Hunting for Clues

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Museums are magical places. I learned this at a young age from a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. First published in 1967, it tells the story of Claudia Kincaid and her brother Jamie who, fed up with life at home and “the sameness of each and every week”, run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This they do with some success – pretending to be ordinary visitors – but these are visitors who make use of the antique furniture out of hours. They explore the galleries, find places to hide, dodge security guards, and tag along with unknown school parties. During their stay in the museum, they become fascinated by a statue of an angel which is attracting record-breaking crowds because it might (or might not) be a piece by Michelangelo. The provenance of the angel is inconclusive, so Claudia and Jamie set out to prove whether or not it is the work of Michelangelo.

“They decided to do their research when they had the statue and the museum to themselves. Claudia especially wanted to make herself important to the statue. She would solve its mystery; and it, in turn, would do something important to her, though what it was she didn’t quite know.”

The sheer hard graft, the excitement swiftly followed by disappointment, and the need for lateral thinking by researchers is beautifully conveyed by Claudia and Jamie. Anyone who has ever researched anything or anyone will probably recognise the promise of a museum or archive: the prospect of finding a missing piece of information, that elusive bit of evidence missed by everyone else. The joy of finding what you had hoped for – and the bitter disappointment of the empty, disappointing, or censored file, or of an exhibit removed for conservation.

If I’m looking up something specific, I plan museum and archive visits carefully  to make the most of the time I have there. But if I’m just looking for inspiration, I love very unstructured visits, just wondering through and stopping at things that catch my eye. The unstructured wander means finding things by accident – and who can tell where that will eventually lead?

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Man’s Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin trimmed with silk braid and silk ribbon, possibly made from a bed cover. On display at the V&A.

A couple of months ago I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – my best place in London for a wander when looking for quilting inspiration. I’m particularly fond of a satin doublet dating from 1630-40, which is quilted with a breathtaking level of detail. I go and stare at this item every so often and usually end up peering beadily through the glass case, muttering about the skill of the stitching. After my last visit I even went and bought some satin with a view to attempting some very tight quilting – and found it terribly slippery to work with.

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Man’s Doublet Detail: Look at that elaborate quilting!

Once I’d admired the doublet for quite some time, I visited the Medieval Galleries – not part of the museum with which I am very familiar. And there I stumbled across one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen – the Tristan Quilt.

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This Italian bed covering dates from about 1360-1400 and was made in Florence, from linen and cotton, embroidered with linen. It shows fourteen episodes from the life of Tristan, one of the heroes of medieval literature and is simply extraordinary in its ambition and the level of skilled work involved. The narrative structure seems to have been disrupted as a result of restoration work, but the overall impact is stunning.

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Of course seeing this quilt whetted my appetite for a new research project. What were the techniques used? How has the quilt been restored? How much is already known about it and what else can be discovered? And there’s a sewing project there – why aren’t I making a wholecloth-telling-a-story quilt? Sadly these questions will have to wait. I’ve got too much else on at the moment (I intend to finish my Maurice Elvey thesis in 2017) so I can’t afford to get distracted by all the many intriguing things that catch my eye in museums and archives at the moment. But they are still there – waiting.

And what of Claudia and Jamie? Did they ever answer the mystery of the angel? Was it sculpted by Michelangelo? I couldn’t possibly spoil the story. You will just have to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler to find out.

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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Quilting the Thames Part Three: The Greenland Lads at Limehouse Reach

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Greenland Lads on a ship full of oil at Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt Section Three

Travelling further down the River Thames to Limehouse Reach,  I found myself at a loss. What should go into the Thames Quilt here?

I considered the E A Dupont 1929 Silent Film Piccadilly with its Limehouse scenes as a starting point. It didn’t work. Much as I love that film, it isn’t really a story of the river. I flirted with Sherlock Holmes and the silent films directed by Maurice Elvey starring Eille Norwood as Holmes, but that didn’t work either. I re-read Great Expectations to check whether Magwitch hides in Limehouse (he does, in a house with a “bow-window where he can see the ships sail up and down the river,” and watch Pip and Herbert Pocket rowing on the river in preparation for his escape) but I didn’t feel it was the right choice.

LowTide at Limehouse Reach

Low Tide at Limehouse Reach

Then I remembered a visit to the Museum of London, Docklands, where I had seen a great big pot, a remnant of a trade that perhaps we would rather forget today – a pot used in whaling. I do not condone or support whaling in any way, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Thames as a working river, and whaling is undeniably part of its working history. I was fascinated to discover that, if you make your way to Limehouse Reach and cut behind the river into Greenland Dock, you are walking in the footsteps of the Thames whalers. *

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Greenland Dock

And it was with the whalers that I found the theme for the Limehouse Reach section of the Thames Quilt. I have a long-standing interest in sea songs and shanties. Some of these songs are whaling songs – songs like The Greenland Whale Fishers (And when we reached that whale my boys / He lashed out with his tail / And we lost a boat and seven good men / And we never caught that whale), and Reuben Ranzo (O! Ranzo was no sailor – Ranzo me boys, Ranzo / He shipped aboard a whaler – Ranzo boys, Ranzo!).

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The Whale from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1920

One of my favourite sea shanties is The Bonnie Ship The Diamond. The final verse of the song looks forward to the whalers returning home:

It’ll be bright both day and night when the Greenland lads come home / With a ship that’s full of oil me boys, and money to our name / Here’s a health unto the Diamond bright, the skipper and the crew / Here’s a health to every bonnie lass that has a heart so true.

I used this verse as inspiration for the Limehouse Reach section of the quilt, but I must confess to geographically repurposing the song: I believe the real Diamond sailed out of Aberdeen rather than London. However, I wanted to make reference to Greenland Dock, so I used the Greenland lads to make a connection. You can see a rousing rendition  of The Bonnie Ship The Diamond by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir here.

A murky day on the River at the entrance to Limehouse Reach

The entrance to Greenland Dock from the River on a grey April day

Visitors to Greenland Dock today see a lovely stretch of water without the smell, mess and sound of London’s filthy whaling trade. But two and a half centuries ago, a day out to see a whale carcass was a great treat. On February 9 1762, The Derby Mercury reported that on Sunday an innumerable concourse of people repair’d to Greenland Dock to see the Whale lately brought there. The road was lined with coaches, chariots, post-chaises, horsemen and footmen, from morning till evening, like a fair. It is computed that there were not less than 50,000 persons of both sexes continually passing and repassing. Their journey, however, proved unsavoury at the end,  for the whale stank abominably.

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The return of the Thames Whalers? The empty stage at the end of Moby Dick Unabridged

In October 2015, whaling returned to the Thames when the Southbank Centre staged Moby Dick Unabridged – a  four-day live rendition of Herman Melville’s novel. An impressive reading relay was enhanced by art installations, sea shanties and dance performances. It is a matter of lasting regret that I didn’t experience the whole thing; I was only able to get along to the final afternoon when I became so wrapped up with Captain Ahab that I stayed, spellbound, until the end.

More recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick while sewing the Thames Quilt. There is a description of the whaling town of New Bedford near the beginning. In my head, I see not New Bedford but Greenland Dock:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled up upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one more perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.

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Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt detail

 

 

* I was lucky enough to be shown around Greenland Dock by Ken, the Old Map Man, who has developed a great walk about the docks in Rotherhithe – including the magical remains of Russia Dock. Find out more here and take a walk by the river.

Quilting the Thames Part One: Merchants at the Upper Pool

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Upper Pool – Thames Quilt Section One

The sewing of my Thames Quilt project has commenced. My quilted journey down the Thames begins at the Pool of London with five Fourteenth Century merchants.

Charles Dickens Jnr’s Dictionary of the Thames 1890 advises that the Pool of London is divided into the Upper and the Lower Pool, the point of division being the headquarter station of the Thames Police at Wapping. The Upper Pool stretches from London Bridge to Wapping or (on the other side) Cherry Garden Pier, Bermondsey.

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Looking under Tower Bridge at the Upper Pool

I associate the Upper Pool with trade, largely because of reading historical novels by Cynthia Harnett (1893-1981) when I was growing up. Harnett’s novels always felt slightly radical because they were about merchants and traders – people who seemed ordinary, familiar – rather than about royalty or grand people at court. Her protagonists were merchants’ sons who were learning their trade as apprentices; they would happen upon a mystery, and be sharp enough to expose miscreants engaged in wrongdoing.

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Harnett wove lots of social history into her plots. In The Woolpack (1951) she explained how cloth was made in 1493 – from sheep shearing to sale – as part of the story of Nicholas and his determination to discover the identity of the thief who was tampering with his father’s wool exports. Much of the action of The Load of Unicorn (1959) took place around the Thames of 1482, when Benedict discovered why paper intended for William Caxton’s printing press was being stolen. Along with Benedict, the reader is told how to set a page of type and is advised that the King’s Customs cannot protect the Thames:  Did you know that London Customs have charge only for a few miles down the river? Beyond Gravesend it is the duty of Sandwich. And likewise on the north bank from Tilbury onwards it belongs to Ipswich… Have you ever sailed the coast of Essex, my masters? The inlets are like weevil runs in a cheese – from Pennyhole Bay right round to Mucking Creek.

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Ring Out Bow Bells! (1953) is set in 1415 and is very much a novel of the Thames. Nan, Adam and Dickon spend their time by a river that looks like a big lake shut in on three sides by banks of houses. On the north side the buildings  … crowded down to the water’s edge, ending in a broken line of wharfs and warehouses and a jumble of roofs. Opposite on the south bank, there were gardens among the houses and a background of tree-tops to mark the open country.

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“The Tower from the river looked far more imposing than it did from the land. Dickon shaded his eyes and stared at it.” (Ring Out Bow Bells!)

Cynthia Harnett habitually added a postscript to her novels in which she explained which characters were purely fictional and which were based on real people; which plot elements came from historical records; and where the reader might be able to see an item featured in the novel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum for example) or visit a location. For Ring Out Bow Bells! she described a walk from Cannon Street Station to find the London of Nan, Adam and Dickon. This is doubly interesting today; Harnett was looking for Fifteenth Century locations in 1953 when London still had much visible bomb damage – so the reader of 2016 can find layer upon layer of historical meaning in the walk she describes. (There was a bomb crater just in front of me, and as I poked about I caught sight of some squared stones which had probably been part of the very house which was to be the centre of my story – for you see Grantham’s Inn was a real house.)

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I suppose Harnett’s novels might come across as being a bit worthy and education-heavy but I always liked them. Looking back, I suspect they awakened my interest in historical research – and the idea that there might be more to a story than meets the eye.

Why is this relevant to my Thames Quilt? Well, I wanted to include “real people” in the quilt so I was very excited to find the name of five merchants from the early Fourteenth Century who traded at the Pool of London in the Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, 1309-1314*.

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Benedict de Burgo, Henry de Banneberi and Arnald Picard

The Calendar includes the rules of trade at the Pool of London (la Pole):

That no broker in future presume to go to la Pole or elsewhere by land or by water to buy or attempt [to buy] any wines or other goods before they come to land and are exposed for sale, under penalty aforesaid. Also every broker shall tender good advice, that honest men of the trade in which he is a broker may sell their wares to trustworthy and sufficient buyers who have the wherewithal to satisfy their creditors: and if he shall put forward any insufficient purchaser to trustworthy men of the City or other merchants to purchase their wares, so that by reason of the fraud of such broker the purchaser (emptor) lose his wares, the broker shall answer therefor, if he have the wherewithal, and if he have not the wherewithal shall be committed to prison until, &c., and he shall no longer be a broker.

It also lists five men who had the necessary permission to act as brokers:

  • Arnald Picard admitted broker of wine before the Mayor and Aldermen
  • John de Rokesle admitted broker of woad before the Mayor and good men of that trade
  • Henry de Banneberi and Benedict de Burgo elected brokers of peltry by good men of the trade, and presented before John de Gysors, the Mayor, and Aldermen
  • Andrew de Salop elected loco the above Benedict, deceased, and sworn before Nicholas de Farendone, the Mayor, and Aldermen
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Andrew de Salop and John de Roksele

If I were a novelist like Cynthia Harnett, I would have been able to weave a story around these men who were brokers at the Upper Pool. Instead, I sewed them into my Thames Quilt.

* Folios ci – cx’, in Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: D, 1309-1314, ed. Reginald R Sharpe (London, 1902), pp. 218-238 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-letter-books/vold/pp218-238

Quilting the Thames

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High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

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The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

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Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

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Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

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Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

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Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

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I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

The Fabric of Wolf Hall

I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction. From the age of about ten, I devoured novels by Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Margaret Campbell Barnes, and particularly enjoyed their books about Henry VIII. I had an especial fondness for Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal and Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes. Both books were about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and both featured a villain – Thomas Cromwell – who tortured musicians and brought down queens. My early ventures into reading Tudor fiction meant that I always thought of Cromwell as a Very Bad Man.

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

But in April 2009, a new book was published and this book changed my viewpoint completely. This book featured Thomas Cromwell as its central character: Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall. As Mantel’s hero (or should that be anti-hero?), Cromwell is witty, charismatic and slippery, loyal to his friends and ruthless to those who cross him. A devoted family man. A patron saint for administrators, archivists and minute writers. And a man who knows about cloth.

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

Re-reading Wolf Hall recently, I was struck by the number of references to textiles, and how beautifully they are described by Mantel. Velvets, brocades, silks, wool, sables, satins all burst from the page.

As a youth fleeing England, young Thomas Cromwell meets “three elderly Lowlanders”, traders in cloth, who show him their “woollen samples and discuss among themselves the weight and the weave.” Cromwell learns about cloth and concludes that “with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth hard to weave, he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” He understands what clothes of the right fabric can do; on meeting the poor but beautiful Helen, “mentally, he takes her out of cheap shrunken wool and re-dresses her in some figured velvet he saw yesterday, six shillings the yard.”

As Cardinal Wolsey’s man, Cromwell admires a tapestry of “the woollen monarchs,” Solomon and Sheba: a tapestry that depicts a woman he has known and that weaves its way throughout the book. When Wolsey falls, Cromwell watches the cardinal’s finery being packed away: “bolts of fine holland, velvets and grosgrain, sarcenet and taffeta, scarlet by the yard.” Cromwell knows its value. “In public the cardinal wears red, just red, but in various weights, various weaves, various degrees of pigment and dye, but all of them the best of their kind, the best reds to be got for money. There have been days when, swaggering out, he would say, ‘Right, Master Cromwell, price me by the yard!'” And in a spirit of thrift that will be appreciated by patchworkers everywhere, this fabric has a second life after Wolsey’s death: “The cardinal’s scarlet clothes now lie folded and empty. They cannot be wasted. They will be cut up and become other garments. Who knows where they will get to over the years? Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner or ensign. You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat.”

Sewing the binding.

Sewing the binding.

Cromwell’s wife, Liz, does “a bit of silk-work” and complains about “the price of thread.” Their sheets are of fine linen and they sleep “under a quilt of yellow turkey satin.” In one of my favourite scenes, Liz embroiders shirts for their son Gregory “with a black-work design; it’s the same one the queen uses, for she makes the king’s shirts herself. ‘If I were Katherine I’d leave the needle in them,’ he says.” In this world, sewing is a weapon. Does Anne Boleyn pull the stitches out of her sister’s embroidery? How can his niece’s “awkward little backstitch” be used to protect Cromwell’s letters? Will a book of needlework patterns wrapped in kingfisher blue silk be taken from Jane Seymour? Who will unpick embroidered pomegranates, representing the badge of Katherine of Aragon?

As readers may have guessed, I know the text of Wolf Hall very well. It’s my favourite book, and as well as reading from the page, I find the excellent unabridged audiobook, read by Simon Slater, the perfect sewing accompaniment. And in 2014, my enjoyment was enhanced even further by the magical stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Playful Productions.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

I was lucky enough to see the plays in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and was so swept away by them that I simply had to sew something. Mantel’s Notes on Characters, written for the plays, say of Cromwell: “You don’t say much about your past, but you tell Thomas Cranmer, ‘I was a ruffian in my youth.’ Whatever this statement reveals or conceals, you have a lifelong sympathy with young men who have veered off-course.” I love that sentiment  – and it formed the basis for a little quilt tribute to Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton, and the cast, musicians, production team and backstage crew of the plays that I enjoyed so much.

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

* The image of Thomas Cromwell from the National Portrait Gallery, London is used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

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