Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Vorticism and quilting

Being averagely blokey, I’ll admit to a degree of resistance to the Kirstie-ish world of quilting. But when my wife recently dragged me through the doors of the York Quilt Museum, I was pleasantly converted. The main exhibition, till the end of this month, is “The Blossoming of Patchwork”, a hugely impressive display of British patchwork quilts and coverlets from the 1780’s to the 1820’s. Their instinctive good judgement puts to shame the neighbouring small show of 1990’s pieces, which, in sad contrast, manage somehow to combine overly brash colouring with a new-agey cheesiness.

One historical piece that made me think twice was a large quilt made up of half-square triangles, their sizes doubling in stages towards the margins. No image of this seems to be available online, but here’s a modern quilt based on roughly the same scheme, with a smaller triangle piece from the York collection that will give the approximate idea:

modern trianglestriangles

Are we looking here at the genesis of David Bomberg’s extraordinary 1913-14 paintings Ju-Jitsu and In the Hold? Perhaps not, given that there seems to have been no tradition of patchwork quilting among the working class Jewish communities in which Bomberg was raised. On the other hand, the similarity is striking, and an actual convergence of craft and early modernism did take place during these precise years in the productions of the Omega Workshop and the Rebel Art Centre, with which Bomberg would have been familiar, though not directly involved.



In the Hold

In the Hold

Images of the studies for the two paintings, in Richard Cork’s 1988 Tate catalogue of Bomberg, show exactly the same grids pencilled in. Not surprising, given that this type of squaring up has long been a standard method of enlargement from the study to the canvas, and Bomberg had employed it previously. What is surprising is that, in the process of drawing up Ju-Jitsu, he clearly had the breakthrough idea of incorporating the grid into the final composition. Both grids divide the composition into quarters, sub-divide into 64 and then insert the diagonals, halving the squares in the case of Ju-Jitsu, and quartering them for the more complex In the Hold. Of the two, Ju-Jitsu resembles better the quilt pattern, being similarly divided into squares and half-square triangles, as opposed to the rectangles and quarter triangles of In the Hold. If Bomberg had seen this sort of patchwork, it may well have suggested to him the idea of making visible the triangular grid by alternating the tones of adjacent triangles. The logical next step was to counter-change the tones within the triangles to reveal the figures.

Despite the visual impact of In the Hold, it’s possible that Bomberg concluded that this technique, with such a complex image, decomposed legibility too far; he did not use it for his next major piece The Mud Bath of 1914, nor for any subsequent work, though the study for The Mud Bath is similarly gridded.

Billings coverlet

Billings coverlet

At their best, the 18th and 19th century designs on show at York balance a formal and mathematical approach to composition with a random approach to colour and tone. Perhaps not exactly random, given that the maker must consciously select each piece of fabric, but certainly allowing for an element of chance. The Billings coverlet of 1805-10, justly the centrepiece of the show, exemplifies this: the tones of the positive shapes show no regular repetition within the precise construction, so that intellect and instinct are beautifully combined here, giving the piece a sort of classical but vernacular nobility.

crazy 1crazy 2









But by the early 20th century formality and symmetry were no longer obligatory, as revealed by examples of the irregular “crazy” patchwork style in the Museum’s Heritage Collection. All of these are dated to the first two or three decades of the century. It can only have been the impact of cubism, no doubt filtered through English Vorticism, that made permissable such a revolution in patchwork design.

2 responses to “Vorticism and quilting

  1. bertcollections August 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating post. I am off to to Victoria and Albert Quilt exhibition on Brisbane soon and will look for some of the other stories behind the quilts when I am there.

  2. fredragmouse October 1, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Fascinating post, Richard, thank you. I hadn’t made the connection between painting and quilting as you have suggested; latterly, more patchworkers are turning their quilting into artworks, or ‘art quilts’. A couple of points I would like to raise though are your assumptions that a) there was no tradition of patchworking within the working class Jewish community, and b) that crazy patchwork is a direct result of the post-fin de siecle Modernist movements. To begin with, regardless of denomination or creed, there is one form or another of patchworking within all working class communities, particularly pre-war. Patchworking was just an example of the endless recycling practised by low income families where no scrap of cloth was wasted, whether it be incorporated into a ‘patch’ or into a rag rug. This is particularly true of crazy patchwork which allowed the incorporation of the smallest piece of cloth which wouldn’t normally allow for the construction of a geometric shape. There are examples of early Victorian crazy patchworks, and later in the C19, crazy patchwork became a vehicle for showing embroidery and applique skills. Having said all that, I do not doubt that prevalent art movements have their effects on trends in fabric manipulation, embellishment and design. The Arts & Crafts Movement and the Glasgow School are a case in point.
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

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