Trouble in the bedroom

    Not just the work of cosy hobbyists, the quilts at the V&A hide dark tales of female struggle over three centuries, says Waldemar Januszczak

    Quilts. It’s not a word that sends the pulse racing. Not my pulse, anyway.

    I come from a clan for whom “quilts” appear next to “pots” in the lexicon of arts, which is to say very low down. It’s not that quilts cannot be beautiful or heart-warming. Of course they can. What holds me back from the giving of my full self to the quilt is the certainty that it must always offer a lower level of artistic experience. A quilt can never be great art. There will never be a Michelangelo of quilts. Quilts can be interesting, they can look fabulous, they can drive you to tears. But they can never inhabit the same creative strata as the Sistine ceiling.

    I puzzle over this here because the V&A’s absorbing new display devoted to Quilts 1700-2010, and racily subtitled Hidden Histories, Untold Stories, is actually two shows masquerading as one, a fine show and a silly one. The fine event is the one you expect: a selection of superior antique quilts, from the V&A’s collection and beyond, in which tender personal histories from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have been lovingly preserved in some marvellously inventive and busy patchworks.

    The silly show is the one devoted to the contemporary quilt artists dotted throughout this same display. Their task is to emphasise the continuing relevance of the quilt, but they usually succeed in proving the opposite. With a couple of exceptions, which we will come to, the modern quilt-makers here offer clear proof of the fact that quilt-making is a creative activity best left to the past.

    Thus, Diana Harrison gives us “a diptych of pieced and quilted silk” that “centres on the function and form of the box”. In plain words, she has made a contemporary quilt that sets out to look like an unfolded cardboard box. Why? Because, opened out and flattened, the box’s “function is questioned and the contents released, leading to an overriding sense of vulnerability”. Harrison’s deliberately grubby and greyish quilt is trying to make you feel like a down-and-out sleeping under a wet cardboard box in the comfort of your home.

    Clio Padovani, meanwhile, has produced a piece of video art in which “digital technology replicates the processes of patchwork”. Her video duly consists of pieces of unconnected image coming together slowly and chaotically. The artist explains that she wanted the “shaped movie clips” to “pulse and breathe on the screen, enlarging, contracting, constructing a collective dialogue”. This may happen in her dreams, but in the flesh, at the V&A, the tedious accumulation of digital fragments would test the attention of a nodding dog in the back window of a car.

    The startling self-absorption of the contemporary quilt artist stands in stark contrast to the warm and gentle moods broadcast by the real quilts in the show: the old ones, made for real reasons in real circumstances. Where the contemporary quilt screams “Me, me, me”, the traditional quilt sings “Us, us, us”. The bed, after all, is where most of us began life, and where most of us will end it.

    The show therefore commences with a group of cot textiles produced early in the 18th century for children. A Hogarth painting of master Gerard Edwards (Gedward?) in his cradle shows the little scamp clutching a wooden toy, surrounded by layer upon layer of gorgeous silver quiltwork. Next to the painting, real examples of similar coverings tug at your heartstrings with their angelic delicacy. What we are celebrating is a particularly private form of expression, embarked on chiefly by women, that requires enormous amounts of creative stamina and allows for the conveyance of some highly personal thoughts. There’s something whispery and secretive about quilts in general, and some of the more mysterious examples shown here appear to be attempting actual subterfuge.

    The most exciting one is the so-called John and Elisabeth Chapman coverlet, from 1829. Elisabeth, its maker, gave it to John, her husband, on the occasion of their wedding, and, on the face of it, this handsomely patterned drape seems merely to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Vittoria. While burrowing through its details, however, the rug rats of the V&A discovered that the love poem embroidered into a panel on the coverlet actually tells the tale of a sinister Georgian dentist who embalmed his dead wife’s body, then kept it on public view to fulfil the financial conditions of her dowry. What had previously appeared to be an innocent token of love is either a macabre Georgian joke or an unsettling insight into a dark marriage.

    Having proved quickly that quilts are loaded with human significance, the show follows a loose chronology as it seeks to bring their story up to date. The first British quilts were made by ladies of the upper classes from plush materials rescued around the house. As textiles grew cheaper, so quilts became gaudier, busier, more plentiful. By the 20th century, they were produced for all sorts of commemorative reasons. When, finally, Tracey Emin turned to them, the last thing you would do with a quilt would be to put it on your bed.

    For me, the most moving contributions to a surprisingly moving show were made in conditions of extreme hardship or political complication. The lovely Rajah quilt of 1841 was sewn by women convicts aboard HMS Rajah as they sailed from Woolwich to Tasmania. It is displayed opposite a wonky modern quilt made by inmates at Wandsworth prison, who swapped syringes for sewing needles. The one that really had me sobbing was made by 20 Girl Guides in Changi prison, Singapore, after the Japanese invasion of 1941. In conditions of dangerous secrecy, the girls sewed it as a surprise birthday present for their Girl Guide leader. The oldest of the sewers was 16. The youngest, eight.

    I read these details through wet eyes. That is the power these things have. That is why people sew quilts. That is why this is an engrossing show. Quilts also prove impressively timeless. Most of the items on display here were made a century or more ago, but might easily have been made yesterday. The show’s earliest patchwork, produced by Priscilla Redding, of Deal, Kent, in the 1690s, is an astonishingly modern-looking thing. Buoyantly patterned in tiny squares of pink, silver and blue, it could pop up in a branch of Habitat and look comfortably of its times. Quilts, it seems, have avoided the usual laws of progress.

    As for the two contemporary artists who do not disappoint — no surprises there, I’m afraid. One is Grayson Perry, whose abortion quilt is both beautiful and hard-hitting. And the other is the aforementioned Emin, who offers us another of her unmade beds, in this case a ye olde four-poster version, covered in typical Eminesque observations about beds being battle grounds for women. My overall sense of the show is that most contributors to it would agree with her.