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.

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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