Today I escaped from the family for a long-anticipated visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and their exhibition of Quilts 1700-2010.
It is an absolutely stunning exhibition, both thought provoking and visually glorious, and so well set out that the progression through the different sections is a natural movement through the different themes and elements underlying the development of patchwork and quilt making from past times to present.
The earliest examples are perhaps what one might expect to see – from the delicate and intricate work of the Deal coverlet to the luxurious ostentation of the Bishops Court quilt:
But what one takes away is the sense of the personal in all this – the connection with memory and absence, with love and security, and a strong sense of the underlying culture in which such pieces were created. Not only objects of beauty, they also were practical, everyday items, created out of the remnants and remains of clothing fabrics, at a time when no-one could afford to throw textiles away.
This connection to the intimate levels of domestic life really hit home when I encountered the (unfinished) coverlet worked by Elizabeth Chapman in 1829. Ostensibly pieced to commemorate Wellington, it contains an embroidered panel that is essentially a love letter from a wife to a (presumably absent?) husband, and glimpses of the unfinished back show the papers inside the quilt – scraps and fragments of letters between the two. That this quilt sits so close to a contemporary quilt by Sarah Impey that incorporates text from a more recent love letter draws a direct line between the traditional practice of quilt-making and the contemporary, giving a poignant relevance to both. These quilts are about LIVES. Lives connected to their local environment. Lives creating associations between body and memory, with safety and comfort, with absence and loss.
And lives expressing themselves and their values.
The level of political statement in some of the 19th century quilts surprised me – I wasn’t expecting such a high level of political commentary from the women who made the quilts, women who were completely disenfranchised during the period, and one can see the development of these into the temperance banners, military quilts and scripture coverlets of the Victorian era – the domestic ideal and values of thrift, perseverance and hard work are clearly connected with the quilts of this era. The modern Karen Garfen quilt that sits alongside these is deceptively bright and cheerful, in modern light bright colours, but on closer examination it provides a similar political commentary on the lives of women in contemporary times and the demands and expectations placed upon them. And when these are taken together with the Rajah quilt, pieced by women convicts being transported to Australia, this craft gives a voice to the oppressed, the disenfranchised and the exploited in a way is immediately tangible and immensely powerful.
This underlying note of repression, disenfranchisement and exploitation provides a powerful context to the modern quilts exhibited alongside the more traditional forms, and provides a narrative for the subversion of the traditional associations of quilts with safety and comfort and makes explicit the themes of memory, loss and absence that are subtle themes in the older quilts.
I went fully expecting not to like the modern quilts. I was wrong. In the context of the history of the quilt, two pieces hit me hard. The first was a piece by Michele Walker – Memoriam – a quilt in plastic and wire wool which references her mother’s Alzheimers to create both a personal story and a wider socio-political comment that doesn’t pull any punches. (See “Keepsakes of Identity – Michele Walker : Memoriam” ). The second was Tracey Emin’s “To Meet My Past” – a piece of work that is, on the surface, beautiful … until you look more closely at the detail and realise this is an act of remembrance of a painful past and a reflection of an uncomfortable and socially unacceptable truth.
That the exhibition starts and ends with a fully-dressed 4-poster bed helps underline and reinforce the powerful connections between the women of the 1700’s and the women of today, a commonality of care and emotion that is as relevant and poignant today as it was then, and a tradition of craft that has evolved and reflected its times just as we have, and that has built deep cultural associations that speak to us in the deepest places of our hearts in a language that is made explicit in this extraordinary exhbition.
I came out of the exhibition literally moved to tears, and needed a quiet moment in the corridor to recover myself. It will take some time for all the ideas and connections to percolate through into my own work, but it was an immensely worthwhile experience and I’m glad I took the time out from the family to go.
I treated myself to the book that accompanies the exhibition, available from the V&A shop (http://www.vandashop.com/product.php?xProd=4010&xSec=357):
I’m looking forward so much to reading this – I sampled some of it on the train on the way home and it promises to be as fantastic an experience as the exhibition itself.
The exhibition runs until the 4th July, and the curator is running a blog which I can highly recommend.
All images in this post are taken from the V&A website.