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


Nelson - 490 squares so far.

Nelson – 490 squares so far.

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

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

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

HMS Victory

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

Nelson Figurehead Osborne Naval College

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

Nelson's Coat

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

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

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Nelson from the back - English paper piecing

Nelson from the back – English paper piecing




Stitching with Ivor Novello or How to Quilt a Silent Film


Quilting inspiration comes from all sorts of sources – the design or colour of a particular fabric; the natural or urban landscape; a traditional block made either in the traditional way or reimagined for a modern quilt.

I’m particularly keen on lettering incorporated into quilting designs and am always on the hunt for words and phrases that will lend themselves to stitch.  Folk songs, sea shanties, phrases from novels and chapter titles from Dickens have all found their way into my quilting.

Recently, I identified a whole new source for quilt designs – silent film intertitles. Some are simply designed with plain lettering, and others are enhanced with beautiful borders and illustrations in keeping with the film’s theme – for example the nautical ropes and flags that enhance the intertitles of Maurice Elvey’s 1918 biographical film about Nelson. My all-time favourite intertitle comes from the 1927 version of Hindle Wakes, also  directed by Maurice Elvey: I’m a Lancashire Lass and so long as there are spinning mills in Lancashire I can earn enough to keep myself respectable.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger Quilt

My first quilt inspired by intertitles is based on Alfred Hitchock’s 1926 film, The Lodger starring Ivor Novello (1893-1951). To-night: Golden Curls isn’t strictly an intertitle, but is a sign for a nightclub that appears on screen and sets the tone for the film. Is Ivor Novello the murderer, known as The Avenger, who is murdering blondes in the foggy streets of London?

To-night Golden Curls

One of Novello’s earliest biographers, Peter Noble was greatly impressed by The Lodger. He wrote in Ivor Novello: Man of the Theatre : “The tension was admirably sustained, the tempo was fast, the photography was excellent, and Novello’s sensitive performance marked him out as one of the truly important screen personalities in our studios.” In 1950, when Noble was writing this biography, the British Film Institute was about to include The Lodger in its 1950 Season of Great Films, which also included Griffith’s Hearts of the World, Asquith’s Shooting Stars, and Dovzhenkno’s Earth. Hitchcock’s Lodger was last revived in 2012, with a sparkling restored print and new score by Nitin Sawhney.

Novello starred in a sound remake of The Lodger in 1932, directed by Maurice Elvey. And now I  must declare an interest: I have been researching Elvey’s early career for some years now and take a particularly close interest in his films. Elvey’s Lodger is certainly not one of his best: although Noble calls it “a very creditable thriller” and praises Novello as having “taken the sound medium, with its stress on underplaying, in his stride,” it isn’t terribly good – the suspense has gone and the camera work is constrained by the needs of the recording equipment. The best things about it are the piano playing and singing of Novello. These are a poor fit with the overall theme of the film, but were perhaps included to make the most of the sound technology and Novello’s popularity as a composer. Although it did well at the box office at the time, Elvey’s Lodger will always be a curiosity piece, which suffers in comparison to the Hitchcock silent.

The difference in tone between the Hitchcock and Elvey versions can be summed up by the two magazine covers featuring the film. On this Picture Show cover from March 12 1927, Novello is looking sinister and mysterious…..

The Lodger 1926

…. but by December 17 1932, Novello looks as though is he about to embark on a duet with his costar, Elizabeth Allan.

The Lodger 1932

Coming Attractions at the Cinema

One of these days, I might take a whole set of intertitles from a single film and stitch the whole lot. The most likely contender is Hindle Wakes but I’m keeping my eyes open for other ideas – and am open to suggestions! Watch this space…..