A Thousand Squares of Nelson

Nelson - 1,000 squares

Nelson – 1,000 squares

This week, I reached a significant milestone with the Nelson Quilt. The thousandth square (in a shade of reddish-brown) was sewn in.

Pausing to take stock, I realise that sewing together these thousand one inch squares has involved around eighty thousand stitches (all by hand); four snapped needles; two colours found to be wrong, resulting in many squares being unpicked and replaced; various train journeys (to Portsmouth, Rochester, Hassocks, Manchester and Birmingham) all spent sewing feverishly; a stitching session on Ventnor Beach on the Isle of Wight; and approximately one hundred and forty hours’ work.

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

What else have I done during those one hundred and forty hours apart from sew and cut?

I dislike stitching in silence so I get through a lot of audiobooks. I usually have more than one on the go at any one time, and dip in and out according to mood. The listening menu for the first thousand squares of the Nelson Quilt has been:

A biography of Nelson himself by Victoria Carolan, read by Joy Gelardi.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, brilliantly read by Nicholas Boulton.
Anton Lesser, a favourite narrator, reading a number of C J Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries.
Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax read by Daniel Philpott.
A BBC dramatisation of The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown – a fondly remembered childhood pleasure.
Another BBC dramatisation – P G Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey read by Derek Jacobi.
Two books by Hilary Mantel, her memoir Giving Up the Ghost read by Jane Wymark, and the best reading of all – Simon Slater narrating Wolf Hall.

Nelson on the Wall

Audiobooks are a great hand sewing accompaniment. I’ve got two thousand two hundred squares to go – and a whole set of novels by Charles Dickens to listen to. A perfect activity for the winter evenings!

Nelson from the back - 1,000 squares

Nelson from the back – 1,000 squares

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.

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