The Nelson Quilt at Portsmouth

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory, 1 May 2015

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

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

The Nelson Quilt at HMS Victory

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

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

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

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

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Nelson Figurehead meets Nelson Quilt

Two Thousand Squares of Nelson

The Nelson Quilt at 2,000 Squares

The Nelson Quilt at 2,000 Squares

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

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

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

Square number 2,000

Square number 2,000

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

Nelson Quilt - starting out

Nelson Quilt – starting out

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

Why can't you see what it is?

Why can’t you see what it is?

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

Nelson - 490 squares so far.

Nelson – 490 squares, August 2014

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

Nelson waiting to cross the Solent, September 2014

Nelson waiting to cross the Solent, September 2014

Nelson - 1,000 squares

Nelson – 1,000 squares, November 2014

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

Nelson – 1,750 squares, January 2015

March 2015 - Nelson at 2,000 squares

Nelson – 2,000 squares, March 2015

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

Stitching Nelson Mark II

Nelson's Column Block

Nelson’s Column Block

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

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

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

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, watching over the city

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

Maurice Elvey's 1918 Nelson Film

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

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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

Trafalgar Day and an Update on the Nelson Quilt

21 October is Trafalgar day. It was on this day, in 1805, that Nelson won his most famous victory, and the one that cost him his life. I am not a naval historian and I am not going to attempt to write about the Battle of Trafalgar, but I am going to share the latest progress on the Nelson Quilt.

Nelson Update October 20

My interest is in Nelson’s continuing place in popular culture, an interest sparked by Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film (which inspired the Nelson Quilt). Elvey was given permission to film on HMS Victory and recreated the shooting of Nelson on the Quarterdeck, and the chaos and fury of battle around him as he fell. The film shows Nelson being advised to remove his medals lest they make him too conspicuous, but he refuses: “In honour I gained them and in honour I will die with them,” the intertitle reads.

The Nelson Quilt now has over 800 one inch squares, which means that a quarter of it has been pieced. I am at currently sewing Nelson’s coat and his medals. This is quite a challenge: close up I cannot recall why I am piecing a square of yellow or beige or cream. Then, from a distance, I will see that the ribbon for a medal or some gold braid has suddenly appeared.

Nelson close up

Various Trafalgar Day commemorative and celebratory events still take place around the UK. One of the biggest events takes place in Central London. For over a hundred years, on the Sunday closest to 21 October, Sea Cadets, along with cadets from the Army and Air Cadets, have paraded to Trafalgar Square. Their bands play music and groups of Cadets take part in a physical training display. This is followed by a wreath laying ceremony and a service, which includes a reading of Nelson’s Prayer before the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1916, courtesy of British Pathé, we can see that it looked like this.  Wreaths are also laid at Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

A cigarette card showing the Salute to Nelson on HMS Victory

A 1938 cigarette card showing the Salute to Nelson on HMS Victory

In Portsmouth, the Royal Navy holds a Trafalgar Day Ceremony aboard HMS Victory. Nelson’s signal “England expects that every man will do his duty,” is sent from the ship at 8.00am. Wreaths are laid on the spot where Nelson fell and on the orlop deck where he later died. A film of the ceremony from 1933, To the Immortal Memory of Nelson, can be found here thanks once again to British Pathé.

In Norfolk, the county of Nelson’s birth, an annual service is held at Great Yarmouth at Nelson’s monument (the Norfolk Naval Pillar) in South Denes. A gun is fired, at 1.15pm, approximately the time Nelson was shot, a toast is drunk, and wreaths are laid. In Birmingham there is an annual service and parade, culminating in a garland of flowers being placed on the statue of Nelson which is situated in the Bullring.

As for me, I’m going to a commemorative concert at which Haydn’s Nelson Mass will be sung. And I am sure that more squares will be added to the Nelson Quilt.

The Nelson Quilt from the back

The Nelson Quilt from the back

Stitching the Nelson Quilt – Our Hero Emerges

Since I first wrote about the Nelson Quilt in August, I have stitched together nearly 700 of the total of 3,200 one inch squares, and it is very exciting to see the Admiral emerging.

Nelson on the Wall

Close up, he is virtually impossible to see; the piece looks like a random collection of squares, but earlier today, I borrowed a wall, hung him up and, with enough distance, took a good look at Nelson’s face.

The Nelson Quilt is forcing me to work in a whole new way. I’m usually quite relaxed in my approach to stitching. I buy varying lengths of fabric that I like, with no firm idea about how to use it. I pick out swatches at random, and make up patterns as I go. The Nelson Quilt is different. I have to be very organised. The fabric is all labelled and, as it is cut down to make one inch squares, it is colour coded and stored in separate boxes. The template papers are subject to a complex system of numbering. Even the threads, mostly in various shades of brown, are stored on a special stand so I can quickly match up the colours.

Nelson at a street party in Penge

Nelson at a street party in Penge

To begin with, I was worried about losing track of pieces and kept the Nelson Quilt strictly indoors, but as I have become more confident about the project, he has started to go out and about. I pieced his hair on the way to the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, and worked on his coat while on a train to Rochester for second hand book shopping (appropriately, I picked up an excellent dictionary of sailors’ slang). He has been sewn at a street party in Penge, and I joined sections together on the beach at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, before taking him back to Portsmouth Harbour.

Sewing Nelson on Ventnor Beach

Sewing Nelson on Ventnor Beach

Waiting to cross the Solent to Portsmouth Harbour

Waiting to cross the Solent to Portsmouth Harbour

I conceived this project after viewing Maurice Elvey’s biographical film, Nelson, made in 1918. Elvey’s film made me think about Nelson’s place in popular culture and I started to seek out Nelson-related artefacts. The collections at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich include 3,742 pieces of Nelsonalia – a good place to start. Significant pieces are on display in the Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition, but there are many more Nelson vases, figurines, paintings, medals, snuff boxes and other  items in the care of the Museum. They also look after a small number of celebratory and commemorative textile items.

Dress Flounce was embroidered in honour of Nelson and worn by Emma, Lady Hamilton at Palermo in 1799. A sewer called Mary Lupson made a Sampler that showed off her skill with satin stitch, cross stich, French knots and cord stitch and incorporated the words “Nelson – hero of the Nile – 1799.” A Silk Picture, possibly made from a commercially available pattern, depicts Nelson’s coffin and the funeral carriage on which it was taken through the streets of London. A Snuff Handkerchief commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar and depicts the formation of the Fleet as well as reproducing Nelson’s famous signal “England expects every man to do his duty.” And so on.

I could spend hours going through the collection and picking out favourite objects – they really are fascinating.

I am finding lots of inspiration for the Nelson Quilt in these artefacts – and when I think of Mary Lupson sewing her sampler in 1799, I like to think I’m part of a community of stitchers that reaches across the centuries.

Stitching a Hero: England Expects (or Maurice Elvey, Nelson and Me)

 

Nelson - 490 squares so far.

Nelson – 490 squares so far.

On 19 December 2013, I sat alone and in silence in a darkened basement room at the British Film Institute, watching a biographical film made in 1918. This was Maurice Elvey’s film Nelson, a film I had read about but had never seen. I knew a lot about the making of the film, some of the challenges it faced and the critical response to it. I also knew that it had been made just before Elvey’s masterpiece, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, so I was secretly hoping for something a bit special.

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Nelson turned out to be a curate’s egg of a film – parts of it are excellent, while parts of it are simply bad. I liked the scenes of Nelson’s childhood, featuring young actor Eric Barker as a funny and irreverent boy. I liked the love scenes between Donald Calthrop and Ivy Close as Nelson and Lady Nelson. I was gripped by the siege of Naples and the battle scenes depicted diagrammatically. I enjoyed the intertitles – beautifully illustrated with nautical ropes and flags. And I loved the structure of the film – Admiral Fremantle giving a young would be sailor a biography of Nelson to teach him how to be a sailor. On the other hand I winced at a particularly ill-advised Arctic sequence and was appalled at the badly conceived make up applied to Donald Calthrop, which made it difficult to take the character seriously.

I hadn’t uncovered a masterpiece. Rather I had seen a very flawed film albeit one with some brilliant moments. Disappointing.  And yet… an interest in Nelson’s place in the national culture was sparked. Six months later I found myself in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in front of Nelson’s tomb. I have stood on the decks of HMS Victory and seen the spot where Nelson fell at the Battle of Trafalgar.

HMS Victory

I’ve looked at figureheads at Portsmouth and been to the site of the Cradle of the Navy – the old Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, where part of the film was shot.

Nelson Figurehead Osborne Naval College

And I have looked at endless Nelson memorabilia – pill boxes, playbills, paintings and papercuts. And then there is the sewn Nelsonalia – a skirt flounce worn by Emma, Lady Hamilton. Samplers sewn by young girls to mark the passing of a national hero. The remains of the Union Jack flown on the Victory.  Nelson’s bloodied stockings. The coat he was wearing when the fatal shot was fired.

Nelson's Coat

The story of Nelson, Elvey’s flawed film and the outpouring of grief at the death of a hero transformed into porcelain, paper and stitch have inspired me to create my own tribute – a portrait quilt.

The Nelson quilt is a work in progress – 3,200 one inch squares will take some time to put together, particularly when they are all paper pieced by hand. But I feel moved to carry on. I blame Maurice Elvey.

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Nelson from the back - English paper piecing

Nelson from the back – English paper piecing