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

A Year of Quilting Differently

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The clock is ticking…..

My quilting practice has been changing in recent months as my PhD deadline looms ever closer. I want to submit my thesis this autumn, and, while I have already written about 85,000 words about the early career of British film director Maurice Elvey, I know they are not yet the right words, so the next few months are going to be very busy, with redrafting, checking, editing and checking again. Essentially, my quilts are getting more straightforward while my thesis gets more complicated. And that’s because I don’t have the space for thinking too much about my sewing just now.

Thames Quilt - up the garden path

The Thames Quilt – leading me up the garden path?

It’s a year since I started my Thames Quilt project and I got as far as Greenwich Reach when I had to put it aside. Although I planned the whole project quite carefully, and had a good idea of how the quilt should progress, the research that sits behind each section of the quilted river is proving a hurdle. At the moment, I can’t look into munitions workers at Woolwich, or find out about the Nore Light Ship, and the ancient forest at Purfleet will have to wait. I have more than enough reading to be getting on with….

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Having said that, I don’t want to stop quilting. It’s a really important part of my life – the one thing I never worry about – and it’s essential that I have an alternative to writing and worrying over the next few months.

I have a notebook full of quilting ideas – Bleriot’s flight over the English Channel in 1909; Dr John Dee and his magical mirror; the many wonders of bee folklore; maps of places known and unknown. All very involved. But until my thesis is finished I need to find different ways of sewing that involve less research, less interpretation, and less planning. And, for me, that’s a challenge!

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First finish of 2017 – an unplanned quilt

Quilting in an unplanned way and just letting fabric and stitch take me into new styles of sewing is proving interesting. My first experiment involved turning a small amount of mid-century clock fabric and a very textured big stitch style into a wall hanging. I didn’t plan in advance but just let the piece grow, adding bits here and there, and working up the texture as I went along.

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I’m wondering how far this change of approach will take me – but I’m also eyeing up some Nelson’s Victory blocks I made a couple of years ago. Surely I can manage another Nelson project without too much difficulty? After all, there’s a Nelson chapter in my thesis….

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905: Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeking Nelson’s Victory

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Nelson’s Victory block, October 2015

Last year, when I was working on my Nelson Quilt, I came across an old quilt block called Nelson’s Victory. I made a number of these Nelson’s Victory blocks with the long term aim of designing a quilt with a Battle of Trafalgar theme. I absolutely loathe sewing triangles, so I was quite surprised to find I’d completed eight of these blocks over a month or so – I’d been inspired by the fabled “Nelson Touch” once again.

I have a feeling that the Nelson’s Victory block dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but I don’t have any real evidence to back up this feeling. However, once my interest is piqued, I can’t resist a research job, so I decided to see what I could find out about the history of this block.

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Old sewing books are a great source for old quilt blocks such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Birds-in-the-Air, The Little Giant and so on.  They also provide all sorts of interesting snippets about the making of quilts; regional and national variations in quilt style and culture; and show how the quilting tradition has been constantly evolving over centuries.

I started with Averil Colby’s Patchwork, first published by Batsford in 1958. I found no mention of Nelson’s Victory but the book’s index pointed me to a couple of Nelson references. According to Colby:

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile … the streets of Naples were decked with flags and streamers to welcome his return; among them were banners of blue-printed white cotton, on which the name NELSON was surrounded by a design of acorns and oak leaves. Pieces of this cloth were brought home by a young naval officer and used in a patchwork coverlet begun in the same year and finished in 1805, after Trafalgar. (page 31)

Other victories and occasions of the time do not seem to have been immortalised in patchwork patterns, except for the pieces of the Nelson print and an octagonal panel printed on the occasion of Princess Charlotte’s marriage to Prince Leopold in 1816 (page 112).

I would love to know what happened to that coverlet. Does it still survive? And where did Colby learn about it? Did she actually see it?

All truly fascinating stuff (and another research project for another day) but not quite what I was looking for. And Mavis Fitzrandolph’s Traditional Quilting: Its Story and its Practice (Batsford 1954) may have proved a fascinating read about quilters and rural industries but it didn’t provide any clues about Nelson’s Victory.

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Old Patchwork Quilts by Ruth E Finley

Then I stumbled across a copy of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E Finley published by J P Lippincott in 1929. And there, on page 75, was a diagram of the Nelson’s Victory block.

Finley provides a detailed analysis of different types of quilt blocks and their construction and says that:

The four-patch in general resolves itself into flock, star and wreath designs. But there are notable exceptions, like the Fly Foot and Bow Knot patterns and such well known blocks, based on the same idea yet distinctly different when made up in colour, such as The Pin Wheel and The Churn Dash. Nelson’s Victory, an old Connecticut pattern of the cross variety, is another exception … This pattern was widely used in every-day quilts.

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Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

So thanks to Finley’s book, I can trace Nelson’s Victory back to 1929. The reference to “an old Connecticut pattern” gives me a further clue and indicates that it was an established block by the time she was writing. So I will carry on searching for clues and hopefully will be able to find out whether my 1905 date is correct. Even if I can’t find the evidence, and even if I turn out to be wrong, I know I’ll learn lots of interesting things about quilts and their history along the way.

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905? Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

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?

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.