Quilts stimulate memories of warmth, comfort and security. They are familiar objects, yet carry a range of hidden histories and untold stories about textiles, women’s creativity and individual families. British quilts were often intended for display as much as for use in the bedroom. Whether exchanged as commodities, made in professional workshops or created in the home, they became objects of immense family value, often handed down through the generations.
Patchwork and quilting have long histories, although the anonymity of the makers and a lack of written documentation make it difficult to trace their development. Unfortunately, skills traditionally passed from generation to generation have a tendency to be lost, as they were in Britain in the early twentieth century. However, a desire for the handmade and a need to make do and mend has ensured that new generations of quilters continue to find ways to express their creativity through fabric and stitch.
For our last ‘Quilts 1700-1945’ profile we focus on this quilted cot cover. Priscilla Redding was born at Deal Castle in Kent, where her father was governor. She was married in 1691 in Canterbury, where she is likely to have obtained the silk velvets, satins and silver-gilt fabrics used in this quilted cot cover. Her contemporary, the English traveller Celia Fiennes (1662–1741) described Canterbury in 1697 as ‘a flourishing town’ with ‘good tradeing in ye weaving of silks’; shopping for goods for the home was one of its primary attractions.
‘Quilts 1700–1945’ from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, must close Sunday 22 September 2013. Spend the last Sunday at the Gallery with our Sunday Stitch-ups in the Sculpture Courtyard from 12 noon. Enjoy hands-on workshops, contemporary talks and Suitcase Rummage markets with local designers, crafting and vintage enthusiasts.
The Gallery has been honoured with the generous gift of four works on paper, including two lithographs after Edgar Degas (1834–1917), from the Margaret Olley Art Trust. These prints introduce two themes of interest to the great impressionist.
Images of horseracing were a primary focus for Edgar Degas throughout his career. The spectacle of the race itself was a relatively modern phenomenon in France in the mid to late 1800s. The Hippodrome de Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne in the outskirts of Paris opened in 1857, with its spring racing season becoming an important event in the social calendar of Parisian society, and the movement, colour and glamour of Longchamp became the subject matter for Degas’s equestrian scenes, which typified a modern urban landscape of leisure and novelty.
In the mid 1880s, Edgar Degas became involved with a number of professional printers working in Paris. Notable among them was lithographer Georges William Thornley (1857–1935), and his Les Jockeys (The jockeys) c.1888–89 is a copy in reverse after Degas’s pastel drawing Before the race c.1887–89, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. It is a proof ‘before letters’, signed by both Degas and Thornley, and was published in Quinze lithographies d’après Degas (1889) by Boussod, Valadon & Cie (19 Boulevard Montmatre, Paris) in 1889, in an edition of 100 impressions (plus 25 proofs).
Le Bain (The tub) c.1888 is after Degas’s pastel drawing Le tub 1886, in the collection of Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and was made for the same portfolio. The print is signed, on the stone, by Thornley and inscribed with the publication details, including the publisher’s name and address and the printer, ‘Becquet’, a Parisian printing studio established in the 1830s.
From the 1880s on, Degas became increasingly focused on the figure in his compositions. Known for his realist tendencies, an essential part of the artist’s work was his attempt to capture people in natural or unguarded moments. In a significant series of pastels created in the 1880s, Degas depicted women bathing or at their toilette. In these works, Degas rejected the conventional poses of the academic nude and showed the figure ‘preoccupied with herself’, as though unaware of being observed. These prints by Thornley reveal Degas’s extraordinarily modern attitude towards how his work should be viewed, reproduced and distributed. Le Bain makes an interesting partner to Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit (Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot), the superb bronze sculpture recently given to the Gallery by Philip Bacon, AM, in honour of Margaret Olley, AC. Both depict a woman ‘caught unawares’ in an unusual pose. Both prints and sculpture are intriguing examples of Degas’s ambivalent attitude to female beauty, as well as his interest in suggesting, through unconventional viewpoints, the character of the modern age.
There is something about quilts that inspires an emotional and very personal response, and through-out the exhibition ‘Quilts 1700-1945’, you can hear visitors talking about people and objects from their childhoods that have been evoked by the objects on display. The Gallery has also received a significant amount of correspondence in relation to the exhibition and the connections people have found within their own lives.
One piece of correspondence that stood out to us as particularly poignant was a poem sent in by Adelaide poet Elaine Barker. Elaine had heard Curatorial Manager of International Art, Exhibitions and Research, Dr Miranda Wallace talking with Fenella Kernebone on Radio National and was particularly interested to learn that the exhibition included a number of quilts and patchworks made by women working in economically depressed areas of Northern Ireland, North East England and Wales during the early decades of the twentieth century. Prompted by her interest in ‘depression quilts’, Elaine sent us her poem THE QUILT, published in her second collection of poetry The Day Lit By Memory (Ginninderra, 2008), which we felt was worthy of sharing along with some images of the beautiful patchworks on display in ‘Quilts 1700-1945’ that inspired it. Do you have a story to share?
Gepps Cross Migrant Hostel, 1957
In the hostel once I saw
a quilt of rare beauty –
no shapes ranged
no diamond colours vied.
Instead, men’s suiting fashioned
each patchwork square.
The tweed’s drab symmetry
was out of place, you’d say,
in a child’s room
and on a small wooden bed.
But I felt the pull of stiches,
the painstaking making-do –
old habits reclaimed,
made new in an alien land
where light fell through
the window there
in a sunny larrikin spread.
Elaine Barker, 2008
‘Quilts 1700–1945’ from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, is on display until 22 September 2013 and is complemented with a range of programs and events. An exhibition publication is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store or online.
Walker Evans AmericanPhotographs and Robert Frank The Americans, two of the most important and influential North American photography books were recently acquired for the Gallery’s Research Library Collection with the generous support of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.
In 1938, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held ‘Walker Evans: American Photographs’, the first solo exhibition of work by a photographer. The catalogue American Photographs, published to coincide with the exhibition, reproduced 87 photographs taken between 1929 and 1937 from across the United States. However, over half of the photographs were taken in the south and date from 1935–36, when Walker Evans (1903–75) was employed by the Farm Security Administration (the purpose of which was to document the plight of the rural poor in the ‘dust bowl’ during the Great Depression, in order to secure support for then US president Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’). Structured in two parts — the first focusing on portraits and the second on vernacular North American architecture — each image was presented individually on the page with no accompanying title or explanatory text. Evans was instrumental in the book’s production, allegedly paying more attention to the selection and sequence of images for the publication than he did to the exhibition.
Evans became a photographer after initially considering pursuing a career as a writer. His early academic interest in realism and modernism in French literature, which led him to Paris in 1926, proved profoundly influential on his approach to photography when he returned to New York and took up the practice in 1928. Focusing on the cultural reality of America — as it appeared rather than perceived itself to be — Evans traversed the country photographing in a direct manner, free of pictorial artifice and stylistic mannerisms, while always remaining acutely conscious of how his images were composed and received. American Photographs became one of the most influential photography publications of the twentieth century, establishing Evans’s reputation as North America’s preeminent modern photographer.
Among the many young photographers working in New York in the 1950s to be influenced by Walker Evans was Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank (b.1924). In 1955, with encouragement from Evans, Frank received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation that allowed him to spend two years photographing freely in order to compile a photographic record of American culture. In 1955–56, Frank made numerous road trips across the United States, taking thousands of photographs with a small, 35mm Leica camera. Selecting 92 of these images (83 appeared in the final publication), he made a maquette based on Evans’s American Photographs, in which he arranged his images in four sequences, each beginning with an American flag and exploring a different aspect of contemporary American culture.
Grainy and fragmented, Robert Frank’s photographs were an intuitive and cinematic index of consumer culture, individual freedom, racism, religion, politics and paranoia in 1950s ‘McCarthy era’ America. Unable to find an American publisher, the book was published in France in 1958 by Robert Delpire as Les Américains. Unhappy with the editorial decisions made in the French edition, The Americans was published the following year by Barney Rosset at Grove Press in New York in the form that Frank had originally proposed, which included an introduction by poet Jack Kerouac (1922–69). In The Americans, Frank remade Evans’s quietly empathetic modern vision, turning it into one that spoke to the beat generation’s ‘angry young men’, creating in turn one of the most important artist books of the twentieth century.
American Photographs and The Americans are on display in ‘Ever Present: Photographs from the Collection 1850–1975’ until 7 October 2013.
The speed with which photography spread across the globe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would change how the world was perceived and recorded forever. Our new exhibition explores the Gallery’s holdings of historical photography, from its earliest works by unknown artists to those of the twentieth-century masters.
Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past. Wallace Stegner (1909–93)
In January 1839, British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–77) revolutionised the modern era’s view of the world when he revealed, at the Royal Institute in London, that he had fixed a hazy image of rural England on paper using only light. While Talbot was inventing paper photographs (calotypes) in England, in August of that same year, scene painter and diorama designer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1788–1851) informed the French Academy of Science in Paris that he had captured portraits with astonishing clarity on the mirror-like surface of a silvered plate. In September 1839, just four weeks after the publication of Daguerre’s process in France, the first daguerreotype was being made in the United States. The speed and veracity with which photographic studios and professional photographers spread across the globe irreversibly changed how the world was perceived and recorded.
Within a decade of both inventions being made public they were superseded by yet another, superior process of photography. Based on Talbot’s calotype but with the clarity of the daguerreotype, the wet collodion-on-glass negative produced a crystal-clear window on the world. In Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, professional and amateur photographers alike, in possession of large yet portable cameras, took to travelling for the purpose of photographing architecture, landscapes and people. Photography quickly became the most immediate means by which knowledge was gathered about the ‘character’ of other cultures and geographies, succeeding earlier, and slower, painted and printed views. Playing an extraordinary role in the transformation of visual culture, photographs touched on many aspects of people’s lives while documenting, by their very existence, the progressive triumph of mechanisation and technology.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the far-reaching implications for art and centuries of artistic tradition were just beginning to be realised. Photographers began to grapple with the medium’s artistic potential by attempting to emulate the compositions and effects of European painting. What came to define photography in the early twentieth century, however, was not the ability of a photograph to emulate painting but the ability of the photographer to capture, in a fraction of a second, what Henri Cartier- Bresson termed ‘the decisive moment’. Armed with ever smaller and faster cameras, photographers took to the streets to record, document and capture the modern world, and, in doing so over the course of its first 125 years, a modern visual repertoire — a ‘common language’ of photography — was developed, encoded and endlessly repeated.
Reflecting the arbitrary nature of photography’s beginnings, ‘Ever Present’ shows photographs by unknown nineteenth-century photographers alongside iconic images by the twentieth century’s recognised masters of photography, including Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Max Dupain, Richard Daintree, Alfred Stieglitz, Weegee, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and more. Separated into seven themes, the works on display point to the many stories that have contributed to the history of photography.
‘Ever Present: Photographs from the Collection 1850–1975’ is currently on display at the Queensland Art (QAG) until 7 October 2013.
In his political sonnet England in 1819 the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) described King George III (1738-1820) as “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”. Working some 20 years prior the unknown maker of the patchwork Coverlet withKing George III Reviewing the Troops 1803-05, held a very different, although no less political, view of George III.
The Coverlet with King George Reviewing the Troops 1803-05,is one of the most memorable and fascinating patchworks on display in ‘Quilts 1700-1945’. An unlined appliquéd and patchwork coverlet made from plain and printed cottons dating from 1790-1800 andmeasuring almost 3 metres square, the piece is named after the central panel that depicts an image copied from a print made after a painting by Royal Academy artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), showing King George III reviewing the volunteer troops in Hyde Park, London, in 1799. While the border comprises 40 appliquéd vignettes showing images of domestic and navel scenes that have been drawn from a variety of patriotic and satirical popular prints in circulation in Britain at the turn of the 19th century- this wide use of popular printed imagery, and the representation of a printing press in the centre top vignette has led to the belief that the maker of this coverlet was directly involved in the huge and lucrative printing industry that operated in Britain during the 18th-19th century.
The reign of King George III, (1760-1820), was a period in Britain marked by domestic and foreign instability, (the American War of Independence 1770s-80s, the French Revolution 1789, Act of Union 1801), as well as one that saw the establishment of the UK as a major industrial, political, military and cultural superpower. This period saw an explosion in the production and sale of reproductive prints taken from history paintings and satirical prints catering to the general public’s appetite for news, current events and political debates. This craze for patriotic prints reached its heyday in the 1790s when the excitement over France’s declaration of war on England in 1793, boosted production of sales, especially for Anti-Napoleonic propaganda.
Coverlet with King George III Reviewing the Troops 1803-15,whichis both indicative of the middle class tastes of its maker and the wide-spread political participation and debate occurring in Georgian Britain, is made even more remarkable by the inclusion in two of the vignettes showing naval scenes of the head and shoulders of a young woman believed to be a self-portrait of the maker- literally stitching her-self into the pages of history.
Want to read more about the works? Published to coincide with our exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, Quilts 1700–1945is a beautiful publication celebrating more than 200 years of British quilts and patchwork, drawn from the V&A’s rich textile collection. ‘Quilts 1700-1945’ is on display at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) until 22 September 2013.