The Queensland Art Gallery has a new exhibition, Quilts 1700-1945, which runs from 15 June to 22 September 2013. Most of the quilts come from the Victoria and Albert Museum, with a few from the Imperial War Museum, and the exhibition is billed as ‘200 years of British quiltmaking’, but there is also one important Australian quilt, the Rajah Quilt from the National Gallery of Australia.
The quilts show a mixture of decorative patchwork, embroidery, and collage. The earliest quilt dates from the 1690s; the last from the Second World War. I’d recommend the exhibition to anyone interested in textile history or women’s work or domestic decoration – though I confess that I’m always at a bit of a loss when it comes to deciding just where to draw the boundary between Art and Craft. For me, these pieces, lovely as they are, definitely fall on the ‘Craft’ side of that line.
My overwhelming feeling, coming out after a couple of hours, was sheer relief that I have never had to spend my time doing all that work! By hand! By candlelight! Yet I know people who love quilting, will happily spend time hand sewing patches, and take delight in the finished product. I’m afraid I’m just not one of those people.
For me, the pleasure of the show lay rather in the stories that lie behind many of these quilts. Patchwork in particular is often a place where memories are stored, when old clothes or furnishings are cut up and reused in some new and interesting way. Mainly those memories are private and now impossible to know. Many of the smaller quilts in the exhibition were made to fit a child’s cradle, made by the expectant mother, or given as a gift, embroidered with the name and birth date of the baby sleeping under it.
Some of the quilts, though, contain public memories and messages. One small piece of patchwork from the Imperial War Museum was made by the Girl Guilds Brigade in Changi Prison in Singapore during World War II. The girls cut pieces of fabric from their clothing to make the hexagon patches. It is unfinished – did they run out of cloth? Did the war end? Or were they teenaged girls like I once was, learning to sew only under duress and giving it away as soon as decently possible?
The Rajah Quilt is the most obvious example of sewing under duress, made by convict women during their voyage to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), on board the convict transport Rajah. The English Quaker Elizabeth Fry began working with women prisoners in 1816, urging authorities to treat these women more kindly – while at the same time urging female prisoners to become more womanly. It has to be said that in both objectives, Fry had only mixed success.
In 1841, 180 women convicts left for Van Diemen’s Land on the Rajah. On the recommendation of Mrs Fry, they were chaperoned by Miss Kezia Hayter from the Millbank Penitentiary, and Fry’s organization, The British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, gave them the wherewithal to sew during the trip: 10 yards of fabric, 4 balls of white thread and a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, 100 needles, threads, pins, scissors and 2 pounds of patchwork pieces. The Ladies Society considered sewing a useful skill for women to learn, but it would also provide work for idle hands – and thus keep the devil at bay on board ship.
By the time the Rajah arrived in Hobart in mid 1841, the quilt was complete. It is huge – one of the largest in the exhibition – and has been made by a variety of hands. It contains a central embroidered section:
To the Ladies of the Convict ship committee
This quilt worked by the Convicts of the Ship Rajah during their voyage to Van Diemans [sic] Land is presented as a testimony of the gratitude with which they remember their exertions for their welfare while in England and during their passage and also as a proof that they have not neglected the Ladies kind admonitions of being industrious
Kezia Hayter presented the quilt to the Governor’s wife, Lady Franklin. As it happens, I’m currently reading the latest biography of Jane Franklin, which sheds a bit more light on the background to this magnificent gift.
Governor Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in January 1837. Jane Franklin had met Elizabeth Fry some years earlier, and expressed an interest in her work. Before she left England she got in touch again. Elizabeth Fry asked her to report back on the condition of female convicts in the colony, and to set up a local society of ladies along the lines of the British Ladies Society.
After the Franklins arrived in Hobart at the beginning of 1837, however, Jane didn’t write. She was probably sidetracked by all the other duties of a Governor’s wife, but she also found herself at odds with Fry on general principles. Elizabeth Fry believed in reforming prisoners by instituting a kinder, gentler system; Jane Franklin considered the prisoners beyond reformation and believed in harsher punishment.
Then the Rajah docked in Hobart. The gift of the quilt to a ‘convict ship committee’ that the Governor’s wife had so far failed to establish was embarrassing, and Jane was forced to act. She wrote her report to Fry, though ‘I do not expect that the manner in which I have treated the subject will suit Mrs. Fry’s views’ and set up a committee (though it didn’t last long).
The gift of the quilt imposed an enormous moral obligation on Jane Franklin – and that’s one of the things about handmade gifts, as anyone who has ever received a bobbly knitted beanie, an embroidered tablecloth that’s a nightmare to iron, or a box of leaden cupcakes will know only too well.
Heaven knows what the convict women themselves thought about the quilt they had made so laboriously, only to see whisked away to give to the Governor’s lady, just when the finished product might have had some monetary value to them – but there are blood spots on the quilt that probably date from when it was first sewn. That ratio of 1 thimble to 100 needles seems rather thoughtless.