the Mary Rose (an astonishing feat of maritime archaeology and preservation); and a whole range of other fascinating things to see and do.

Visitors can also see Nelson depicted as a ship’s figurehead. Originally from HMS Trafalgar, a ship launched in 1841, this towering bust shows Nelson in full dress uniform – and is now a fitting way of greeting those who visit HMS Victory today.

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Two Thousand Squares of Nelson

The Nelson Quilt at 2,000 Squares

The Nelson Quilt at 2,000 Squares

Last weekend, while watching the 1942 British war-at-sea film In Which We Serve, I sewed the 2,000th square into the Nelson Quilt.

I like films about the Navy, and working on the Nelson Quilt while watching Naval dramas – like In Which We Serve – always feels very appropriate. The direction of In Which We Serve is often credited to Noel Coward (who also wrote the screenplay and starred as Captain Kinross), but a young film editor named David Lean directed the action sequences. According to the British Film Institute, ‘although Lean insisted on sharing the direction credit with Coward, his name is barely mentioned in the publicity material for the film, which does not even carry a photograph of him … Coward left Lean to more or less shoot the film on his own, while he concentrated on playing the lead role.’

David Lean started his career working for none other than Maurice Elvey (whose 1918 Nelson film inspired the Nelson Quilt). Lean’s earliest film work was as an uncredited runner on Quinneys (1927) and then as an uncredited camera assistant on some of Elvey’s late silents including Palais de Danse (1927), and High Treason (1929), which was released in both silent and sound versions. Many years later, Lean told his biographer, Kevin Brownlow, how moved he had been to touch the camera that had filmed Elvey’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1921):“I couldn’t believe that this was the source of all the magic,” he mused.’ David Lean went on to become one of the great directors of British cinema, with credits including This Happy Breed, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, but he never forgot how Elvey had encouraged him when he was a young man with an ambition to work in the movies.

Square number 2,000

Square number 2,000

When In Which We Serve was over, I started to think about the progress of the Nelson Quilt. Sewing square number 2,000 is a real milestone in a project that started out as an experiment. Back in July 2014, I was asked by a fellow quilter what I was working on. I remember answering nervously, ‘It’s – um – a portrait of Nelson, but I don’t know if it is going to work.’

Nelson Quilt - starting out

Nelson Quilt – starting out

A month later, I was excitedly showing off my handiwork. Friends tried very hard to see the beginnings of the face that was so clear to me, but couldn’t work out what I was showing them.

Why can't you see what it is?

Why can’t you see what it is?

And then a breakthrough – suddenly, at 490 squares, the face became visible:

Nelson - 490 squares so far.

Nelson – 490 squares, August 2014

From that point on he (and, yes, by that point, I had started referring to the quilt as “he”) just grew and grew:

Nelson waiting to cross the Solent, September 2014

Nelson waiting to cross the Solent, September 2014

Nelson - 1,000 squares

Nelson – 1,000 squares, November 2014

The Nelson Quilt at 1,750 squares, 15 January 2015

Nelson – 1,750 squares, January 2015

March 2015 - Nelson at 2,000 squares

Nelson – 2,000 squares, March 2015

There are still 1,200 Nelson Quilt squares to sew, there’s more Elvey research to write about, and there are more Naval dramas to watch. What could be better?

Stitching Nelson Mark II

Nelson's Column Block

Nelson’s Column Block

This time last year I joined the London Modern Quilt Guild. As a result, I have met some wonderfully inspiring quilters, made new friends and learned how to sew curves. At each meeting, members bring along their quilting to show the group and talk about the techniques they have used or their fabric choices. Since last September I have been sharing progress on the Nelson Quilt and the other Guild members have been greatly encouraging about this long running project.

The Guild sets regular challenges – sewing something with curved piecing, making a bag to swap, interpreting a design and so on. The current challenge is to make a block inspired by Urban London.

Given my current research interest in Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film, my thoughts turned straight away to Nelson’s Column for my Urban London block. From the ground, one cannot see Nelson’s face, but close up photographs of the statue show an extraordinary level of detail. I had found my inspiration – and a second stitched Nelson.

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, watching over the city

Why has Elvey’s silent film biography of Nelson captured my imagination so much and inspired two quilting projects to date? It’s certainly not a great film but I have great affection for it. Looking at the notes I made the first time I saw it, my immediate impressions were: “It isn’t great but it isn’t as terrible as its reputation would have one believe. It is good in parts, with a nice structure, Maurice Elvey’s usual deft touch with crowds, and some thrilling street battles. Scenes between Ivy Close and Donald Calthrop as newlyweds are particularly fine, as is the depiction of Nelson’s childhood.”

Maurice Elvey's 1918 Nelson Film

Having said that, there are flaws in the acting, some terrible make up and a particularly dreadful wig used by Donald Calthrop as the ageing Nelson. There’s plenty of evidence of a rushed production schedule. It’s a problematic film – but a fascinating one, particularly if, like me, you have been researching the production history. I think I might be working on Nelson related projects for some time to come.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Another Nelson Quilt?

The Nelson Quilt at 1,750 squares, 15 January 2015

The Nelson Quilt at 1,750 squares, 15 January 2015

The Nelson Quilt has grown again. It is now at 1,750 one inch squares. All hand stitched, the piece, as it now stands, represents six months’ work. There is still more to do, with further background to be added, but the portrait is now more than half way sewn.

I continue to draw a lot of inspiration from older Nelsonalia, and frequently visit the excellent Nelson, Navy, Nation galleries at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. On my last visit, I came across what I thought might be an earlier Nelson quilt made to commemorate the Battle of the Nile, which took place in August 1798.

19th Century Nelson Banner

19th Century Nelson Banner

On closer inspection, it turned out to be a banner. The excellent searchable database of the Museum’s collection explains that this is a double sided banner made from silk, linen, cotton and wool. The portrait bust of Nelson is painted on linen and faces different directions on either side. The red border is made of silk. A banner like this would have been waved by the celebrating crowds who hoped to catch a glimpse of the victorious Nelson when he returned to Britain in 1800.

There is so much Nelson memorabilia to seek out, so much to read and so much to learn about Nelson’s life. My quilt project began with Maurice Elvey’s silent film about Nelson made in 1918. To put that film into context, I started to research Nelson’s place in British popular culture – and that led me to embark on a piece of stitchery that I am finding enormously rewarding. I can’t wait to see the portrait finished!

Taking the Nelson Quilt for a walk, New Year 2015

Taking the Nelson Quilt for a walk, New Year 2015

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.

 

The Lodger – Framed!

Back in August, I was commissioned to make a small quilt inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film, The Lodger. Being a bit of a fan of its star, Ivor Novello, I was happy to agree, and in my earlier post, Stitching with Ivor Novello, I wrote about how some of my lettered quilts are inspired by silent film intertitles.

The Lodger 1926

The quilt was finished, packed up and delivered to its new owner in September. Now, if you make things, it is always interesting to see what happens to them once they are passed on. Walking into someone’s home and seeing your quilt, or picture, or ornament in its new setting is one of the pleasures of making.

The Lodger quilt was commissioned by Nathalie Morris, the brains behind the delicious Food on Film blog, and a dab hand at making Alfred Hitchcock’s Quiche Lorraine. Nathalie got in touch with me yesterday to say that she had arranged for The Lodger quilt to be framed. She sent me a lovely photograph of it, and here it is:

"The Lodger" Quilt framed

“The Lodger” Quilt framed

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