Monday, 2 February 2009

Rare Nineteenth Century Quilt

National Gallery Victoria hangs beautiful and rare early nineteenth century quilt

Late in 2007 the National Gallery Victoria (NGV) acquired, through generous donation, a rare and valuable ‘frame’ quilt about which very little was known. The quilt was given to the donor two decades earlier by someone who had, in turn, been given it by relatives who were also unacquainted with the original maker.

Quilting was a common pastime of genteel and middle-class women in colonial Australia, yet there are only a few extant examples of these quilts in Australian collections. Quilts of this type were particularly popular in the first half of the 19th century, with examples using similar fabrics and designs found in England (and subsequently Australia) from between 1800 and 1860.

A large medallion-style, pieced patchwork, the quilt comprises many graduating, linear borders around a central panel. The particularly impressive central design consists of appliquéd cotton chintz partridge and flower motifs executed in the broderie perse technique (a technique used to appliqué small flowers and leaves using a tiny chain stitch). While on the reverse, embroidered in black cotton cross stitch is the enigmatic dedication: E. Dickins / The Gift of Her Mother / Finished When 60 Years / Of Age.

Sadly for us, no date accompanies this dedication, although it has been suggested that the embroidered ‘signature’ may mean that the quilt was sent to an early Australian settler as a gift – a practice that has been previously documented.

When the quilt first arrived at the NGV it was in a fragile condition. Damp storage had caused mould and mildew to develop while the presence of iron in dye mordants had corroded fibres, resulting in areas of discoloration and loss over time. The surface of the quilt was badly soiled and despite initial cleaning with a low-suction vacuum, it still appeared grimy.

On the recommendation of our Textile Conservator a wet-cleaning treatment in de-ionised water was undertaken (to remove degradation products and to minimise their effect on the quilt in the future). The challenge, however, was the quilt’s large size. A tank was custom-built by NGV’s Conservation Art Technician, which enabled the quilt to be completely submerged. At times this required the assistance of nearly all the conservation staff! Yet the result has left the quilt in a much-improved state both visually and structurally.

Through the process of acquisition and a combination of expert opinion and curatorial knowledge, the NGV has also endeavoured to recover some of this quilt’s lost history.

A quilt is usually dated from the most recent fabrics used in it. In this case, we discovered that many of the printed cotton fabrics along the outer patchwork bands were similar to those seen in 1840s dresses from the NGV Fashion & Textiles Collection. The floral chintz was also found to resemble fabrics from the 1830s. The most exciting revelation, however, was that the central bird chintz fabric could be identified as an English furnishing chintz called Partridge and May Tree printed circa 1815, making our quilt a valuable piece of textile history.

While the name of the maker and the actual date of the quilt’s completion may never be known, it remains a rare surviving example of textile endeavour and a significant example of early domestic skilled handicraft.

The quilt has just been hung on the 2nd floor of National Gallery Victoria at Federation Square, Melbourne and will be on display until March 2009. Entry is FREE.

National Gallery of Victoria 180 St Kilda Road Melbourne Vic 3004 Australia
Telephone: +61 3 8620 2345 Mobile: 0438 582 727Fax: +61 3 8620

Keep informed of the latest NGV exhibitions, special events and programs atThe Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia and NGV International by subscribing to NGV@RT, the NGV's free e-newsletter.

Annette Gero helps NGV to aquire their new wonderful old quilt & identifies the central 1815 fabric, "Partridge & May Tree"

This quilt has an interesting story. It turned up some time ago at the Victorian Quilters, annual Quilt Show and was shown to Mary Hitchens, the President of Vic Quilters. It was obviously special, so the owner was advised to donate it to a museum or institution. The owner tried four times and each time the quilt came back with words like "doesn't fit into our collection? or "it is the wrong time period?!

Meantime, Annette Gero was researching the early fabrics in several other wonderful early 19th century quilts for inclusion in her new book "The Fabric of Society, Australia's Quilt Heritage from Convict Times to 1960, (See for information about the book, The Fabric of Society). As soon as Annette heard about this new quilt she was keen to include it in her book and the delighted owner gave her permission.

Research into the fabrics of the quilt by Annettte revealed that "The bird chinz fabric in the centre of the quilt was an English furnishing chinz called Partridge & May Tree printed c1815. It is block printed in madder colours with pencilled blue on a tea ground. The birds and trees appeared in many fabric variations between 1814 and 1816 *This Partridge & May Tree fabric is in the Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile collection, however there are also reproductions and Annette found a roll of it in the USA. She was able to send the NGV some of this reproduction fabric so it can be exhibited with the quilt when it is on show. In addition Annette found that "The floral chintz within some of the outer borders is unknown but has been dated against similar fabrics from c.1830. The flowers along the border are very similar to those in the centre of a chintz quilt brought to Australia from England by the LLoyd family in 1833 (also in her book) and the fabrics here date from c1825-30.

* Several months after undertaking her research into the quilt Annette was contacted by the textile curator at NGV to say they had been offered an old quilt and could she give them an opinion as to whether this was an important quilt! The curator obviously knew this was a wonderful example of an early 19th century quilt but the acquisition committee needed an outside opinion. Annette's research on the fabrics was invaluable in providing this proof. There are about 10 such quilts in Australia of similar age and quality of early fabrics. These quilts are probably equal to any other quilts of their period found in the world. We are extremely fortunate to have them in this country as part of our quilt heritage.

Annette Gero 2009

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