Sunday, 9 May 2010

Catch Up

I realised that I forgot to blog my visit to the V&A quilt exhibition last Monday.  This is a major exhibition and quite a big deal, as it is the first time in a very long time that British quilts have been given this level of mainstream recognition.  There is intense interest in the British quilting tradition amongst quilters and quilt historians in other countries due to its fundamental contribution to quilting history and fabric history.  Yet unlike America we have very few places where you can actually go and see antique British quilts, and I don't think anywhere that you can see large numbers on public display.  So "Quilts 1700-2010" is quite a groundbreaking exhibition, and provides the opportunity to see a number of quilts that are normally not able to be seen.  I've got American friends coming over to the UK especially to visit the exhibition and to attend the accompanying seminars in June.  And the accompanying publicity to the exhibition has seen quilting mentions popping up all over the place: on posters around London, in my women's magazine, my knitting magazine, in craft catalogues etc.

I wasn't sure what to expect, as I am not always a fan of big exhibitions with their accompanying crowds, shuffling lines of viewers, tiny unreadable labels, and generally frustrating lack of information unless you shell out £25 or £30 for the exhibition guidebook.  Entry to the quilt exhibition is by timed ticket, and I was pleasantly surprised at how uncrowded the exhibition was when I went in with the first tranche at 10am on a Bank Holiday Monday.  I was also impressed with the audio tour, which is by I-Pod with touchscreen controls, and includes visuals and close-ups of some of the quilts (necessary as you can't see some of the quilts very clearly in person).  The audio tour doesn't cover the entire exhibition, I didn't count but I would guess it was about 50% of the quilts get mentioned in the audio tour.

It took me about two hours to go around the entire exhibition with my audio tour as there is a lot to look at and read, and it is fairly large.  It would probably take a normal non-quilting person a lot less time, maybe 45 minutes. 

I also wasn't sure what to expect of the quilts themselves, but I was really quite impressed. There are some lovely quilts, with bright colours and intricate piecing - as opposed to the muddy coloured, faded frame quilts that I am more used to associating with older British quilts.  Right at the entrance is a four poster bed with magnificent clamshell hangings pieced from a huge variety of chintzs, really stunning.  There are the usual broderie perse examples, and some elaborate wholecloth quilting, and some truly impressive pieced quilts with intricate blocks made from tiny pieces.  It made me wonder why we have no 'Dear Jane' tradition over here, as some of these quilts make the Dear Jane quilt look almost easy. 

Most of the quilts are well displayed, either on the wall or on bed-shaped platforms, with labels giving some information on the provenance and historical context.  Sadly, four of the older pieced quilts are completely obscured by their unfortunate display within three-sided rooms under very dim overhead lights with ferocious sidelighting.  This means that you can only see the side-lit texture, with some vague idea of colour, and as you are forced to stand at the foot of each 'bed', you can't even make out what the pieced pattern is.  Very annoying in this calibre of exhibition.  The other bed-platforms are either much better lit, or allow you to view from more than one angle so that you can see better.

The breadth of the exhibition is quite magnificent.  The first set of rooms is mostly filled with the older quilts.  The second set of rooms tackles the social and economic context of quilting, including quilts from the northern tradition of quilt stamping, from rural industry initiatives, a quilt made by a former Land Girl, a quilt top pieced by female convicts on their transport ship to Australia, a quilt pieced by prisoners of war in a Singapore internment camp, quilts made for political causes, for the Temperance movement, or to commemorate historical events, etc. etc.  In addition to quilts, there are antique needlework tools and boxes, quilted baby items, and prints and paintings that add context to the historical descriptions accompanying the quilts.

Dotted amongst the antique quilts are a number of modern contributions.  A lot of these are just not my thing, being of the 'dirty corrugated fabric rag' art quilt school.  There is a gaudily embroidered bed by Tracy Emin, a neatly constructed quilt by prisoners at Wandworth Prison, an attractive quilt pieced from silkscreened pictures of modern household gadgets (can't remember the artist) and other items of interest.  Oh, and a truly annoying video contribution with an endless soundtrack of rattling chains.  I spent the first part of the exhibition wanting to throttle what I supposed to be a bored child or bored security guard rattling a chain, but it turned out to be a video of a finger flicking over a bunch of handmade sewing needles, over and over and over again.  And I wonder how much that is costing to exhibit...

You are of course disgorged into the gift shop, where a number of quilting books are on display, including the obligatory £25 exhibition book (£35 in hardcover).  I would have liked to see some of the quilts face on and find out more about them, but that is out of my price range.  There are postcards of a limited number of quilts so I bought a few of those.  There is also a range of very pricey fabric especially printed for the exhibition.  I bought one FQ of a blue/white print that I really liked.  And various other quilty tat is available which will likely not be of much interest to actual quilters but is fun to look at.

So my verdict is a thumbs up, I would recommend a visit to anyone interested in textiles, quilting, history, fabric or costume.  The exhibit runs until 4 July, and entrance is by timed ticket so it is likely worthwhile pre-booking.  The audio tour costs extra. Members of The Arts Fund get in at 50% off, and get the audio tour at a discount as well (I think I paid £3.50).  There are a number of accompanying lectures and events which are listed on the V&A website.

I was particularly intrigued by how many of the techniques and block patterns used in the quilts were familiar to me as a modern quilter, despite being up to 300 years old.  It makes me feel a sense of kinship with my fore-sisters, as you look at how they have fussy-cut a fabric, or chopped off their points to make a block fit, or chosen colours to accentuate their applique.  What do they say? 'Everything old is new again!'

1 comment:

Daisy said...

It sounds wonderful. Thanks for the review!

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