In 1918, British director Maurice Elvey made a film about Admiral Lord Nelson, a film he had planned for five years. My research into this film and its production history led to a series of quite unexpected quilting projects, which are described on my blog: www.isthereroomformetosew.com
I’ve been researching Elvey for the last decade, as his early career is the subject of my PhD. He had a film career that lasted over 40 years, and some of his films – particularly the later ones – are poor quality, but in the early stages of his career he was a very interesting filmmaker – innovating, developing, and pushing boundaries. I’ve watched film after film: Bleak House; Dombey and Son; Hindle Wakes; High Treason; a number of Sherlock Holmes stories; I Lived with You; Frail Women; The Man in the Mirror; Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary; Beware of Pity and so on.
But I put off watching Nelson. It was supposed to be bad, I wasn’t interested in Nelson, or Naval history.
But eventually, duty called, and in the basement of the British Film Institute, I sat down alone to watch it.
Two hours later, I had fallen for Elvey’s Nelson touch. I was almost ready to run away to sea and join the Navy. This wasn’t the worthy biography I had expected, but a creative use of history.
Elvey, and his scenario writer Eliot Stannard, had worked all sorts of things into Nelson’s story to make it relevant to a time – towards the end of the First World War – when Nelson was utilised as an inspirational figure. “England Expects” was a recruitment call. And in Nelson, Elvey played all sorts of games with time, and context. There is some very early montage when a peacock turns into the Kaiser of 1918; there are animated battle plans; the signal “England Expects” is hoisted on the screen; and in Nelson’s death scene, his words are superimposed over the action. There’s a history of the Navy from the days of Alfred the Great onwards up to the battleships of World War One.
Before I knew it, I was seeking out locations – I tracked down the location of Nelson’s schooldays from the film: the site of Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight. This was Elvey being creative rather than accurate: the College did not open until 1903, but its status as the “Cradle of the Navy” had resonance in 1918. I visited the Victory and felt much sympathy with Elvey’s camera operator, Alfonso Frenguelli, having to lug heavy equipment up and down steep stairways. I chatted to a guide who told me that no feature film had ever been made on board, and who was intrigued to learn of Elvey’s film.
And I started to notice that Nelsonia was everywhere. I visited Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral and sought out Nelson Streets and Nelson Lanes in various towns and cities. In museums I found pillboxes, urns, plates, wallpaper, fans and timepieces – and fabric. Samplers sewn to mark Nelson’s death lodged in my mind and I joined a long line of people who have stitched Nelson.
I found a Nelson’s Victory quilt block, which, as far I can tell dates from 1905, the centenary of Trafalgar. I made a number of these blocks with a view to quilting the battle, one block for each ship. I made a quilt inspired by Nelson’s Column. And, one day, when I was supposed to be writing, I idly wondered what my favourite portrait of Nelson by Sir William Beechey would look like in stitch, and suddenly found I had ordered a great deal of fabric…
A couple of weeks later I was on a quilt retreat and was asked what I was making. “A portrait of Nelson” I said rather embarrassed…. “I’ve been researching this film about him and I got interested in him as a figure in popular culture… I don’t think it will work though.”
But I had 3,200 one-inch squares cut out and I couldn’t let them go to waste. And because I sew everything by hand, I could work on him anywhere. On trains, on the beach, in cafés …. And he grew and grew.
As he grew, I blogged about him. He was on Instagram, he was on Twitter, he would go to my Quilt Guild meetings as work in progress. People started sending me photos of Nelson statues, Nelson Christmas decorations, Nelson pub signs. I was taken into a church in Rotherhithe where there is furniture made from the Fighting Temeraire, which fought at Trafalgar. Earlier this summer I was given a packet of Nelson tea. Just last month I was given a sample of Nelson-related fabric.
When he was complete I took him to Osborne on the Isle of Wight, where Elvey shot Nelson’s schooldays around the Coach house and the Petty Officers’ Quarters. It felt as though I was taking him back to where he began.
Making the quilt; visiting the locations; watching Trafalgar Day commemorations in London; listening to Haydn’s Nelson Mass; and seeing so much Nelsonia helped me appreciate Elvey was trying to do and why this film was so significant. Elvey has been dismissed as a journeyman director, who just made the films that were assigned to him, and who never tried to improve the material he was given. Nelson throws that dismissal on its head. For Elvey, Nelson was a passion project. It might not be his best film but it’s the one that seems to come from the heart. His creative use of history to engage an audience a century ago still has power today. And I felt I got to know him better – and improve my own research practice – while I sewed the quilt his work inspired.