A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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The Nelson Quilt at Osborne House


In the early hours of Sunday July 5 2015, I finished putting all 3,200 pieces of the Nelson Quilt together. The quilt top is now complete.

A week later, I visited Osborne House (once the home of Queen Victoria) on the Isle of Wight in order to get some pictures of the quilt in a beautiful location that is particularly relevant to my Nelson project.

The Nelson Quilt at the site of the Royal Naval College Osborne

Thirteen months ago, I had the idea for the quilt when researching Maurice Elvey’s 1918 silent film biography of Nelson. I was reading contemporary reports about the making of the film and the locations used – Burnham Thorpe, Portsmouth, Southsea, Torquay. And the Royal Naval College Osborne, in the grounds of Osborne House.

The Royal Naval College Osborne was used by Maurice Elvey as the location for a highly fictionalised version of Nelson’s school days at the Royal Grammar School in Norwich. This was a very deliberate anachronism: the College opened in 1903 as a training school for young cadets who would spend an initial two years studying at Osborne before transferring to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth (where Elvey would go on to make his 1939 film Sons of the Sea). By 1918, Osborne was known as “the cradle of the Navy” and so, when considering locations for his Nelson film, Elvey chose the patriotic symbolism of Osborne, where the young sailors of 1918 – who might aspire to be like Nelson – were being educated.

In Elvey’s film, the schoolboy Nelson was played by a talented young actor called Eric Barker. Barker makes a delightfully irreverent young hero who dons a paper admiral’s hat to lead his fellows in pranks and boisterous behaviour. I haven’t been able to trace the identities of any of the other boys in these exuberant scenes, but I wonder whether they were real cadets studying at the College who were given special permission to have a bit of fun at the request of the visiting film crew?

The Petty Officers’ Quarters, Royal Naval College Osborne

Osborne Naval College closed in 1921, but some of the buildings are still there, including the gatehouse and the Petty Officers’ Quarters, now converted to an English Heritage shop and restaurant.

When Elvey was filming scenes at the Naval College in the summer of 1918, parts of Osborne House were being used as an officers’ convalescent home. In the Elvey film, there are some scenes of Nelson visiting convalescent sailors after battle, and I have a feeling that these scenes were also taken at Osborne. Other parts of the House were open to the public for guided tours. I don’t know if Elvey took the time to visit, but I like to think that he did.


It was very satisfying to take the finished quilt top to Osborne. It felt like the completion of a circle that started in June 2014 when, while reading about Maurice Elvey using the Royal Naval College as a Nelson film location, I asked myself what seemed like an idle question: “What would Nelson look like as a quilt?”

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!

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.

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

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