‘The Tudors’ versus ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’



There will be a hiatus in posts to my blog for a couple of weeks as the marking season is upon us and all distractions must be minimised.  So if you have an alert for new posts, it won’t have packed up, there just won’t be much new for a couple of weeks.

Before plunging into the annual festival of marking, though, I wanted to mention finding the BBC’s very old Six Wives of Henry VIII on DVD in the bargain bin in Sainsbury’s the other Saturday.  I was astonished to find that this came out in 1970.  I watched it with my parents as a very impressionable young thing; I think that’s where my lifelong guilty pleasure in all things Tudor comes from.  I even made my parents take me, with my best friend Irene, to an exhibition of the costumes in Birmingham.  At the time there was great interest in the making of the series, and I remember reading somewhere that they had made the oak panelling very pale because it would have been a honey colour when it was new and not the dark brown we see now as it has aged.  That sort of  application of historical accuracy felt very new.  But there was also quite a lot about how cheaply the costumes had been produced to such sumptuous effect.  A lot of the damask for example was gold paint sprayed on through lace, and the rich jewellery was made up of bits from a ironmongery.  When we saw the costumes close up this was highly evident.  They looked like they had been furnished by a plumbers’ merchant.  I was surprised, then, on reviewing the series (which are very much about historical processes and politics rather than royal romps in the bedchamber) that the costumes still work on the screen.  You can just about make out the odd sink chain but all in all they look pretty magnificent.



The contrast with the recent Tudors, though, is striking.  I understand that they are made for different audiences in different times with a breathtaking forty years between them, but you watch the Six Wives if you want to know something about one take on what happened in England in the sixteenth century, whereas you watch The Tudors for the frocks and beautiful young things.  Hence:



Keith Michel became more hamstery with increasing amounts of cotton wool in his cheeks, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers grew a beard and got more Irish as they played the older Henry.  I read an interview with the costume designer for The Tudors in which she said that they had made the costumes more renaissance that medieval because that gave them more scope to make a spectacular and photogenic wardrobe.  It’s certainly true.  A lot of the Six Wives costumes are rather dowdy – but they do stay on the actors, but poor old Dorothy Tutin only got one dress as far as I could see for the whole Anne Boleyn episode.  Ms Tutin, by the way, is an example of the inspired casting.  Cranmer will always be Bernard Hepton for a generation of us.

So, The Tudors for glorious glossy entertainment and stunning visual and tactile costumes.  The Six Wives for an elegant history lesson, great acting, and a bit more realism.  Even the Medieval Historian who was passing through remarked of The Six Wives, ‘Good, isn’t it?’  Praise indeed.

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Laura Ashley: her part in my downfall

As I walked into work today in the brilliant, blazing sunshine that we are (temporarily) enjoying here, I was musing on what to blog about as there has been a bit of a gap recently.  The reason for the gap is that I am employed on some good old-fashioned patchwork and quilting and it takes considerably longer than machine quilting – and the results are less showy.  But there is something very therapeutic indeed about doing it.  So at the moment I am working on another death quilt to counterpoint the previous heavily embellished one that I wrote about in a previous post.  But these things take time.

The interesting thing for me is just how much this Laura Ashley project has slowed me down – like slow-cooking or the slow-city movement.  All that handsewing gives you time to think.

So, my thoughts, as I was walking in (thinking at three miles an hour as the psychogeographers sometimes refer to it), fell to Laura Ashley.  Here are a few random thoughts and some pictures.

  1. I wonder just how many quilters began with those 50p bit bags from Laura Ashley.  She probably did more to spear-head the 1970s quilting revival than any other individual.  She made it possible and accessible to a whole generation who didn’t have access to US printed cottons (and there weren’t even that many of them).
  2. Having said this, I wonder just how much money I have spent on this hobby/obsession over the years.  I know it isn’t up there with collecting vintage Bulgari or dressage, but still.  Would the mortgage be nearer to being paid off?  Would our house be more immaculately decorated?  Would we have needed that loft conversion?
  3. If I hadn’t taken up quilting though, would I have made such wonderful life-long friends in Bristol?  Would I have had quite such a clear case example in front of me of the glue which holds British life together – unnoticed, unthanked middle-aged middle-class women who just get on with it?

Historians (unfortunately the wrong sort, according to the Medieval Historian) sometimes deal in counterfactuals – what would have happened if – so what would have happened if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, Henry VIII had had a son with Katherine of Aragon, Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch longer, that sort of thing.  What if I had never come across Laura Ashley and patchwork?  Would I have found another outlet for whatever makes me want to create?  Or would I have done something quite different?  And what would have happened if I had ever been the sort of woman to have been able to wear this:

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The Joy of Drawing

In recent weeks I have seem to have been doing a lot of work on my drawing, and I have started really to enjoy it, and to believe that I can draw what I want to my satisfaction.  I did a great on-line drawing course with Access Art which is a website and resource mainly for art teachers but also for people like me who are interested in drawing and thinking skills.  There were lots of lovely confidence building exercises, and it’s a bit of a shame that they have taken the galleries down because there as some nice work.   Here’s a continuous line drawing of some trees from a walk with my dog, Harry, and of buttercups and clover, in which I learned continuous line drawing works best with fairly fine media like pens or harder pencils:

An interesting sideline to this is that I have started doing a lot more drawing in my workbooks.  So, for example, while I was at my mother’s I read an article in one of her patchwork magazines about finding inspiration for quilting designs  and working them up rather than just taking a photo.  So here is a page from my workbook/sketchbook on adapting a photograph of some wall paper from a magazine:

And the same from a piece of computer woven silk in the exhibition currently on in Nottingham Castle Museum, using images from the leaflet which accompanied the show:

This one was interesting to me because I had intended to sit down and work with the outline of the robe, which I think  is wonderful and which I have used before.  I fancied making a quilt using the outline in a lot of very decorative fabrics using fusible applique which I might still do, but in the event it was looking closely at the images from silk on the left hand side of the photograph which turned out to be the source of inspiration for continuous line quilting.

So, I am very struck, once again, by the delight in using a skill.  I think of the current B&Q TV advertisement – which is a DIY superstore in the UK – with ‘ordinary people’ standing back saying, ‘I did this.’  It’s a bit tacky but that feeling of accomplishment in the work of the hands is something I really understand, and something I think, if enough people experienced it, would be a societal good.  Making, as I have observed with others before, is connecting.

By the way: for some reason I cannot get the photograph of the drawing of beads at the top of this post the right way up.  I have tried several times, but I think you get the idea.

What I did at the weekend.

This weekend was my mother’s birthday so we went up to Nottingham for an overnight trip.  While we were there mum suggested that she would like to go to an exhibition at the Castle – the Robin Hood cash-in souvenir-drenched Castle.  I really wanted an Alan Rickman style Sheriff of Nottingham handpuppet, and if I could have thought of a way to work it into a lecture, I would have bought one.  But I digress.

The exhibition was on Chinese silk, and was a collaboration with the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou.  I don’t think it is a travelling exhibition, so a trip to Nottingham will be necessary to see it.  It’s on until the 16 September 2012, though, so plenty of time.  There were two other really interesting exhibitions on with it.  One was a show of Chinese silk from the museum’s collection curated by the museum’s Young Art Collective, and a staircase exhibition called ‘The Styling Project 2’ which was a series of stunning photos of fashion and textile ‘concepts’ inspired by the show done by students from Nottingham Trent University School of Art and Design.  These were very witty and made me smile which is a great way to approach the show.

I am not particularly inspired by Chinese artefacts for some reason, but this was a really lovely show, Living in Silk: Chinese Textiles Through 5000 Years.  Quite simply, it had some gorgeous things.  Some exquisite lengths of woven silk, some stunning embroidered robes, interesting pieces of very old fabrics, which reminded me a lot of the trend for distressing fabric and making it look like ancient fragments that you can see in most reasonably sized contemporary textile shows.  It had a gorgeous ‘rooster’ cushion, which I thought I might be able to reproduce.  I can’t find a photograph of it, but here’s my quick sketch:

The original was quite large and I thought it might be scaled down to make an ‘object’.  Lovely shape, though.

I am not a connoisseur, so I don’t have that much to report, except that it was a nice thing to go to, and very imaginatively curated with great supporting activities.  Nottingham Castle Museum seems to have a policy of supporting textile exhibitions, possibly because of the city’s long association with the lace and hosiery and lingerie industries.  They are always quite small so you can get round in  under an hour without being exhausted.  There is a very nice cafe and bookshop.  And you get in free with an Art Fund card.  Highly recommended.

Art for art’s sake and women’s fancywork


A couple of days ago I posted on art for art’s sake and what the point of my quilts was.  If you were interested in that debate, you might be interested in the following quotation from Constance Classen’s book on touch.  She is describing the dismissive account of Dorothy Nevill’s craftwork.  Nevill was a Victorian craftworker:

While no one expects art to be useful, women’s work can still be condemned as frivolous if it has no practical function.  Particularly ironic is the fact that, while Nevill is presented as a ‘master’ of her craft, her mastery turns out to be worthless as her craft is deemed to be useless.  Indeed, to be a ‘master’ of ‘fancywork’ appears ridiculous as it unites the notion of masculine artistic dominion with the practice of a trivial feminine pastime.

Classen, C. (2005) ‘Feminine tactics: Crafting an alternative aesthetics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ in C. Classen (ed) The Book of Touch.  London: Berg.  228-239.



I was reading the book for a paper I am writing on touch.  I am often struck by the coincidences in research – reading a book for an entirely different reason suddenly throws up a thought on another quite different project, but in a weirdly timely way.  Classen’s book has lots of very short, interesting and well-chosen pieces on touch in a variety of forms, and is much more approachable than a lot of the strictly phenomenological works on the subject that are around.

My new look

I thought I would have a new look to the blog for spring.  So I hope you like the new design.  I thought I should have some of my own work in the header rather than a piece of braid.  I liked the red beads and sequins and pine green and gold for winter, but this is designed to look a bit more Springlike.  So here’s hoping, after all the rain we’ve had here.

Art for Art’s Sake

On Friday night I gave a talk to the Bristol Branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild.  It went very well.  I did my hour and they gave me a very generous cheque for Medecins sans Frontiers.  Everyone was happy and they have home made flapjacks with their tea and coffee which is certainly worth remembering.  There were lots of questions, more than usual, with quite a few people asking real ‘how to’ questions, questions about materials and sourcing them, technical questions on phototransfer onto fabric and so on.  In the middle of all this was a question which I don’t tend to get asked very often in environments in which I am talking to makers: what are they for?  For academics this is the equivalent of the so what question, another one everyone dreads.  What do you make these quilts for?  It’s a good and fair question.  But I was, on reflection, a bit disappointed by my response.

I started to talk about using the pieces in my work, and using them as the basis for writing learned journal articles.  It’s a fair enough, academic justification answer, but a bit of a dull one.  What I should have said along with Oscar Wilde in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, is  ‘All art is quite useless’.  Or, despite the fact that it sounds so pretentious, is because I have to.  I don’t feel as if I have much choice in it.  I get very frustrated if I don’t get the opportunity to make, as I have mentioned recently.  I do it because I have to work things out in three dimensions using colour and texture.  I do it to see what I make.  To paraphrase Karl Weick, how can I know what I think until I see what I make?  Making my pieces is part of my thinking.  And, I like to make beauty.  Again, it sounds pretentious, so although I can’t afford a lot of very beautiful objets but I can make simulations of them.   So what are they for?  They are for me.


In which I return to my sewing machine



In a recent post I was complaining about not having enough time to do any stitching and how edgy and nervous this made me felt.  Well, this week I have managed to get upstairs to my work room to do some sewing.  It’s a quick post for quilters today, really, to show the results.  Just for fun I started to stitch together the leftover strips from a workshop I went to with my Grate Frends Ceri, Ruth, Becky and Alison.  I might blog later about how the leftovers turned into sub-Mark Rothkos, but I wanted to concentrate today on the stitching.  One of the scraps had lots of bark-y texture and I wanted to reflect that in the quilting on the plainer fabrics and so I ‘invented’ (there is nothing new of course) a more spiky bark-like stitch, seen at the top of the post and also here,where you can see the lovely hand dyed (not by me) fabric:



Quite a relief from the techniques where you aren’t supposed to cross over your lines!  I also did some of my favourite bubble quilting which in this close-up does look a bit amateurish:



And I finished off with a bit of gentle hand quilting while watching Castle, one of my guilting pleasures while the medieval historian was out spreading the word:



Pictures of the finished pieces – which are very small, as soon as they are done.

Exactly what impact does my research have?

When it comes to making an impact there is no-one quite like Barbra

When it comes to making an impact there is no-one quite like Barbra

Earlier this week I was invited to take part in a post-graduate conference on the impact of our research.  This is all about the Government’s latest requirement that academics give some thought to the social impact of their research, so not do other academics like it, or do other academics like you, but what impact does it have in the world at large.  This sounds fair enough.  We have been accused of being stuck in our ivory towers for years and this is an attempt to see what we have to say to ‘ordinary’ people and how what we do changes their lives.  Fair enough.  There is a slight problem that previous governments have spent years tinkering with policy so that all that matters in universities is research ratings.  My promotion is entirely determined (although my university would argue) on the numerical rankings of the journals I publish in, and the really prestigious ones favour very conservative work.  But that’s my problem.  No-one said being a self-expressive child of the hippy sixties was going to be easy.  But it is difficult suddenly to stop being interested in research rankings and start to think about impact.  Like trying to turn that battleship on a sixpence really.

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I was brushing my teeth (when most of my most interesting thoughts pop up).  My work has quite a lot of interest for quilters and embroideres and I share it with a very particular community regularly.  This blog which has readers across the world, for example, ought to count, but doesn’t.  Nothing published on the web counts for anything in this regime, even though it is the medium which stands the most chance of making scholarship accessible on a mass scale.  That aside, tomorrow evening I will be talking to the Bristol Embroiderers’ Guild about my work.  I regularly go and engage with the community and disseminate the findings of my research.  But again this doesn’t count.  The groups are too small.  Impact has to be to do with large community projects and advising government ministers, maybe even contributing to the drafting of EU legislation – very large scale stuff indeed.  Again, this is fair enough.  The impact agenda is about ensuring that public funding is going to worthwhile useful work.  The problem, of course, is who decides what is worthwhile.  Is someone researching the door lintels in fourteenth-century cathedrals in a region of France worthwhile?  Yes, of course, if we believe history, culture and anthropology are important.  It’s an old argument in a new form.

But to return to my work, I have a sneaking feeling that we are in the territory of my Laura Ashley work.  The women I am slowly interviewing somehow don’t really count.  They are invisible.  They are not particularly oppressed, stigmatised, Othered, poor or excluded.  They tend to be white, middle-class(ish), middle-aged and part of a nuclear family.  And so we become transparent.  The Government-backed exercise for my discipline has a panel entirely composed of white, middle-class, middle-aged men (pale, stale males) and they very probably go home to the sort of women in my sample every night.  Why would they be interested in reading about them or thinking about their lives?

Finally, when I do my talks I ask for a donation to charity.  My favourite charity is Medecins sans Frontiers.  I support them because they are first into any disaster, the last to leave and everyday they have to make decisions that I would never ever be able to take.  So, one of the impacts of my research could be seen to be saving the lives of people none of us will ever meet.  Which is, indirectly, quite something, and most definitely impactful if it’s your life being saved.

Bit of a rant today, for which I apologise, and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own and do not, of course, reflect the official viewpoint of the University of Bristol.  But it feels better to get it off my chest!

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Blue, blue, electric blue



I posted last week about the frustrations of not being able to get down to any stitching, so last night as the medieval historian was working, I got down to some serious sewing in my workroom.  Except when I got up there ready to do something flamboyant and fantastic, I found a small quilt made for a talk I am planning on my work on Laura Ashley sitting there waiting for a binding.  So, I thought I should do that.  Then I did a bit of quilting on a sample of transfer dyeing which has been lying about for years and then I got down to work on this which is sewing the very last scraps of fabric from a group quilt I am making with St Andrew’s Quilters, the small sewing group that I have belonged to for years.  This is going to be ‘my’ quilt and it is a very simple design taken from one of Kaffe Fassett’s books, intended to use up a lot of blue fabric which I have had for years in a drawer.  I would, as my mother would say, rather have its room than its company.

Anyway, I stitched the strips down onto a very old piece of Laura Ashley needlecord and a small piece of cotton wadding and I liked the effect.  But it clearly needed something more, so I did some seeding in bright yellow perle cotton which is very thick and a nightmare to sew.



I may or may not put some beads on it.  I may put a facing on it and mount it on a canvas.  Really not sure.  This one was made for the sheer joy of stitching and the delight in using up every last scrap, particularly as one of the fabrics is one of the very last that the British firm Rose and Hubble made before they closed.  And again, it makes me think of Derek Jarman’s lovely book on colour, Chroma, in which he talks about the power of blue and gold together.  I was idly planning a talk on the colour blue as I was doing the seeding.  It could be very nice, and I am really taken with the idea of blue as the colour of utopia.  Then again, I could get on with the day job!