Saturday, May 29, 2010

Quilts at the V&A

Friday 28 June 2010 –a planned visit to Quilts 1700-2010 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, , very well curated by Sue Pritchard. We checked in ticket-wise, hired an i-touch to take advantage of the expert commentary and get some close up pictures of the quilts, and had coffee in a spectacular room that’s now part of the V&A’s cafe. Mary, Susan and I agreed that we could have feasted on the wall decoration and lighting in there for a long time ... even the doors had insights into history.
The organisation of the exhibition mixes historical with modern and post-modern quilts, coverlets and needlework paraphernalia around five themes. I was struck by the similarity of this to the way The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has been reorganised –so much more interesting than when exhibits simply set in date order! Another feature of this exhibition is its focus on British quilting making and the way it reaches back to some of the first work of this type done in this country. I was reminded as I read the provenance of each item in this exhibition of the Amish quilts on show in the de Young Museum in San Francisco . I visited this during my recent visit in to America and there the choice was to display just 48 quilts from a narrow time slot 1880-1940. These were quilts not made for originally for public view, by people who lived rather isolated lives. In contrast many quilts at the V&A were for places in the home where visitors would be able to see it: in the 16C that was the bedroom and nowadays it is the museum or gallery that show contemporary quilts specifically commissioned as were some for this exhibition.
... and so to the exhibition ...
The Domestic Landscape rooms has quilts and quilted objects with long histories -bed hangings, cot quilts and a display of pincushions celebrating birth, mostly in silk and in very good condition. It’s amazing how well preserved these exhibits are –thank you to those all those people who knew the importance of storing such delicate items correctly. Personal diaries and keepsakes relating to the quilts and their makers are also on display. A silk and ribbon cot quilt made by the daughter of the governor of Deal Castle in the late 1600’s is on show for the first time and is accompanied by the maker's diary.
Next is the theme of Private Thoughts Political Debates with quilts that showed the extensive use of imported cotton and recycled materials. Printed panels were also available at the start of the 19thC and some of these linked a quilt or coverlet made at home with the politics of the day, for example, one from the past supporting Queen Caroline who was refused entry to her coronation. Nearby hangs Grayson Perry’s Right to Life quilt with tumbling blocks and foetus appliqué touching on one of today’s contested topics. The maker was quoted in The Independent as saying: ''We are born and we die and we make love under a quilt.''
Quilts by Victorians fill the Virtue and Virtuosity section, with work by women often for display purposes, by men done to keep them away from the temptations of alcohol and by those who joined quilting clubs. Particularly striking is a quilt of very small hexagons with a military theme –we all wondered just how long it had taken to complete and, one of my favourites, a modern quilt of fabrics that showed modern day women’s work. The squares were designed by a group of women and filled with tumble dryer fluff –a nice play on the misogynist phrase a nice bit of fluff.
The next set of quilts are all about Making A Living with some audio background material from a woman who had worked for the Government funded Rural Industries Board established to ensure that traditional crafts were not lost and to foster income generation in poor rural communities. These quilt makers met in women’s homes for this industrious work. On show here are quilts that once graced the beds of Claridges Hotel and a red and white striped wedding quilt showing mass produced quilting designs.
Meeting the Past is all about the role of the quilt as a memory maker as well as serving a purpose, with quilts made during World War 2 and some striking contemporary work, for example, Janey Forgan’s quilt using liberty fabric in a repetitive union jack pattern with its issue of multiculturalism in contemporary Britain. This section includes the quilt made by men in HMP Wansdworth with powerful messages in block design and embroidered text.It also has a paper quilt composed of one cm white squares that represent each civilian death in the Iraq War and the occasional darker square. Close up each darker square is a photograph of the first 100 service personnel dying in the same war. The commentary tells of how the maker had hand sewn the squares together with an awareness of the fragility of the paper they were made of  ... the quilts unfinished edges are a reminder of the fragility of life for all of us and especially for those in the theatre of war.
With thanks to the National Gallery of Australia, the Rajah quilt is on display. This quilt was made in 1841 by women convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), with materials donated by Elizabeth Fry's social reform initiative. It’s the only transportation quilt available to the public. The exhibitions closes with a Tracey Emin unmade bed entitled To Meet My Past which is crowded with fabric memories and appliquéd confessions. It uses floral material and the usual things that make the comfort of a bed and on one side tells us ''I cry in a world of sleep''.
Two and a half hours later, wowed by the width and creativity of the work we’d seen we needed to find somewhere to rest our feet and replenish our energy. We headed back to the cafe for lunch in those lovely surroundings and time to reflect on the exhibition. Mary said she would take home the thought that perhaps today we try for too much perfection in our quilting, Sue was impressed with the perseverance of the ordinary people who made quilts with anything they could lay their hands on. I will remember the place of preservation in our lives.
Very great care has been taken of the quilts displayed in this exhibition by people who knew about the importance of storing fabric in the correct conditions, in some cases for centuries, so that we can enjoy them in 2010. Preservation is also part of conservation and clearly great skill has been used to retain the beauty of many of the quilts and coverlets on show. The exhibition itself also demonstrates the importance of preserving the quilts while they are on show; displaying work under suitable lighting, on flat displays and behind glass covers, all there so we can enjoy these precious works of art with the minimum impact on their condition. Finally, the quilts themselves epitomise preservation. They keep safe our memories in pictures, words, fabric, design, shape, stitches ... in the unique craft of each quilt maker.
Later Sue, Arnold and I went to see Les Miserable –my first time and their second but others in the audience were multiple visitors in the musical’s 25th anniversary year. It is as wonderful as everyone says it is –memorable music that fits so well with the lyrics, a very packed storyline and nothing has been lost in the move to a smaller theatre with a smaller cast. Unsurprisingly, on our walk through theatre-land we met some baby elephants ….
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