This is a slightly blurry photo of a detail of The Greek Slave Quilt which was one of the exhibits in the recent magnificent quilt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I went twice and only noticed this quilt on my second visit where I was suddenly entranced by it.
What interests me is the way that the meaning of the quilt changes as the stories about the woman (probably) who made it change. Originally it was thought that it must have been made by a woman living on a farm as it has a picket fence design round the edge and lots of horses and other domestic animals pictured in its applique. This was the opinion of Averil Colby (1900-1983), one of the great figures in the English patchwork and quilting revival. (There will be a retrospective exhibition about her legacy at the Quilters’ Guild Museum in York in 2011, http://www.quiltmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/forthcoming/the-averil-colby-legacy.html). This went unchallenged until a researcher at the V&A looked more closely at the applique figures, one of which is pictured here. What that researcher saw was a particularly well-known statue by Hiram Powers (1805-1873) called the Greek Slave.
It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and the pose in the applique and crucially the presence of the post to which the woman is chained, suggest very strongly that the woman who made it was not a farmer celebrating the joys of country life through chickens and horses and picket fences but a cultured woman who had either been to the Great Exhibition, or seen pictures or read magazines and was copying what she had seen. Suddenly this becomes a very different piece as it is a heavily appliqued coverlet, meaning it has no wadding and so was not used for warm bedding. It is much more likely to be a hobby piece.
I’ll return to the piece in later posts, but I was intrigued by the shifting meanings of the story and decided to make my own version.