Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Quilts 1700-2010


Quilts 1700-2010
March 20 – July 4, 2010
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Blockbuster exhibitions are curious beasts and this exhibition proved to be no exception. Three centuries of British quilt making and patchwork were tackled here, making even the most seasoned museum visitor in need of significant reserves of stamina and patience. As one British reviewer recently noted, stilettos and a magnifying glass proved necessary ammunition against the swarms of crowds and some awkward display decisions. Setting quilts flat on bed mounts, for example, and erecting walls effectively suggested a domestic setting but severely limited viewing. Ironically the ‘success’ of this exhibition (if gauged by visitor numbers), made the viewing experience a real trial.

The marathon route was organised both chronologically and around five themes: “The Domestic Landscape” (18th century), “Private Thoughts; Political Debates” (19th century), “Virtue and Virtuosity” (late 19th century), “Making a Living” (early 20th century), “Meeting the Past”. Contemporary works were interspersed within these themes to illustrate current engagement with topics quilters have long addressed. Also included were quotes from contemporary makers, perhaps in an effort to rectify the anonymity forced upon quilters of the past.

Setting the historical and the contemporary side-by-side resulted, at times, in powerful thematic comparisons. For example, the “Virtue and Virtuosity” section includes Grayson Perry’s Right to Life, patterned with a repeating image of a foetus. Perry’s quilt was displayed above a Scripture Coverlet, which we learn was used in hospitals to provide not only warmth but also spiritual comfort for patients. In “Meeting the Past” quilts made during the Second World War were displayed alongside contemporary work that tackles current violence. For example, Jennifer Vickers’ The Presence of Absence is made of 38,000 blank white paper squares. The accompanying text explains that the squares represent the estimated number of civilians killed in Iraq from 2003 onwards. (In the same time span one hundred British soldiers were killed.) In contrast Griselda Lewis’ coverlet made of blackout curtains is a reminder of past wartime measures that took place on British soil and within the home.

In between the astounding detail of the historical examples on display were a few positive surprises. Annie O’Hare’s Pyjama coverlet, for example, was made in the 1940s from striped fabric supplied by local Belfast textile factories. The accompanying explanation notes that “the stripes do not line up, possibly signifying the maker was openly defying the perfect, machine-made products produced in the factory”. The HMP Wandsworth Quilt is a collaboration commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the charity Fine Cell Work. An all male group of inmates at London’s Wandsworth prison quilted what is a forthright record of the makers’ regrets, hopes and fears and confirms the ability of quilting to adapt and contribute to the needs of our contemporary society. We may no longer be in need of warmth to protect us against long harsh winters. Instead we are in desperate need of counsel and comfort from our social troubles. The Glasgow based print company Timorous Beasties fabric North and South provides another social commentary and appears in work undertaken by the north London workshop Louis Moreau, where quilts are created to order. The inclusion of the company is a different example of contemporary quilting carving a specialist niche market that responds to the reality of our current time-poor interests.

Curator Sue Pritchard has also edited two accompanying books: Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories and Patchwork for Beginners for the exhibition. In the current economic climate it is understandable that popular exhibitions and accompanying publications are vital to the stability of large institutions. But in this case, the scale and popularity of this exhibition created a problem for viewers battling the enthusiastic crowds. The museum may, in fairness, have underestimated the public’s response and, I would hope, have handled some of the displays differently if the popularity of ticket sales had been fully understood in advance.

The exhibition may also have attempted to cover just a little too much ground. The curator and museum deserve recognition for the significant historical material on display, but the contemporary works included are not the strength of this exhibition. Technical problems meant that video work by Nicola Naismith was not working on the day of my visit and an awkward display meant Clio Padovani’s video shown through a small screen on a shelf was difficult to catch through the crowds. There were also a number of recent works that felt as though the quilt became something of a forced template for the work. One standout exception was the remarkable subtle beauty of Diana Harrison’s Box 1 and Box 11, which are both undeniably contemporary in their aesthetic and accomplished in their making.

Crowds and access aside, this exhibition held one final lesson: with few exceptions, the skill and content apparent in the historical quilts and patchwork on display should humble us all.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2011: 60-61)