Happy Anniversary: The Bellamy Quilt

Ruth Battersby Tooke, Senior Curator of Costume & Textiles

Welcome to the wonderful Bellamy Quilt: a spectacular love story in textiles. The Bellamy Quilt was made by a couple, Charlotte Alice Springall and Herbert Bellamy, who worked on it together during their year-long engagement between 1890 and 1891. They were eventually married 129 years ago today, on the 24th November 1891, in the parish church of St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth. What a brilliant way to spend time really getting to know each other before taking those wedding vows!

Looking at this textile is like being witness to a lively visual conversation. It is easy to imagine Herbert arriving to spend the evening with Charlotte; perhaps she had cut out a funny picture from a magazine to incorporate, maybe he had spotted a new shop sign in the Market Place. The finished piece shows not only a snapshot of middle-class Victorian life but also the intimacy of two people laying the foundations of a new life together, enjoying the relief of finding someone who ‘gets’ you, and looking forward to many more years of joint pursuits and shared jokes.

The Bellamy Quilt, 1890-91

The quilt was donated to Strangers’ Hall Museum in 1980 by Miss Norah Bellamy and Mrs. Gladys Castle – Herbert and Charlotte’s only two daughters. Gladys’s only child Nicholas died in a tragic swimming accident at Burgh Castle when he was a teenager leaving no immediate family descendants to look after this family heirloom. So, the sisters decided to make sure the quilt and its story would be preserved together and continue to be seen and enjoyed by placing it in a museum collection.

We don’t know how Charlotte and Herbert met or how long they knew each other before they became engaged. The 1891 census , taken in April, tells us that Charlotte was 26 years old and living at home in Nelson Road, Great Yarmouth with her parents Mary Ann and Benjamin Springall, a builder and farmer. Ten years earlier, the 1881 census records Benjamin as a builder employing 30 men and 10 boys, obviously doing very well with his business, and in addition to his wife, there is “builder’s son” George, Charlotte and general servant Eliza Hall – who was just 15 years old.

Just over the River Yare, and the county line into Suffolk, Herbert Bellamy was born to his mother Sarah in Gorleston in 1862, number four of six children. His father, David Bellamy, was a butcher, which became Herbert’s occupation alongside his eldest brother David.

In 1881 Herbert was employed by and living with his brother and sister-in-law Lucy and their three children, all under three years old, in Baker Street, Gorleston. By 1891 Herbert has, somewhat unsurprisingly, moved to King Street in Great Yarmouth and is living with Sarah and William T Johnson, recorded as parents; however, their ages of 75 and 76 years old respectively indicate that they are his maternal grandparents.

If the family story is true that Herbert and Charlotte spent the year of their engagement making the quilt in the evenings, Herbert would have had a very short walk from 61 King Street, leaving his grandparents, to 124 Nelson Road Central and Charlotte’s family home.

Herbert and Charlotte’s initials are lovingly stitched onto the quilt

It is on the small side for a quilt at just under 2m (6ft) square, and I wonder if the Bellamys designed it as a wall hanging rather than a bedcover. The brass hoops on the reverse of the textile look original to the piece, and besides, it would be a shame to keep this conversational masterpiece in the privacy of a bedroom. The quilt includes a dizzying mixture of popular culture references, local sights, everyday domestic items, and personal references – some of which we outsiders to their circle might never understand. It is tempting to wonder what other textiles were in the same room; crocheted antimacassars, crazy patchwork shelf mantels and beaded tea cosies could all have been vying for attention.

The Bellamy Quilt is a fantastic example of high Victorian home crafts; it falls squarely into the category of fancywork, highly decorative and characterised by the use of fine materials, such as silk and velvet, and the inclusion of sequins and beads. These fashionable textiles made with deep velvets and shiny satins are more about conveying taste than the thrifty re-use of workaday fabrics we associate with patchwork quilts. In addition to the applied embellishments, embroidery is used to create motifs and cover joining seams – nothing is left unadorned. These projects were frequently commemorative or, like the Bellamy Quilt, autobiographical. Applique allows a fluidity of composition with motifs in various scales and sizes distributed over a large area instead of constrained by the geometric shapes used to make pieced quilts. They lend themselves well to exuberant visual symbols of a person’s unique set of reference points – the places, possessions, and passions that express who they are and how they see themselves. These compositions are sometimes described as album or scrapbook quilts, echoing both the technique’s cut and paste nature and the preservation of memories. There is also a visual connection with paper ephemera; the clippings and humorous captions found in scrapbooks are so evocative of their era – from the fonts and graphic layouts to the jokes that have lost their relevance to later viewers.

At the centre is this incredible embroidery of cartoon character Ally Sloper, created by illustrator Charles H Ross, who first appeared in 1867 and became so popular that by 1886 he had his own publication. He would have been instantly recognisable in Victorian popular culture as a hapless schemer, always sloping up alleys to avoid his rent collector. His fondness for drinking shown by his reddened nose and discarded ale bottle. So it seems a touch of class snobbery is at play here from the aspirational middle-class couple.

The sources of references are extensive; advertising, greetings cards, commercial templates for needlework projects, shop signs, illustrations for books and fashion magazines, and even the sheet music for ‘Auld Land Syne’! From the inclusion of this traditional song in addition to a Christmas card, a New Year’s greeting card, and the snow in the central cartoon scene, it looks like the making of the quilt spanned a winter, the perfect season to pass the time in such a cosy fashion.

The bold composition consists of five bright yellow vertical panels created with embroidery; all the yellow background is stitched in floss silk, filling the area between the motifs. Close inspection reveals the stitches rippling out from each motif as if each one was an island with the yellow silk as the sea surrounding them. The bright yellow creates a bold contrast, which helps the darker shapes to stand out. The panels are set into a dark blue velvet frame cut to fit between the panels, and this top, the term for the uppermost layer of a bedcover, is attached to a quilted yellow cotton backing with a filling of wadding, which gives the textile structure and stops it from buckling when hung.  The motifs are a mixture of velvet applique shapes, embroidered pictures, and a few examples of canvaswork embroidery – a counted cross-stitch technique. It is likely Charlotte, who would have started learning to sew at a young age, worked many of the embroidered pictures, the human figures, the stunning peacock, and detailed flower studies. Her monogram CAS is stitched on the embroidered coat of arms on the last panel, but we can see the name Bellamy on a velvet applique suitcase at the top of the second panel as an indication that Herbert made many of these motifs. They are simple silhouettes cut out and attached to the background fabric with blanket stitch and brought to life with embroidery providing detail and texture. Some, such as the leaves and animal shapes, are likely to have been commercial templates, and others could be have been tracings from catalogues of domestic products – the lamps, jugs, pots, and clocks certainly feel like Charlotte and Herbert are picking out items for the marital home.

The motto ‘Labor Omni Vincit,’ work conquers all, bookended with the dates 1890 and 1891, provides us with not only the dates of creation but also reflects the couple’s view of the completion of their labour of love. The embroidered couple flanking the heraldic shield is Kaiser Wilhelm II, the grandson of Queen Victoria, and his wife Augusta Victoria, who became King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany in 1888. Their appearance here is a testament to Britain and Prussia’s close relationship at this time and the Bellamys’ awareness of political affairs.

The last time the Bellamy Quilt made a public appearance was in pride of place as the very first object, right next to the introductory text panel, in the fantastic ‘Folk Art’ exhibition at Tate Britain during the summer of 2014. Charlotte and Herbert would have been as pleased as punch but probably quite surprised to have their labour of love sharing the same rarefied air as painters such as Constable and Gainsborough. Nevertheless, the Bellamy Quilt is just as compelling as an insight into Victorian society as a scene of everyday life by painters such as William Powell Frith. It is even more articulate because it is candid and subjective, an authentic snapshot of one couple’s life and the sights and sounds surrounding them.

Click here to explore the quilt in more detail with Google Arts & Culture. You can zoom right in on all the wonderful details.

In January 2021 the Bellamy Quilt will be on display in a new exhibition at Norwich Castle: Textile Treasures, showcasing star objects from of the Norwich Museums’ Costume and Textile collection.

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