Quilting Nelson’s Column

Nelson's Column - sample block

Nelson’s Column – a sample block

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

Nelson Banner

19th Century Nelson Banner

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

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

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A Sphinx regards my Nelson’s Column Quilt

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

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

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square

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

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

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

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Quilting in progress

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

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

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

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

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

Sewing for Trafalgar Day

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From 1905: Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905: Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

21 October is Trafalgar Day and so it feels very appropriate to feature some quilt blocks (shown above) of a traditional patchwork design known as Nelson’s Victory. The block possibly dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. I haven’t been able to track down much information about this block – other than the fact that there is a similar, but slightly more complicated design called Battle of Trafalgar – so if any historians know about the Nelson’s Victory block, please let me know.

Nelson's Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

Nelson has featured in a lot of my stitchery this year. I have just finished a quilt with a design I based on Nelson’s Column, with four panels representing his four major battles of Cape St Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805).

Nelson's Column Quilt detail

Nelson’s Column Quilt detail

In the Spring, I made a small piece to go into the Trafalgar Sail project, a community project organised by the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the launch of HMS Victory.

My contribution to the Trafalgar Sail Project, using advertising from Maurice Elvey's 1918 film

My contribution to the Trafalgar Sail Project, using advertising from Maurice Elvey’s 1918 film

As these pieces were inspired by my research into Maurice Elvey’s 1918 silent film Nelson – which sparked my interest in Nelson’s place in popular culture – I am very pleased to have ensured that the Trafalgar Sail, made in 2015, included a reference to Elvey’s film.

The Nelson Quilt, July 2015

The Nelson Quilt, July 2015

And at the other end of the scale is the 3,200 piece Nelson Quilt, which I finished piecing in July. The Nelson Quilt is based on William Beechey’s portrait of Nelson (which I wrote about here). The Beechey portrait is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. It hasn’t been on public display for a number of years but I visited the Gallery last week and was delighted to find that it is back on the wall: Nelson alongside his “dearest, beloved Emma.”

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

Nelson and Emma Hamilton at the National Portrait Gallery, London, October 2015

This Trafalgar Day, 21 October 2015, may be the 210th anniversary of the Battle, but Nelson still inspires. I am sure he will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The Shanty Quilt Part Two – Sally Rackett and Friends

Sally Rackett detail

Sally Rackett detail

Stitching continues on my Shanty Quilt, and I have been looking at work songs – true sea shanties rather than sea songs – for the sections that relate to getting out to sea. Work songs can be split into broad categories. The structure of the shanty, the length, and the rhythm, are all chosen to fit the type of task they support; there are shanties for hauling, for heaving, for pumping, for working the ship’s capstan, and so on.

For the two “setting off” panels for my quilt I chose Hand Over Hand and Little Sally Rackett.

Hand Over Hand is a (unsurprisingly) “hand over hand” shanty, which is short in duration and sets the rhythm for a task such as hauling rope. The version I know is sung by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir on their 2009 album Way Hey (and away we’ll go).

Hand! Hand! Hand over hand! Get her underway with a Liverpool Man!

Hand! Hand! Hand over hand! Get her underway with a Liverpool Man!

The second shanty I use is better known. Sally Rackett is a call-and-response work song. The Shantyman (who leads the singing and sets the pace) sings a line and gets an answer from the crew. The pace and rhythm of the singing support the performance of the task in hand.

There are lots of recordings of Sally Rackett. My favourite is by the Twelve Buccaneers (1967). I also like the version sung by Kimber’s Men on See You When the Sun Goes Down (2010), and the rendition by Hanging Johnny on Shanties and Sea Songs (2009) is suitably rough and ready.

There are variations of Little Sally Rackett but the basic verse is as follows:

Little Sally Rackett (Haul her away!) / She pawned my best jacket (Haul her away!) / And she lost the ticket (Haul her away!)

In some versions, Sally Rackett has “shipped on board a packet and never did regret it,” while the jacket has been pawned or stolen by Lucy Lockett. There are verses about women such as Nancy Dawson (ran off with the Parson); Suzy Skinner (says she’s a beginner); Dolly Duckett (washes in a bucket); Rosy Riddle (broke my brand new fiddle).

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

The version by the Twelve Buccaneers includes a verse about a man that I haven’t heard in any other recording:

I knew a man called Tucker (Haul her away!) / Took a girl out to supper (Haul her away!) / But she kissed a man called Skinner (Haul her away!) / He was the one to win her (Haul her away!)

And in most versions, work is followed by rest:

All you fighting cocks now (Haul her away!) / Come and get your grog now (Haul her away!) / For we’ve worked enough now.

Learning about the different verse versions enabled me to make a slight variation of my own – I stitched that Sally Rackett had stolen the “best jacket” rather than pawned it. This gave a better narrative flow to my quilt – there is no need for a follow up about losing the pawn shop ticket.

As well as verse variations, there are song variations – the shanty Cheer’ly Man, which can be found on Cheer Up Me Lads (Storm Weather Shanty Choir, 2005), also features Sally Rackett stealing a best jacket. The tune is very different but the theme is the same.

Cheer'ly Man from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, 1926

Cheer’ly Man from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, 1926

These are old songs and some of the sentiments contained are not particularly correct today – especially in their attitudes towards women. However, to me, Little Sally Rackett conjures up very clear images of strong, resourceful women – from just three lines each I feel I know exactly what they look like, how they dress and where they live. The sailors who sing about these women know they may have been taken for a ride but there is no regret, no bitterness. It is just part of life.

The Shanty Quilt: Part One – Leaving Home

The Shanty Quilt - Leaving Home

The Shanty Quilt – Leaving Home

Last year, I wrote about my search for a recording of sea shanties remembered from childhood and how, along the way, I started to learn about different types of sea songs, shanties, and their meaning. This earlier post can be found here.

It is considered unlucky for women to sing many of these songs and so, rather than risk bad luck, I decided to stitch some of the lyrics instead. And so my Shanty Quilt began.

The Shanty Quilt has a narrative – it starts with setting out on voyage, getting out to sea, enduring storms and privations, returning home, having shore leave and then starting the whole cycle again.

The first three panels are about leaving home. They are based on two songs – Rio Grande and The Leaving of Liverpool. These are both sea songs, rather than shanties – shanties are work songs which are usually sung or chanted to a rhythm that supports the task in hand. Sea songs are songs of the sea; they often tell a story of adventures back on shore, about sweethearts loved and lost, or about missing home.

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1926

When planning the Shanty Quilt, I wanted it to have a circular narrative structure, so the first and last panel both feature the same lyric to illustrate the idea that the sailor lands, has some time ashore, spends his pay, packs up his belongings and goes to sea again. It is a never ending cycle, if the songs are to be believed.

My starting point, therefore, is a song called Rio Grande and I begin (and end) by referring to a particular verse:

New York town is no place for me. / Away for Rio! / So I’ll pack up my sea chest / And go back to sea / And I’m bound for the Rio Grande.

I have always been intrigued by the idea of sea chests. What was kept in them? Treasured possessions? Reminders of home? Or something mundane – spare clothes and eating implements? The last time I visited HMS Victory, one of the very knowledgeable guides informed me that most ordinary sailors in the Royal Navy in Nelson’s day owned very little, and might just stash their few possessions in a discreet corner; there simply wasn’t the space to store sea chests for the whole crew. This makes sense of course, but I think I prefer the idea of the song rather than the reality in this case. I need to research it further before I finish the quilt!

Detail of the Leaving Home section

Detail of the Leaving Home section

The second panel features another lyric from Rio Grande. The song bids Farewell to my Liverpool girl and continues:

Oh farewell to Sally and farewell to Sue / Away for Rio! / And farewell to you on the pier head too / And we’re bound for the Rio Grande.

My favourite recording of this particular sea song is from Norway’s Storm Weather Shanty Choir, who recorded it for their 2009 album, Way Hay (And Away We’ll Go).

The Storm Weather Shanty Choir also recorded the song that features on my third panel – The Leaving of Liverpool:

So fare the well my own true love / And when I return / United we will be. / It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me / But my darling when I think of thee.

There are many recordings of this particular song but for me, the best is the one I remember from my childhood. The Twelve Buccaneers recorded the version I grew up with but sadly their recording is no longer available. But I wouldn’t have thought of a quilt about sea songs and shanties without it.

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers

The elusive LP by the Twelve Buccaneers

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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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.

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.

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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?