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.

 

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.

Sewing Regency Romance with Georgette Heyer

Regency Plate Blocks

I like to listen to audiobooks while I sew. Charles Dickens, Hilary Mantel and Josephine Tey are all in my listening library; another author who also features strongly is Georgette Heyer. The drama of Devil’s Cub, the humour of The Unknown Ajax, the tribulations of April Lady – all these make good quilting accompaniment.

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was an incredibly prolific writer, with 40 historical novels and 12 thrillers to her name. Her most popular books are her Regency romances. Many people do not take Heyer’s work seriously, but her books are engaging and well written, and her background research impressive. Heyer was a thorough researcher and stickler for authenticity. She kept meticulous, extensive notebooks about the historical periods about which she wrote. These notebooks were filled with her drawings and references relating to styles of dress, types of carriages, and even slang usage.

Given my listening habits, I was delighted to find some Regency Costume Panels at Quilters Trading Post which immediately reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s heroines.

Georgette Heyer Block

Could this be Sylvester’s Phoebe? Or The Grand Sophy? I don’t think it is my favourite heroine, Horatia from The Convenient Marriage,  but it could be Regency Buck’s Judith.

Despite their popularity, hardly any Heyers have been adapted for film or television. There is a German television version of Arabella and a British film adaptation of The Reluctant Widow, directed by Bernard Knowles and released in 1950.

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

In principle, Heyer was keen for her novels to be filmed, partly as a way of easing her financial worries. Unfortunately, she found the filming of The Reluctant Widow an unpleasant experience. Her 1984 biographer Jane Aiken Hodge, quotes Heyer thus: “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham [Studios], and am trying to think what I can do about it. I feel as though a slug had crawled over me … They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” Perhaps Kent’s earlier ‘bad-girl’ roles in films such as Caravan and Good Time Girl influenced Heyer’s perception.

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because: “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting that it is putting me right off the stroke.”

The Reluctant Widow

Heyer failed to have her name removed: the opening titles of the film read: “Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe in The Reluctant Widow. Based on the novel by Georgette Heyer.” She did not see the film herself, but her son did – and walked out, furious, half way through.

Had Heyer seen the film, she may well have found it turgid rather than salacious; there is no chemistry between Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe as Elinor and Lord Carlyon; and the novel’s exciting sub plot about French spies is rendered dull, even though the usually excellent Kathleen Byron is one of the plotters. The character of Nicky – one of Heyer’s impeccable comic creations – is no longer an irrepressible youth sent down from Oxford University following a prank involving a bear, but a callow boy who wouldn’t play a prank of any kind.

So, if you don’t know Georgette Heyer, I wouldn’t waste time seeking out this poor film adaptation, but go straight to the novel – Heyer’s irresistible take on the Gothic romance. Or better still, get an audiobook and sew along to it.

Reluctant Widow Editions

Finding Room to Sew

Quilting isn’t just about patching together bits of fabric, but also about patching together bits of time, in order to create something out of very little. For me, that means sewing in a variety of places to make the best use of scraps of time.

I do a lot of hand sewing on train journeys. When booking tickets, one of the questions at the front of my mind is usually: Is there room for me to sew? After all, a train journey without a needle and a good audiobook is a waste of good stitching time.

English Paper Piecing is always a good choice for a train journey. Over the last year, I’ve made a series of random bird blocks – one of these days they will find their way into quilts.

Bird Block 1 Bird Block 2

My current Nelson Quilt project is mostly kept at home, because the size (1 inch) and number (3,200) of the pieces make it quite fiddly. However, with some planning, I’ve sewn sections on various trains and, so far, haven’t lost any pieces.

Nelson on the way to Birmingham Nelson on the way back to London

One of the consequences of sewing on the train is that I tend to associate quilts with the journeys on which they were made and why I was going there.

For example, I made my first experiments with curved piecing in April 2014. I was on a train to Canterbury, en route to a conference about cinema and the First World War.  When waiting to change trains at Ashford I got into conversation with a young man who asked what I was doing, and then confided his secret passion for knitting. The curved piecing made its way into a quilt, which I then sewed on a train to Manchester – and, yes, it is possible to cram a full size quilt into a train seat and work on it comfortably.

Curved piecing Curved quilting Cuved quilt in progress Curves Quilt unfinished

Finally, this unfinished piece will always be inextricably linked with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

A Quilt for a Bleak House

I started piecing it on a train to Nottingham in 2007. I was going to the British Silent Film Festival. They were screening Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film of Bleak House; I was just starting on my Elvey research and was desperate to see it. It was that trip that convinced me that Elvey’s early career was definitely worth a closer look and I’ve been working on that research ever since.

The Quilt for a Bleak House remains unfinished. My taste has changed and the fabrics look too “busy” these days but I still look at it with affection because of its associations. And once I finish my thesis I might give the quilt another go.

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.

photo 2

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.

photo 3photo 4

Nelson from the back - English paper piecing

Nelson from the back – English paper piecing

 

 

 

Meet Lucie

Here are some bits and pieces about me, as told to the London Modern Quilt Guild, to which I belong.

London Modern Quilt Guild

MissLveyTell us a little about yourself:

I live in West London and divide my time between a day job and working on a PhD thesis about the early career of British film director Maurice Elvey. My favourite film is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and my favourite book is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

quilt1I’m on Twitter:   @MissElvey (that’s my main account for mostly film related stuff) and @TheSewingBea (second account for sewing related stuff).  instagram: misselvey and blog over at http://www.isthereroomformetosew.wordpress.com.

quilt3What inspired you to start quilting:

I had a fairly major operation and had to spend some time at home recovering; I wanted something productive to do and started to make a patchwork quilt.

Where do you work on your quilts and keep your fabric stash?

I work on my quilts in the living room at home, often listening to audiobooks while I sew. My…

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