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It was during August this year on one of Melbourne’s mid-winter days that my husband and I decided to take a trip into Melbourne’s city centre to view the ‘Making the Australian Quilt: 1800-1950‘ Exhibition, located at the Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square – NGV Australia. What an extraordinary exhibition it was to experience! There were over eighty works inclusive of quilts, coverlets, garments and quilted, patched and pieced works made in Australia or with a significant Australian provenance (NGV 2016). It also featured 19th century English quilts that had been brought to Australia during its early history (NGV 2016).
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
What I also found most interesting were the powerful stories that accompanied these works of art; and the amazing resourcefulness and technical skills of their makers. Materials used included taffeta, velvet, furnishing fabric, dressmaking scraps, flour bags, possum skins, suiting samples and flannelette; and by cutting, layering, piecing and stitching these materials they were transformed into items of great personal and historical significance (NGV 2016). Both men and women were makers, and made “within the context of leisure and accomplishment, created as expressions of love and family connection and those stitched out of necessity in an environment of constraint and hardship” (NGV 2016).
I found this exhibition a wonderful window into a bygone era through the magic of quilt making. In the National Gallery of Victoria’s book titled ‘Making The Australian Quilt 1800-1950’ written by Annette Gero and Katie Somerville, there is a piece on page 47 that describes how makers used quilting to hold the memories and history of their families:
“Author Jennifer Isaacs sums up this idea: Because patchwork used pieces of material with a long association within the household, these quilts are evocative memory-stirrers for all generations to see them in later years: each family member is able to point out an old upholstery fabric, the curtains from the kitchen, the cretonne used for this, the muslin used for that, the wool insertion from grandfather’s old trousers, or the tea towels from the kitchen. In a real sense they are therefore, silent but very eloquent family documents.”
A SLIDE-SHOW OF IMAGES TAKEN ON THE DAY!
THE STAND-OUTS FOR ME!
There was so much to see at this exhibition, and so much to understand and appreciate that it would be impossible for me to cover all within this blog. I am just going to cover some stand-outs for me, and hope that you, as a reader, will someday have the opportunity to view the vast collection of artwork created by these extraordinary makers. I really could have spent days and days there, it was just that amazingly comprehensive!
NB: please click here to view the gallery’s artwork labels PDF for this exhibition
Stand-Out No. 1: “The Rajah quilt made by unknown convict women”
The Rajah quilt: “Is a patchwork and appliquéd bed cover or coverlet made by convict women en route to Australia in 1841 on board the Rajah. It is the only known example of a convict quilt made on the voyage to Australia.” (Ref: The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 Book. page 26 NGV – Annette Gero and Katie Somerville 2016).
Description of the Rajah Quilt: “This very large quilt measures 325 x 337 centimetres and is a pieced medallion or framed-style quilt with a central block of white cotton. It is hand stitched with ‘Broderie perse’ appliqué and pieced work, and is decorated with chintz birds and floral motifs. As a coverlet it has only a front and back with no padding or quilting, and the 2815 pieces of fabric from which it is made are all cotton, with small amounts of linen and silk threads. The central block is framed by twelve different boarders of patchwork in printed cotton. The quilt is finished at the outer edge by white cotton decorated with appliquéd daisies on three sides and an inscription in very fine cross-stitch is surrounded by floral chintz attached with ‘Broderie perse’ on the fourth side”. (Ref: The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 Book. page 26 NGV – Annette Gero and Katie Somerville 2016).
The Rajah quilt inscription reads: “TO THE LADIES OF the Convict ship committee This quilt worked by the Convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to Van Diemans 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 of proof that they have not neglected the Ladies king admonitions of being industrious * June * 1841 *”. (Ref: The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 Book. page 26 NGV – Annette Gero and Katie Somerville 2016).
Stand-Out No. 2: “Golda Jean Ellis’s Cheer Up Society Cape”
This cape: “was worn by nurse Golda Jean Ellis of the Murray Bridge branch of the Cheer Up Society. Murray Bridge was a major railway station for soldiers in transit, and the Cheer Up Society Provided welcome refreshments. Ellis stitched the cloth badges of servicemen she met to the inside of her cape. The ribbon for the Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to private Oliver Neall (later Lieutenant) of the 2/8th Battalion for gallantry at Tobruk is one of the badges sewn on the inside of the cape. Ellis married Neall in 1943 before he left for New Guinea. AG”. (Ref: The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 Book. page 136 NGV – Annette Gero and Katie Somerville 2016).
Stand-Out No. 3: “Annie Percival’s Patchwork table cover”
This Table Cloth Cover Story: “For Annie Tait it was family life as a publican’s daughter that led to the making of a table cover and cushion cover from hundreds of golden silk cigar ribbons. Born in a tent in Silverton, NSW, in 1887, Annie was the third of seven children of her Scottish migrant parents Thomas and Catherine. By the time her family had settled in Broken Hill Annie was a teenager and her father went on to build and manage four hotels, including the Masonic Hotel, where they lived. Annie was therefore very well placed to collect cigar ribbons, which were at the time used to merchandise and package up the cigars sold to the patrons of the hotel. The technique of using cigar ribbons in quilts and other domestic textiles was a well-established form of fancywork. Some women relied on friends and relatives to gather enough silks – each of which bore the name and logo of the manufacturer – to make an impressive quilt. It is worth noting how skilfully Annie arranges her silks in regular patterns to make the most of the aesthetic impact of the text and logo designs. KS”. (Ref: The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 Book. page 52 NGV – Annette Gero and Katie Somerville 2016).
Stand-Out No. 4: “Nursery rhyme quilt”
The Nursery Rhyme Quilt: “Scenes from forty-two different nursery rhymes and children’s stories are depicted on this quilt, including the Queen of Hearts, Humpty Dumpty, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Cinderella. Many used dress fabrics have been appliquéd onto the quilt using blanket stitch and appear to have had a previous life. The centre block represents the book ‘Amelia Anne and the Green Umbrella’, which was first published in the 1930s.” (Ref: Making the Australian Quilt 1800-1950 NGV Artwork labels page 81-2016)
This exhibition was just so big, and as I stated earlier, I could have, should have, stayed for days and truly immersed myself in the world of ‘Making the Australian Quilt‘. After reading the stories, viewing the incredible selection of artworks, I couldn’t help but think that this form of art making also served a different purpose. The painstaking and sometimes laborious endeavours of these makers must have been at times a form of art for therapy. The hours and hours of dedication applied to such craftsmanship in order to create these now treasured artworks would have hopefully given their makers a sense of great achievement, even if it was, for some, out of pure necessity!
© Karen Robinson – October 2016