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?