A quilt, a cat, and a bluebird

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Norman Page as Tylette the Cat, December 1909

This postcard, from my early 20th century theatre collection, is one of my absolute favourites. It shows the British stage and silent film actor Norman Page as Tylette the Cat in a production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1909. It also shows a rather splendid hexagon quilt, in what looks like a simple Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern. It thus rather neatly combines a number of my interests.

I’ve been intrigued by The Blue Bird since I was about eight years old when I first read Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 children’s novel about the theatre, Ballet Shoes. There are two chapters about a charity matinée of The Blue Bird, and, as a child, I was intrigued that there were extracts from Maeterlinck’s play script contained within the text, along with a lot of information about the plot. As a result, I feel I know the play really well even though I’ve never seen it. And a production featuring Norman Page would be my ideal production (outside the fictional world of Ballet Shoes).

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Norman Page (centre) as Ives in Stingaree, The Bushranger (1908) 

So who was Norman Page?  He was born in Nottingham in 1876, and educated at Trent College. After school, and an attempt to become an artist, he underwent theatrical training at the Theatre Royal in Margate, and his first performance on stage was in 1896 at the Opera House in Chatham. In 1904 he first appeared on the London stage as The Gardener’s Boy in Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville-Barker. He went on to work as both actor and producer, and had an interest in some of the new styles of acting and the experimental plays that were being staged in the early 1900s. In 1909 a season he produced at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre was considered by The Times to bring ‘that spirit of modernity … which consists in a sense of artistic unity, a repression of the “theatrical”, a reduction of the emotion displayed to the proportions of the occasion – in short, in naturalness’. (Glasgow Repertory Theatre, The Times, October 19 1909)

Page played Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird in a number of productions – it seems to have been a Christmas favourite in the years before the First World War. On December 27 1911, The Times considered that a ‘chief joy in the acting is still the sinister Cat of Mr Norman Page.’ In 1912 he travelled to Australia to produce the play there. And on 9 January 1928, he reprised the role for a radio production, broadcast on the 2LO London and 5XX Daventry stations. Cats seemed to have been something of a speciality for Page. As well as Tylette, he played the title role in Puss in Boots at the Apollo Theatre in 1926, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre in 1932, when he was ‘the best of many good performing animals’. (The Times, December 22 1932)

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Page also had a long association with the Academy of Dramatic Art (which later became RADA) where he was an instructor for 23 years. After his death in 1935, Kenneth Barnes, the then director of RADA, wrote that:

‘He had a great sense of the dignity of the profession of the theatre, and his talents, as producer-actor, scenic designer, and teacher, it can ill afford to lose. I know this because Norman Page was the hardest worked member of my staff … How we wish he were still with us.’

Like a lot of stage actors of the 1910s and 1920s, Page also acted for the films – and that’s where I first came across him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screen presence has had a huge impact on me.  Nearly a decade ago, I had an idea for a research project about the early work of British film director Maurice Elvey, but back then I’d only seen one or two of his films. So when I heard about a screening of his film of Bleak House in Nottingham, I got on a train so I could find out more. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by that film’s exquisite portrayal of Dickens’ lovelorn clerk Mr Guppy – played by Norman Page. That screening – particularly  Norman Page’s performance – was the deciding factor in confirming my Elvey research project.

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Norman Page (right) as Mr Guppy with Teddy Arundell as George in Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film Bleak House

And when I saw Elvey’s Life Story of David Lloyd George (made in 1918 but not released at the time) with Norman Page in the title role, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film – and a world away from Mr Guppy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy writing up my Elvey research at the moment, so I am writing about Norman Page a lot – The Life Story of David Lloyd George plays a major role in my thesis. That leaves very little time for sewing. But a couple of weeks ago, I was clearing out some fabric and I came across a hexagon quilt I started some years ago. It’s just the sort of undemanding project I need at the moment and it fits in with my research nicely. It reminds me of the quilt on stage in The Blue Bird so I think it’s fitting that while I’m sewing it, I remember the role of Norman Page in starting off my research about Maurice Elvey.

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Hexagons for Mr Norman Page

High Treason: Looking forward to 1940 or reaching back to the Great War?

Yesterday, I introduced Maurice Elvey’s 1929 silent film High Treason at the beautiful Curzon Cinema in Clevedon for South West Silents. In preparation, wrote a piece about the film for South West Silents – and this is what I said.

South West Silents

With our upcoming screening of High Treason at the Curzon in Clevedon on September 10th, we felt it necessary to get some words up on the website about this spectacular film. Luckily for us we know the brilliant Lucie Dutton, a PhD student at Birkbeck College, who is currently completing a thesis on the film’s director Maurice Elvey! For a film launched between the two wars, and at the transition moment of sound arriving in the UK, Lucie has been good enough to outline in detail what this films means for British film history. Without further ado, over to Lucie!

Maurice Elvey’s High Treason (1929), a vision of the future, is often referred to as “The British Metropolis”. Depending on the version you watch, it is set in 1940, 1950, or even – in a French version – in 1995. There are modernist cityscapes and exciting innovations: television…

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Quilting the Thames Part Five: Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach

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Nelson’s final journey from Greenwich Reach: “O greatest sailor”

I have now reached Greenwich on my trip down the river for my Thames Quilt. For this panel, I am rekindling my interest in Lord Nelson, who has inspired a number of my past projects, including the Nelson Quilt.

I became fascinated by Nelson when researching a silent film biography made in 1918 by British director Maurice Elvey. One of many people involved in this film was Admiral Sir Mark Kerr, an expert on Nelson, who advised on the scenario. After many months of shooting and editing, Kerr was happy that Elvey’s film was right and, on January 30 1919, the cinema trade magazine The Bioscope reported that Kerr had said that as “a devoted student of Nelsonalia …. he was especially happy to be able to say that he could find absolutely nothing to criticise in the film.”

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In 1932, Admiral Kerr published a book – The Sailor’s Nelson – which includes a long poem about the death of Nelson. This is a short extract:

The Embodiment of Duty and Britain’s Naval Strength, / The Victor of a hundred fights, his hour had come at length. / And fitly ‘mid victorious cheers and sounds of ebbing strife / He placed the Crown Immortal on his glorious suffering life. / O greatest sailor since the sea was named, / O truest patriot that the land has known. / Beyond all other Sea Kings loved and famed, / Rising alike to Fortune’s smile and frown. / Where lay thy power? What thy mystic charm?

I quilted a phrase from this poem – O greatest sailor – on the Greenwich Reach panel, not because I particularly like the poem (in fact it isn’t really to my taste being highly patriotic and heroic in tone) but because I wanted to mark Admiral Kerr’s contribution to Elvey’s Nelson film.

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The Symmetry of Greenwich

Greenwich has played a significant role in building the myth of Nelson. It was to Greenwich, on December 23 1805, that Nelson’s body was brought after his death almost three months earlier at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s death was followed by an outpouring of public grief, culminating in an extensive funeral. On January 4 1806, dignitaries viewed Nelson’s body lying in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. On January 5, 6 and 7 thousands of members of the public visited the Painted Hall to pay their respects. And on January 8 and 9 Nelson was taken on his last journey from Greenwich to his tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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The Painted Hall at Greenwich

On January 8, Nelson’s body was taken by river up the Thames from Greenwich to Whitehall in a two-mile long, carefully planned River Procession. The formal order was published in The Times that day as follows:

  1. Capt Ludlam, Harbour Master
  2. Capt Wood, Harbour Master
  3. Water Bailiff
  4. Rulers of the Company of Watermen &c
  5. Chaplain and Staff of River Fencibles
  6. Boat with drums muffled
  7. Officer commanding gun-boats (10 gun boats in all)
  8. Row boat with Officer
  9. Row boat with Officer

PROCESSION OF STATE BARGES

  1. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  2. Barge with Herald’s Standards
  3. Barge with the Body
  4. Barge with the Chief Mourner
  5. His Majesty’s Barges
  6. Barge with the Lords Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral
  7. The Right Hon the Lord Mayor’s Barge
  8. Barge with the Committee specially appointed by the Corporation of London on the occasion of Lord Nelson’s Funeral
  9. Barge with the Committee of the Corporation for improving the Navigation of the River Thames
  10. Barge of the Drapers’ Company
  11. Barge of the Fishmongers’ Company
  12. Barge of the Goldsmith’s Company
  13. Barge of the Skinners’ Company
  14. Barge of the Merchant Taylors’ Company
  15. Barge of the Ironmongers’ Company
  16. Barge of the Stationers’ Company
  17. Barge of the Apothecaries’ Company

According to the Bury and Norwich Post (January 15 1806)  the Barge with the Body was covered with black velvet, and surmounted with black feathers. In the centre was a Viscount’s coronet, and three bannerolls were affixed to the outside of the barge. In the steerage were six trumpets and six Lieutenants of the Royal Navy. The other barges were rowed by picked men from the Greenwich Pensioners. They had all their flags hoisted half staff high. As the Procession moved from Greenwich, minute guns were fired. Not a vessel was suffered to disturb the Procession. The decks, yards, and rigging of the numerous ships on the river were all crowded with spectators; the number of ladies was immense.

Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to see the Procession. Such was the commercial value of good viewing places that The Times carried numerous advertisements such as these from January 6: A good view of the Grand Procession of Lord Nelson, at the Sign of the Turk’s Head, Union Stairs, Wapping or Those ladies and gentlemen who are desirous of seeing to advantage the grand and solemn procession by water of the late lord Nelson, may be accommodated with seats in a spacious loft, fitted up for the occasion. For particulars enquire at the Angel, Upper-ground-street, Surrey-side of Blackfriars Bridge, where tickets may be had at 5s each.

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Nelson’s coat at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich – one of the Nelson relics

When the procession arrived at Whitehall Steps at 3.00pm, Handel’s Dead March (from Saul) was played, and Nelson’s body was taken on to land. At this moment the sunshine disappeared – Dark and heavy clouds came on, and instantly succeeded a tempestuous hail storm, which fell until the Body was landed, when the hemisphere again was clear. (Bury and Norwich Post, January 15 1806)

Nelson’s body lay at the Admiralty until the following day. Then, on January 9 1806, a solemn procession led by the Duke of York and closed by a party of sailors bearing the three flags of HMS Victory went from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral where Nelson was buried with great ceremony.

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My Nelson Quilt, July 2015

Nelson’s funeral procession on the Thames* must have been one of the largest events ever to take place on the River, and I wanted to include it in my Thames Quilt. Nelson has been such an inspiration to my quilting work over the last two years and I am pleased I have been able to commemorate him once again in stitch.

* Many items relating to Nelson’s funeral can be found in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Funeral directors, A France and Son provided the state coffin, and their office at 45 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1, still features a window display dedicated to Nelson’s funeral (and my thanks to Ken the Old Map Man, of  London Trails, for bringing this to my attention).

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 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?”

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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