Press Release

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

War Widows’ Quilt Commemorates the Lives and Loves of War’s Forgotten Women

From 7–11 November 2019, The Queen’s House, Greenwich, will host the first ever exhibition of the War Widows’ Quilt. Made from armed forces shirts by over ninety war widows and their family members, this beautiful and moving piece of art tells many individual stories of love, loss, and grief while also shining a light on the ongoing history of war widowhood in the UK.

War Widows' Quilt test

 

The quilt, made in collaboration with arts company arthur+martha, is part of the War Widows’ Stories project, led by Dr Nadine Muller (Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University) and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA).

 

Commenting on the forthcoming exhibition, Dr Muller said:

 

“We started work on the quilt exactly a year ago in this very same venue, and nobody could have predicted then what an impactful piece of art this would become. The War Widows’ Quilt tells so many moving stories, shares so many cherished memories, and expresses so much grief as well as hope. It is a magnificent, important memorial.”

 

Theresa Davidson, whose husband served in the Scots Guards and died in the Falklands in 1982, commented:

 

“I feel such pride and real honour to share my love and grief. The love, grief, loss, and pain never leaves you. It is my own personal war!”

 

Another war widow, Angela Evans, reflected on the profound effect that contributing to the quilt had on her:

 

“It’s from the heart. One day you have everything, then the next day you’ve got nothing. Somehow it helps to say something, to express it out loud.”

 

McMenemy Alberta

 

Lead artist Lois Blackburn (arthur+martha) reflects on her work on the quilt:

 

“Sewing together the pieces into a final quilt felt a giant responsibility, but one for which I remain very grateful. I selected fabrics that had been worn by the armed forces. I carefully took apart fifty military shirts to make patches and chose a patchwork technique that deliberately echoes the quilts made by British servicemen during the Crimean War.”

 

Mrs Mary Moreland, WWA Chair, highlights the importance of this project for the Association, its members, and the wider war widows community:

 

“The quilt and the project help the Association raise awareness of the challenges war widows face every day. Our voices are sadly still absent from most public institutions, including museums. We cannot tell the stories of war without the stories of those left behind.”

 

The quilt helps address a significant gap in the public histories of war, says Sue Prichard, Senior Curator (Arts) at Royal Museums Greenwich:

 

“The Queen’s House has long been the site of female power and patronage. As such we actively seek opportunities to reveal the untold female narratives inherent in our collections. It is therefore wholly appropriate that we take this opportunity to commemorate the experiences of contemporary women within the wider context of conflict on land and at sea”.

 

The exhibition will be marked with a special celebration event at The Queen’s House on Friday, 8 November, 5–8PM. On Saturday, 9 November, artists Lois Blackburn and Phil Davenport will be hosting drop in embroidery sessions and guidance to the quilt.

War Widows’ Stories is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England, the British Academy, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it is run in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Memorial Arboretum, and Imperial War Museums.

boarder

A quilt of unending love

Projects, War Widows Stories

We are delighted that the War Widows Quilt will make its public debut at the Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich 7-11 November, for Remembrance weekend. Over 90 war widows from across Britain have made the quilt, honouring the untold history of war widows. The quilt will be on exhibition all weekend.

War Widows' Quilt 2.jpg

 

“An amazing project, a piece of history for all, for the present and the future. A quilt of unending love, pain and grief. A quilt of great honour, a true work of art.”

Theresa Davidson (contributor and war widow)

 

The quilt, made in collaboration with arthur+martha, is part of the War Widows’ Stories project, led by Dr Nadine Muller (Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University) and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA). Lois led the quiltmaking, Phil oversaw the writing. 

Using embroidery, poetry and repurposed uniforms, this is a deeply-emotional artwork. Behind the squares in the quilt and each poem are stories of grief and new beginning. All the women involved tell their stories on their own terms and in their own words:

 

”I found it very emotive doing the stitching, to sew those dates, to acknowledge them so publicly.  It was a stark reality, physically sewing. The years might pass, but the pain never goes away.”

Shirley Dodd Clark (contributor and war widow)

 

The quilt is stitched with poems, names and significant dates. Pockets contain hidden lives. Inside are writings, photos, newspaper cuttings, memories. Some are sewn shut, others can be opened.  

 

Thomas Kate, Inside

 

“The things we felt but never ever had the chance to say”  

Brenda Hillman (contributor and war widow)

 

The War Widows’ Quilt helps to break the deafening silence that has surrounded the experience of war widows for too long. But loss is universal. Made by and for war widows, this is a quilt that will bring comfort to anyone who has experienced grief. It is ultimately about all of us…

 

“Sewing my square gave me a strange sort of peace. I could think about how (my husband) died while I stitched so the sewing was giving me a control. It’s hard to explain but it worked for me.”

Lauran Hamilton (contributor and war widow)

 

Hamilton Lauran p1.

Part 1. Lauran Hamilton

 

The launch and celebration of the War Widows’ Quilt will be at Queen’s House, Ground Floor, Great Hall. 5pm-8pm all welcome. This event allows you to hear about the lives of war widows in their own words and to see the quilt. The War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, is a group that exists to improve the conditions of War Widows and their dependants in Great Britain. 

 

 

The War Widows’ Stories  was supported by Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and Liverpool John Moores University. It was run in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich. We are especially indebted to the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain.

 

 

Part of something beautiful

A Book of Ours, Projects

“I’ve turned something nightmare-ish into something else. That experience of being homeless, which I’ve never talked about. A lot of my friends didn’t know it was happening. But now those memories have become part of something beautiful. At first after the workshop I felt emotional, then over the week the feeling changed and I thought, “Wow!”

The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

 (Anonymous)

 

The manuscript making workshops at Back on Track have been a delight and a quiet haven for making. Every week our little gang of participants has gathered to painstakingly add the next words, the next artwork. Each page carries the imprint of hours of concentration. These tiny six-word inscriptions are often thought over long and hard. And then the writing is itself an exploration. For some, writing is done without hesitation, a skill completely taken for granted. But for others in the group, the act of writing is a challenge that needs to be met and overcome. The minute incidents on the page, the slips, the smudges, the shaky lines, show the struggles.

 

“I’ve never written like this before. Never had the time, or had these great pens. I like choosing the colours and then I get started. I take it slowly, slowly and the words come. Look at me now, I’ve learned from it. Better now than I’ve ever been.”

Patrick

 

Many of the pages contain the work of several people, layered together. Their words sometimes connect up, to make unexpected and moving narratives. A celebration of autumn leaves falling leads into the death of a beloved father. An account of being homeless, living in a car, leads into a line about the seasons being on the move. 

The artworks are especially enriched by collaboration, weaving of colour and image and symbol. Today in our last session, a small insect was drawn onto a panel of gold and fruit made awhile ago. It was the tiny missing element that made the whole page come alive. A careful use of muted red brought the black and grey of a winter’s page into sharp relief.

Jan detail

As we’ve worked on the Book of Ours, people have found their preferred method and style. And they’ve brought their own ideas. A knowledge of Viking history, a church oriented childhood, a feel for colour, an eye for design. And as we’ve seen above, the experience of being homeless. All these things have been brought to the Book of Ours and it is richer for it. And we’re grateful.

Today was the last workshop at Back on Track for this term. It’s been a pleasure and we are already looking forward to the next.

 

Would I change anything? No, it’s been alright, in fact it’s been really good. When you’re here for the next workshops, I’ll be here too.”

 Chris

Chris

 

Workshops took place at the Booth Centre day centre supporting people who are, or have been homeless, and Back on Track; a charity that supports people who are going through recovery or rehabilitation, having been through problems including homelessness and mental health. Partners: The Booth Centre, Back on Track, John Rylands Library, the British Library, Glasgow University and Abbey St Hildegard, Germany. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

July- Lawrence

Let the ice melt everything

A Book of Ours, Projects

Farewell to Jon, still seeing everything

Farewell coldness, let the ice melt everything.

 

Something about today made it a quiet one at the Booth Centre, the frantic buzz of the last couple of weeks had quietened. It was a gentle, reflective atmosphere upstairs in the art space too. We sat at a table with at most eight people gathered around it at any one time. Moments like these are ideal for exploring the deeper layers in ourselves, for seeing what’s there, and perhaps for sharing.

Roy writing

Today’s workshop was poetry only. Most of our working days are a mixture of art and writing, but this one was expressed in pens and paper and ideas. Which brought out a different quality in people; using language rather than gesture, vocabulary rather than colour. It also brought with it intimacy. We talked about things that slide under the surface of the everyday to remain hidden. We wrote about loss and about the losing of things we’d like to see the back of. And as we talked, we wrote. A group piece, extracted here. And individual poems too. Six line poems, six words per line. Enough limitation to bring focus, enough looseness to let it flow.

 

In the lunch break I met someone who’s often worked with us in the past. Bandaged up to the elbows on both arms, cheeks puffy and bruised. This familiar face grinned at me when I to join in the writing, “Can’t mate. I’m hoping I’ve got a place in rehab today. But thanks for asking.”

I said I hoped the place came up, that it all worked out. Bandaged arms, pyjama trousers, bruised cheeks. I’ve thought about that short encounter the rest of this afternoon. About that smile. It was as if I was a messenger from a far off world that’s thought of fondly, but currently unreachable.

“Join us again, when you can,” I said.

The reply: “Thanks for asking. I mean it.”

 

Farewell sweet love, you won’t be alone

Farewell everyone supposed to be home.

 

From Ballad No. 4, group poem

 

A swallow over his heart

Projects, War Widows Stories

Lois and I are currently working on the quilt and poetry for War Widows’ Stories and wanted to share some of our thoughts and writing from the wonderful session in Edinburgh with the War Widows’ Association

 

A swallow over his heart

With a scroll engraved with

My name, when he was 18.

 

Kathleen Cahillane

 

Kathleen Cahillane signature

Kathleen Cahillane

 

The Edinburgh group workshop for the War Widows quilt and poetry was a subtle sharing.

Twenty people sat around the table, bringing a mixture of expectation, grief, anxiety and excitement. It’s a strange thing to ask people to look at one of the most painful things they’ve ever experienced and turn it into a piece of creative work. A big ask, as they say. In this workshop we invited a group of War Widows to write and embroider about widowhood.

The intention was that they’d make work about the things that keep them going, the survival strategies. As it happened, many brought the rawness of loss to their writing and their artwork. They’d decided to dive in deep, even before they arrived. I was between two women, both of whom had lost husbands in Northern Ireland, both of whom had already written down some ideas about how to explain this terrible mystery in their lives, to others and perhaps to themselves.

The writing they made was very direct, giving dates of death and looking at what had happened square on. But events like these aren’t so simply explained. The echoes continue and continue. A child looks like their missing father. A particular day is loaded with dread. The absence is huge, too big to deal with all at once. The need to carry on for family is paramount, grief gets brushed to one side and stays unhealed…

As people worked, there was a gentle hubbub of conversation. They settled into the rhythm of the sewing and writing and shared experiences with their neighbours. Little stories of details that had been forgotten started to emerge. A camping trip, a tattoo, two children on their father’s shoulders.

It’s often with little things that the big things are said:

 

Farmer

 

A hard worker, carrying

Two little boys and a lamb

In his hood.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our hope.

 

I courted a B Special

I married a UDR soldier.

He died Royal Irish

Loved and being loved.

The Lord watches over our

 

Going out and

Coming in. In my beehive hair

I had no idea.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our future.

 

Joan

 

joan B pocket

Joan’s pocket, embroidered by Lois

 

 

The weight of an angel’s wing

A Book of Ours, Projects

We’re making pages for an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre, a centre for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. The original medieval illuminated manuscripts from 500-plus years ago were full of prayers and holy days and feasts, as well as smatterings of current events. Our new book reflects the diverse lives of people who’ve experienced homelessness, drawing on their lives and insights, replacing religious rituals with their day-to-day. And decorated by them with images and colours, to become rich with the details of their world. 

Calender Year, Johnathan

Calendar year, ‘A Book of Ours’ Johnathan Phythian

This week we’ve again been working on the calendar, always the first section of the medieval books that give us inspiration. Each day in the year has a special significance for particular people, be it a birthday, a personal tragedy, a breakthrough, or just a quiet moment of pleasure.

Our calendar is incomplete, however it’s starting to gather a remarkable patchwork of experiences together. Each description has to be a maximum of six words. It’s an art to describe a significant life moment in only six words, but many of the group have already risen to the challenge. Dotted among the personal writings are fragments of our wider history, especially the medieval history which would’ve impacted in the original manuscript makers.

August

August calendar page, ‘A Book of Ours’ Gary Cundle

Here is our work-in-progress August, each day it’s own little story of commemoration:

AUG

Aug 1

Leave windows open for my Angel.

Aug 2

Scared shitless, heartbroken then released.

August 3rd

Started coming Booth Centre.

August 5th

Two cakes to blow out. Me/sister.  

August 6th

Booth Centre helped me get a place

Aug 11 1999 (eclipse)

Let daylight come down on Earth.

August 13th

Day of marriage. Celebration. Soul partner.

Aug 22 1485

Dick Tudor 3, found under carpark.

June, (John)

What can’t easily be described is the intensity of each of our workshops. The absolute laser-like engagement of our writers and artists as they write their lives. For some people this is the only moment in the week away from intimidation, violence, drugs, despair. For others it’s become a social space where friendships are growing and trust is slowly forming. The saddest image I’ll take from today is of one of our most involved participants. Though he’s sleeping rough, he is always immaculately groomed, bright with enthusiasm for making art. Today, however, his eyes were shuttered by drugs, his voice blurred and his head nodded. But still he fought his way through the chemicals towards us, slowly, so very slowly, making his mark on the page.

July (Johnathan)

July, from ‘A Book of Ours’, Johnathan Phythian

Our new arthur+martha project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials — all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.

 

Supported by HLF

Let daylight come down on earth again

A Book of Ours, Projects

“One of the men sat next to me- hes got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. Hes had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed…

(Karen, support worker Booth Centre)

 

Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove experienced homelessness.

Not only are we trying to make an artwork, we are also constructing an atmosphere that people can relax in and learn to trust. Its impossible to let your imagination play if you dont feel safe, or sense youre unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space thats safe is a rare luxury amongst the mayhem, violence, stress. One of the pleasures of this session was to see people dancing away in their imaginations, in the company of others.

The morning session was boisterous and loud, an energy blast. We invited people to make short poetic pieces about their red letter days. Days when time went fast, or slow. G wrote a typical day in a prison cell, the sounds, smells, the boredom and fear. R described the loss of a relative, a long, slow, sad day. C wrote about the amazement of seeing an eclipse, as a child (a little excerpt from that is the title of this blog). Someone else described urinating in the church font, as revenge against a bullying priest. For someone else again, today was his red letter day, his first day in the Booth Centre, a day full of relief but also trepidation. These descriptions were boiled down to a few words and will be written into the calendar framework that we are devising for the first section of this ambitious book.

The theme is time and how we value certain moments of it. Or dont value them. Heres a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: Started work, didnt realise my day was over til someone told me.Rachel

Alongside the writing, pages of sumptuous lettering were appearing as the makers became immersed in their work. Suddenly, the paper was transformed into colour and glorious flowing lines. When we came back after lunch we were surprised and delighted to find that many of the morning group had returned. People had got a good meal inside themselves and this helped fuel them into the afternoon. Heres our support worker Karen again:

Can be a full stomach makes the difference. People having lunch and coming back up to do more doing full day…I spoke to a few people while they were in the workshop. All seemed to really, thoroughly enjoy it. The fact people came back from lunch, after working all morning is unusual, important. Its a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldnt necessarily share downstairs.

One of our guides on this project is the poet William Blake, his extraordinary visions were recorded in poems and artwork. His kindred spirit in our group is Lawrence whose wondrous outpouring of word/image brings delight to us all, despite his occasional grumpiness. Once again Laurence took flight up into the colour and light and others followed him in a swirl of colour and poetry and (always) humour.

As we came to the end, the group gently broke apart, saying their goodbyes, shaking hands, grinning shyly at each other. Then went downstairs and back into it all. Well leave the final word to Karen:

It can get manic in the Booth and I came upstairs into this session and immediately felt the vibe. It was just so settled. People getting into it. And me? I absolutely loved it.

This new arthur+martha project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as homelesswhen they are so much more. Supported by HLF.