Sewing Scripture

by Gareth Atkins

In recent months we’ve begun in our research group to work in earnest on the long-premeditated exhibition (the title remains under wraps, but watch this space). Materiality is currently a buzzword among cultural scholars, and alongside texts and images we’re also on the lookout for objects and artefacts that tell Bible-and-Antiquity tales. Serious and not-so-serious suggestions are very welcome!

Probably my favourite example so far is the horrible glass case of 43 stuffed birds shot by Sergeant Armstrong of the Royal Engineers during the Palestine Exploration Fund’s 1870s expedition, but this striking coverlet from the V&A runs it a close second. It was made in the early nineteenth century, and provides a tantalizing glimpse of how Bible stories were read and reimagined by the neglected many rather than the well-documented few. The coverlet’s creator was a Wiltshire milliner, and she signed it, embroidering ‘Ann West’s work, 1820’, ‘Forget me not’ and ‘Remember Me’.

UntitledIn some ways it reminds me of the fourteenth-century Macclesfield Psalter, acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2005 after a big fundraising campaign, whose margins are stuffed with jousting rabbits and hounds, grotesque creatures and a terrifying giant skate attacking an astonished man. The marginalia have little relevance to the Psalter’s text! The coverlet, too, displays humour and a lively imagination. Alongside the biblical scenes Ann included plenty of wryly observed contemporary vignettes, including rural weddings, earthy shepherds, posturing soldiers and the playful ‘Negro servant and master’ of the image below. In other ways, though, it’s very different: whereas the Psalter fitted in the palm of the hand, Ann West’s coverlet is 244 x 221cm. And while the Psalter was made for a rich patron, Ann, it seems, was sewing for herself.


Most other patchworks of this kind were made by male tailors: they focused on political campaigns and military heroes. This one is very different. The colours are so vivid because they were made of offcuts from military scarlet, fine blue-black cloth intended for tailored coats and a range of other products of the weaving industry that was so important in south-west England. This one is inspired by the Bible. At the centre is the Garden of Eden and around it, as well as 54 small patches showing contemporary characters, are fourteen other scenes, including Cain and Abel (top left), Moses in the Bulrushes (top right), Abraham and Isaac, complete with sacrificial ram caught in a thicket (bottom left) and ‘Christ talketh with a woman of Samaria’ (West’s own caption, bottom right).


This last is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the influence of printed Bible illustrations. Jenny Lister has shown the close resemblance between this panel and the portrayal of John 4:1-30 in Sarah Trimmer’s Prints from the New Testament, first published in 1790 by John Marshall and Co., a London firm who specialized in children’s literature and educational chapbooks. Intriguingly, though, Ann did not copy the image slavishly, showing Christ robed and haloed but updating the Samaritan woman by giving her the sort of cheap print gown and woollen skirt that most poor women would have worn in early nineteenth-century Wiltshire.

The subject matter raises intriguing questions about the purpose of the coverlet. Was it intended to be an evangelistic aid? A hanging for a Sunday school? Or was it all just an idle flight of imaginative fancy? Not much is known about its creator, either. Was she a stalwart of some local chapel in Warminster or Chippenham? She clearly had a conscience, depicting distressed widows and an unemployed ‘poor sailor’, but she had a sense of humour too. She also wanted to be remembered: recall how she signed her work. Yet it is the scene at the well that most intrigues me: by transforming the Samaritan Woman into one of her contemporaries, Ann West was literally sewing the first century and the nineteenth into one image. Her coverlet comes as a striking reminder that ‘reception’ of the Bible by ordinary men and women was seldom passive, and, whether textual or material, always involved layers of translation and cultural transposition.

All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London