Sir John Martin-Harvey, The Only Way, and a Precious Piece of Fabric

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

As a quilter I keep a lot of fabric at home but the most precious piece of fabric in my possession is part of an old theatrical costume from over a century ago. It is very fragile so I hardly ever get it out to look at, let alone touch – I worry about its further disintegration. It is a silk sash on which someone has written the famous words spoken by Sydney Carton before he meets his death on the Guillotine at the climax of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The sash belonged to an actor, Sir John Martin-Harvey (22 June 1863 – 15 May 1944), who made his name playing Sydney Carton in a play called The Only Way, based on Dickens’ novel.

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

It is thanks to the perilous state of the sash that the quote from Dickens can be seen; it was hidden, written into the lining – presumably by Martin-Harvey himself – but over the last hundred years the fabric has come adrift somewhat and so the secret wording can now be seen.

Of course I never saw Martin-Harvey on stage but luckily for film and theatrical historians, there is a lasting record of his most famous role. The Only Way was filmed in 1926, directed by Herbert Wilcox. Thanks to its survival we can still see the star performance of Martin-Harvey as the dissolute but ultimately heroic Sydney Carton in this silent film version.

I remember vividly the first time I saw the film. I was in Cambridge in the Spring of 2012 and it was playing as part of the British Silent Film Festival. The Only Way was on my must-see list; I love Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities is probably my favourite of his novels. I knew nothing of Martin-Harvey and nothing about the film but context was provided by the musician Neil Brand who, in introducing it, said it was a rare opportunity to see one of the great Edwardian Actor-Managers at work. Neil said that, at some screenings, as the film drew to a close, the projector would be turned off and Martin-Harvey himself would appear and recite the famous final lines – an experience loved by audiences.

To begin with, I was underwhelmed. The film began with a long, slow prologue about the Evremonde family, and, when Martin-Harvey appeared on the screen, my immediate response was “He is far too old to play Sydney Carton.” By the time the film was made, Martin-Harvey was 63 and had been playing the role of Carton on stage for 27 years. I started to anticipate grand theatrical gestures and wondered if I could slip out without disturbing too many people.

And then something happened – one of those transient moments that transform a performance entirely.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

The scene is Dr Manette’s house in London. Carton comes visiting. He loves Lucie Manette but knows he cannot expect her to return his love. Instead, he tells her that he would do anything for her and for anyone she loves. And during this scene, Martin-Harvey picks up some rose petals that are lying on the table and runs them through his fingers. And that was that. That small movement transformed him. He was Sydney Carton. His tour de force at the Tribunal. The devotion of his servant, Mimi, that he fails to notice. The brilliant final scenes in the Bastille alongside other prisoners waiting for death. His inspiring courage in Mimi. And, of course, the last words: “It is a far, far better thing.” I was completely transfixed.

Since that screening, I have amassed quite a collection of Martin-Harvey items. Some of my favourites are postcards – not so much because of the pictures they feature, but because of what is written on the back. It is very clear that Martin-Harvey had a very loyal following; some fans would make a note of each theatrical performance they went to (often multiple times to The Only Way) or write down their favourite lines.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

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Others seem to have been taking part in organised postcard swaps, like a Miss O’Rourke from Nottingham, who received lots of pictures of Martin-Harvey in 1904. One, however, seems to have been from a friend with a sense of humour and a cryptic message: The Doctor is making me send this. 

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I am afraid of sending you cards of Martin Harvey that you may have already, wrote B.P. to Miss O’Rourke in November 1904 on a postcard showing the actor in The Breed of the Treshams. Is there anyone else? From the evidence of the cards in my collection, it would seem not.

A Miss Dobbings is asked by an anonymous friend How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

How do you like "His Serene Highness" in this garb?

How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

A.C.H. saw a postcard as I came home and thought perhaps you would like it, and sent it to her friend Enid Downs in Hull, while Maggie Harwall was sent Another one for your collection by her friend Nellie. In 1910, Eva Henderson was asked by her friend Anna How do you like the gentleman on the other side? Miss Smith of West Dulwich has clearly been quite specific about the card she wanted, as her correspondent Georgie writes I do hope that this is the postcard you wanted. They had several of him but this is the only one I could see where he was sitting down. 

"The only one where he was sitting down."

“The only one where he was sitting down.”

And apart from the devoted fans, there are those intent on teasing their friends. In 1907 Mr Jack Thompson received a card featuring Hamlet with the immortal words Hallo fathead. How’s the weather up there? It’s rotten here. I am thy father’s ghost. 

"I am thy father's ghost."

“I am thy father’s ghost.”

Hallo Fathead!

Hallo Fathead!

I am intrigued by these postcards. Who were the people who sent them? Who collected them? So many clues can be found on these items and it opens up a world of theatrical devotion from more than a century ago.

You can still watch The Only Way at the BFI Mediatheque. Unfortunately, the viewing copy has no music and is completely silent – not the way it was intended to be shown – but it is there nevertheless. My advice is to just go with it. It starts slowly. But there is a moment when it gets under your skin. And from then on, it is wonderful.

Stitching Nelson Mark II

Nelson's Column Block

Nelson’s Column Block

This time last year I joined the London Modern Quilt Guild. As a result, I have met some wonderfully inspiring quilters, made new friends and learned how to sew curves. At each meeting, members bring along their quilting to show the group and talk about the techniques they have used or their fabric choices. Since last September I have been sharing progress on the Nelson Quilt and the other Guild members have been greatly encouraging about this long running project.

The Guild sets regular challenges – sewing something with curved piecing, making a bag to swap, interpreting a design and so on. The current challenge is to make a block inspired by Urban London.

Given my current research interest in Maurice Elvey’s 1918 Nelson film, my thoughts turned straight away to Nelson’s Column for my Urban London block. From the ground, one cannot see Nelson’s face, but close up photographs of the statue show an extraordinary level of detail. I had found my inspiration – and a second stitched Nelson.

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column, watching over the city

Why has Elvey’s silent film biography of Nelson captured my imagination so much and inspired two quilting projects to date? It’s certainly not a great film but I have great affection for it. Looking at the notes I made the first time I saw it, my immediate impressions were: “It isn’t great but it isn’t as terrible as its reputation would have one believe. It is good in parts, with a nice structure, Maurice Elvey’s usual deft touch with crowds, and some thrilling street battles. Scenes between Ivy Close and Donald Calthrop as newlyweds are particularly fine, as is the depiction of Nelson’s childhood.”

Maurice Elvey's 1918 Nelson Film

Having said that, there are flaws in the acting, some terrible make up and a particularly dreadful wig used by Donald Calthrop as the ageing Nelson. There’s plenty of evidence of a rushed production schedule. It’s a problematic film – but a fascinating one, particularly if, like me, you have been researching the production history. I think I might be working on Nelson related projects for some time to come.

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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 Lodger – Framed!

Back in August, I was commissioned to make a small quilt inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film, The Lodger. Being a bit of a fan of its star, Ivor Novello, I was happy to agree, and in my earlier post, Stitching with Ivor Novello, I wrote about how some of my lettered quilts are inspired by silent film intertitles.

The Lodger 1926

The quilt was finished, packed up and delivered to its new owner in September. Now, if you make things, it is always interesting to see what happens to them once they are passed on. Walking into someone’s home and seeing your quilt, or picture, or ornament in its new setting is one of the pleasures of making.

The Lodger quilt was commissioned by Nathalie Morris, the brains behind the delicious Food on Film blog, and a dab hand at making Alfred Hitchcock’s Quiche Lorraine. Nathalie got in touch with me yesterday to say that she had arranged for The Lodger quilt to be framed. She sent me a lovely photograph of it, and here it is:

"The Lodger" Quilt framed

“The Lodger” Quilt framed

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

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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…..