Hanging (1820) by Ann WestThe Victoria and Albert Museum
In 19th-century England, patchwork played an important role outside the home. Some of the most inventive examples were produced for exhibition and display, often illustrating political events and military heroes. Others promoted Victorian values of perserverance and hard work, or showed off individual skill.
Ann West's patchwork was probably intended to hang on the wall of a nursery or Sunday school, as a children's teaching aid. Almost 200 years old, its combination of detail and humour continue to fascinate today.
The patchwork is made from offcuts of wool coats and military uniforms, decorated with woollen appliqué (pieces of fabric sewn on to a larger piece to form a picture) and embroidered details.
Its rich imagery depicts a mixture of biblical stories and scenes of ordinary people going about their daily business in rural England.
The patchwork features 64 brightly coloured woollen panels, centered around the biblical scene of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.
"Adam giving name to every living thing"
Captions have been embroidered over the appliqué pictures, often quoting the bible or adding playful personal touches.
One of the captions reads, "Ann West's work", and the date, 1820 – a clue to the maker's identity. Look closely and you'll spot a beehive complete with tiny bees stitched beneath the signature.
'The death of Abel'
Many of the panels show biblical scenes, from Daniel in the lions' den and the discovery of the baby Moses in the bullrushes, to more gruesome depictions of the murder of Abel, and David slaying Goliath.
Jacob is shown while sleeping, pausing on his journey to escape his brother, as told in Genesis: "he had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it".
The well-known biblical story of Abraham and Isaac: "And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son". The scene is incredibly detailed – Ann West has even labelled 'The Ram' who, at the last second, is sacrificed in Isaac's place.
'Daniel in the lions' den'
The imagery may have been inspired by scenes from illustrated bibles.
'David slaying Goliath'
Another popular Bible story is shown here: the figure of Joseph, a little way off from the Ishmaelites and his brothers, sporting his coveted coat of many colours. The text reads, "And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh".
Adam, Eve and the Serpent with the Tree of Knowledge.
The smaller squares reveal the social mix of a country town in early 19th-century England: from shepherds and milkmaids to a well-dressed 'sportsman', a 'distressed widow' and a 'poor sailor'. These scenes convey the message that Christ came to save all humanity, regardless of racial origin or place in society.
"Pray help a poor sailor"
In 1815, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, an influx of returning soldiers and sailors were seeking work. Unemployment was especially rife in southwest England, as industrialisation moved the wool trade north to Manchester.
The term 'negro' was used historically to describe people of black (sub-Saharan) African heritage. The term is repeated here in its original historical context. Though the buying and selling of slaves was made illegal across the British Empire in 1807, owning slaves was not banned until 1833.
Three military figures sporting the Cavalry uniforms and hats of the Napoleonic period (1799 – 1815). Their ornamental shoulder pieces (epaulettes) denote them as officers.
'A distressed widow'
The widowed woman is shown begging with her family in tow. Look closely and you'll see that the gentleman is holding out a tiny gold coin.
'Been a Fishing'
Spot the embroidered curl of the line and the tiny fish in the boy's hand. Even the letter 'a' in the caption resembles a little fish.
A lively scene of 7 characters – 4 in women's clothing and 3 in men's – performing a play. Five of the performers seem to be wearing masks.
The dashing figure of a 'sportsman', fresh from the hunt, returning with his prize – a large hare. Notice his tiny moustache and thick hair. A blackbird flies overhead and a gun dog runs at his heels.
The figures of two small chimney sweeps, in knitted hats, with their sacks and sweeping brushes.
The phrases 'Forget me not' and 'Remember me' are stitched among the delicate imagery, suggesting Ann West wished to be recognised and remembered as the creator of the patchwork.
The hanging's decorative details extend to the scalloped edges, which are embellished with swimming fish and sea shells, hearts, flowers, leaves and fruits.
Who was Ann West?
The handwriting of the captions suggests that Ann West was a well-educated woman, with access to a wide-range of source imagery, including exotic animals and birds.
Ann West was a common name. The hanging has traditionally been associated with towns in Wiltshire in southwest England, including Warminster, Longleat and Chippenham.
One possibility is an Ann West who lived in North Bradley, in Wiltshire, and is recorded in the 1841 census as a 'tailoress'.
She was born Ann Love Collier, in Rode, Somerset, in 1761, and married Edward West, also a tailor, in 1783.
This might account for the materials used in the hanging – off-cuts from fine blue-black cloth used for tailored coats, scarlet for army uniforms and other woollen fabrics from ordinary garments and blankets – products of the cloth-weaving industry which were then vital to the prosperity of southwest England.
Explore the V&A's Quilting and Patchwork collections: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/quilting-and-patchwork