Quilts can range from the functional to the memorial to the artistic—with most combining several of these qualities—and all types can be seen at “Quilts: 1700-2010,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from March 20th to July 4th. While the majority of quilt shows focus on either the past or present, this exceptional exhibition contains 65 quilts, from functional 18th century pieces to modern-day art quilts. For those who are unable to attend, Claire Smith, who aided in the production of the show, describes some of its highlights.
You organized the pieces in the exhibition by theme (such as Domestic Landscape, Private Thoughts, etc.). Why did you choose this method of display?
One of the primary aims of the exhibition has always been to situate these objects within their social and cultural context. With this in mind, the exhibition is divided into five thematic sections underpinned by a loose chronology. Contemporary works have been embedded within the historic sections to invite a dialogue between past and present. We deliberately chose artists who whose work resonated with the five key themes.
In ‘Private Thoughts, Political Debates’, a coverlet thought to have been made by Elisabeth Chapman was handed down for many generations on the understanding that it was created by Elisabeth as a wedding gift for her husband. It was said to have been looked after with the same care and attention as the love letters stitched into the reverse. As the coverlet is unlined, we were able to establish that the papers were not love letters, but a range of household notes typical to a middle class home.
Also in this section is a piece by contemporary artist Sara Impey which plays with this common myth that love letters were used to back patchwork, entitled “Punctuation.” The work is based on a love letter that came to light when the artist was searching her mother’s belongings following her death. Impey chose two phrases to work with: ‘never did like punctuation’ and ‘see you suddenly one day.’ These phrases in turn inspired the rest of the text. Punctuation explores the emotions that arise when a seemingly complete chapter of experience is reopened and redefines the present, and invites a dialogue between the practices of historic quilt makers and those working today.
This is the Victoria & Albert’s first exhibition of quilts. Why do you think there hasn’t been one before?
The V&A has an enormous collection of textiles and fashion (over 85,000 objects to date) and an ambitious public program, staging two major exhibitions a year. We have been planning the exhibition since 2004, and over the past 6 years, have been able to draw on the latest conservation techniques to ensure that the objects are displayed in the best possible conditions.
It has been over 40 years since the Whitney’s seminal exhibition [Abstract Design in American Quilts, 1971], and the quilt art movement has been exceptionally strong during this time. We believe that the time is absolutely right to revisit the role of quilts, celebrating a collective heritage of British quilt making, while also introducing a new generation to the sheer joy of stitching, particularly in the current economic climate of ‘credit crunch chic’ and ‘make do and mend.’
Some of the quilts are shown along with objects that are related to their history or makers. Can you give some examples of the types of objects that are included?
Quilts are evocative symbols of our collective past. The personal and social histories embedded in these objects often reveal a complex engagement with the wider world. Every quilt has a hidden history, an unspoken story which is concealed within its layers. The myths and narratives handed down with each intricately pieced patchwork and stitched wholecloth are as much a part of the quilt’s heritage as the silks and cottons which document its textile history.
The exhibition has provided an opportunity to unravel many of these captivating stories for the first time. An exquisite early 18th century cot quilt of silk velvets and silk satins was donated to the museum with the narrative that it was created by the daughter of the Governor of Deal Castle. During the course of our research, we uncovered not only the identity of the maker, Priscilla Redding, but also her diary which reveals life on the Kent coast in the early 18th century. In the diary, political testimony sits alongside poignant accounts of her family: from the birth of her first child to the distressing loss of her only son. The diary and the quilt were separated at some point in the 19th century, and have been reunited for the first time in the exhibition.
A 19th century military quilt of tailor’s broadcloth is also on display. Pieced from hexagons of just 1.5 cm across, it is thought to have been created or purchased by Francis Brayley, a private stationed in India. Private Brayley arrived back in England with his Battalion in April 1877 and soon after married Mary Ann Ash. Sadly three years later, he died. Their son, William, was eleven months old. Brayley may have made the quilt as a wedding present for his patient bride to be, or perhaps acquired it as a souvenir of his thirteen years of service. We may never unravel the true tale behind the quilt, but it stands as testimony to Brayley’s time in India, offering a small glimpse into his world.
The military quilt is contextualized with a painting of Private Thomas Walker. In this rare portrait—which was designed to allay public concerns over hospital conditions for soldiers—a private is shown piecing together a coverlet from military fabrics. Private Thomas Walker was wounded in battle and seen by Queen Victoria when she visited the Fort Pitt Military Hospital in 1855. As a propaganda piece, the painting suggests how military quilts were promoted as a form of therapy for those injured in conflict. Soldiers were also encouraged by the Temperance Movement to take up sewing as an alternative to the less salubrious pursuits of drinking and gambling.
Historically, quilts have been made for such a wide variety of reasons—as they still are today. Does the exhibition contain any historical quilts with a particularly unique story behind them?
On loan from the National Gallery of Australia is “The Rajah Quilt.” To assist women held in London’s Newgate Prison, campaigner Elizabeth Fry formed the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1816. They donated sewing supplies to keep women employed during their incarceration, and soon turned their attention to convict ships bound for Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania). Fabric, thread, tape and needles were carried on board the HMS Rajah by 180 women prisoners when it set sail from Woolwich in 1841. When the ship arrived in Hobart, Australia, the women had produced “The Rajah Quilt” as ‘proof that they have not neglected the ladies’ kind admonitions of being industrious.’ This is the only known transportation quilt in a public collection, and is on display for the first time outside Australia.
Would you please describe some of the contemporary artists that are included in the exhibit?
The exhibition also celebrates the work of the ‘Take 4’ group; Jo Budd, Pauline Burbidge, Dinah Prentice and Michele Walker, who have all interrogated the role and symbolism of the quilt in recent years.
Jo Budd has created a new diptych of hand-dyed and hand-stitched silks and cottons entitled “Winter/Male” and “Summer/Female.” Responding to the colors and rhythms of the seasons, the pieces chart the enormous timescale involved in the act of making. The deep, rich green heart of “Winter/Male” echoes that of the water meadow surrounding Budd’s studio in the winter months, while the soft, veiled garment shapes and warm pink palette of “Summer/Female” connect to a delicate, domestic, and distinctly feminine aesthetic.
In “Applecross Quilt,” Pauline Burbidge aligns the process of stitching with the mapping of space. Taking her inspiration from the area of Applecross on the north-west coast of Scotland, Burbidge machine and hand quilts lines and contours to echo the landscape of rock, sand, reeds and water that define this area. Exploring how we unconsciously take note of the spaces that surround us, the quilt echoes the work of historic makers who were firmly rooted in a sense of place.
Dinah Prentice’s “Billowing Maenads” was previously in display at the Butter Market in Birmingham (2008). Rejecting paint on the premise that it is too ‘truculent’ and unweildy, Prentice instead explores the role of textiles as a surface to be stretched, repaired and patched: a flexible and forgiving medium that absorbs both memory and meaning. Drawn to the seams and an exploration of the female form, Prentice delights in the confrontational potential of patchwork, which becomes a metaphor for ‘compressing unacceptable ideas together.’
Michele Walker’s “Memoriam” is the last in a body of work using plastics instead of cloth. The piece subverts the traditional role of the quilt as a vehicle for comfort, responding to her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Reflecting on the fragmentation of identity while also testifying to a wider culture of memory loss, it is intended as poignant ode to the thousands of makers unknown.
Quilts (From Top to Bottom)
· Elizabeth Chapman, 1829 (© V&A Images)
· “Punctuation,” Sarah Impey, 2009 (© V&A Images
· Deal Cot Quilt, Priscilla Redding, 1690-1720 (© V&A Images)
· Francis Brayley Quilt, 1880s (© V&A Images)
· Rajah Quilt, 1841, Made by convicts on board HMS Rajah (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)
· “Winter/Male” and “Summer/Female,” Jo Budd, 2010 (Courtesy of the artist)
· “Applecross Quilt,” Pauline Burbidge, 2007 (Photo by Keith Tidball, courtesy of the artist)
· “Memoriam,” Michele Walker, 2002 (© V&A Images)