Ever wondered what it is like to bid for an antique quilt? Caroline Wilkinson tells of her day at the auction house
The bidding started at around £5,000 and then rose rapidly to outstrip the high estimate price of £8,000 to streak on to £15,000. There was a slight pause and I was wondering what was happening behind me. I was desperate to know who was doing the bidding at the back of the sale room but turning round I was unable to see as the bidders were behind a pillar. I had recognised one of the dealers at the start of the sale, a renowned collector of quilts and patchwork. Then there was another slight pause and the bidding took off again, thick and fast. It was clear now that there were bids coming in on the telephone and the atmosphere in the room was very exciting. Finally, the hammer came down at £24,000. My friend and I were sitting in the St George Street gallery of Sotheby’s in Bond Street on 26 June 2006, attending the Passion for Fashion and Fine Textiles sale conducted by Kerry Taylor Auctions. Lot 71, the item just sold, was a wool quilt made in 1820 by an unknown woman called Ann West. We had just witnessed a record-breaking event as I later learned that £24,000 was the highest price ever to be paid for a quilt in this country. My immediate reaction to the sale was incredulity that a quilt had sold for £24,000. This was indeed amazing and very encouraging that due recognition had been given to this most unusual quilt. I was dying to know who had bought it. However, for the moment, I could not allow my concentration to wander, as I had my eye on Lot 77, and needed to steel my nerves for that.
Kerry Taylor, a fashion specialist and seasoned auctioneer with a remarkable knowledge of textiles, was using the St George Street gallery as a venue for the first of her prestigious textiles sales this year. This sale included some superb lace from the collection of the late Fulvia Lewis and a formal cocktail gown worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as many designer outfits belonging to Leslie Caron, the actress who starred in the title role of Gigi. But for me, the star of the show in the first session of the sale was the fine English patchwork, Lot 71 – an album style quilt. It was not only interesting as a quilt but also as a piece of folk art, reflecting the social history and attitudes of its time. The colours in the quilt were as fresh as the day it was made and the piece was in pristine condition. This was amazing as, being made of wool, it could have been riddled with moth holes. We found out that the quilt had been carefully stored over the years in a camphor chest which had kept it in tip-top condition.
Quite by coincidence, I am a close neighbour of Kerry Taylor. She was aware of my interest in antique quilts and knew about my involvement with The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles. Kerry had approached me prior to the sale to alert me to her Ann West acquisition. Kerry was keen that the Guild should have the opportunity to purchase it and generously suggested a viewing. I was intrigued because I knew that if she recognised the rarity of the quilt, it would be well worth seeing. I could not wait and hoped that the Guild might be able to buy it to add to its own outstanding collection of antique and contemporary quilts, soon to be housed in a permanent museum building. Unfortunately, I found out that the collection fund of the Guild was inadequate to cover the likely cost. However, the chance to see the quilt could not be missed and Kerry arranged the viewing at her warehouse. The Guild’s collection officer, Bridget Long, and the heritage officer, Carolyn Ferguson, were invited along with the curator of textiles at the Victoria &Albert Museum, Clare Brown, and her colleague, Sue Pritchard. The Guild knew that the V&A would also be interested in acquiring the quilt. All of us were anxious that the quilt should remain in Britain.
Seeing the quilt with the experts was very enlightening. It was a unique piece, as everyone recognised, because of its exquisite workmanship and quality. It was unusual in being made from felted wool patches which had been wonderfully embellished with appliquéd wool and embroidery and being signed and dated as early as 1820. The patches are thought to have been cut from military uniforms in a variety of colours: brown, reds, beige and black. Kerry suggested that the red wool patches might have been cut up from old uniforms worn in the Napoleonic wars! The quilt is pictorial in style. The central panel depicts the Garden of Eden. This panel is then surrounded by charming vignettes, worked in embroidery with their quirky titles depicting scenes or figures from the Bible.
What is so extraordinary is the quality of the stitching, lifelikeness and details of these appliquéd figures and images, which set the quilt apart from any other piece and make it so attractive. There is so much to look at and discover, it made us all gasp at the ingenuity of the maker. The folk art quality of her work has been likened to the painter George Smart, whose paintings were popular a decade earlier. There were also secular scenes, which are quintessentially English, including a milkmaid, an old lady with her cat, gypsies, harvesters, a smart wedding, fisherman, a chimney sweep and even an auctioneer. The side borders are made with alternating coloured triangles, all beautifully appliquéd and embroidered with hearts, flowers, leaves and fruit, while the lower border shows swimming fishes and seashells appliquéd over different coloured squares. The quilt edge is carefully finished with half scallops of black or brown wool felt with appliquéd red or yellow centres, making them sparkle like jewels. The quilt has no filling and therefore is not a quilt in precise terms but a coverlet. The quilt top is backed with satinised red cotton. The finished size was 96in by 87in (244 x 221cm). The quilt is signed “Ann West’s work 1820”. I have long since learned not to trust inscribed dates on quilts as very often the fabrics in a quilt do not fit with the completion date. However, in this case, the date is absolutely authentic with the fabrics. The coverlet is of such high quality that it made us all very curious to know more about Ann West. Little is known about her. The gentleman who owned the quilt inherited it earlier this year. He knew little about Ann West, but according to family tradition, there is a connection with Warminster House in Wiltshire. After that it had been stored in an attic and then a garage in its camphor box.
The sale also included a small cradle coverlet made by Ann West which was in the same style as Lot 71, but a simplified version. It did not reach its reserve and so was not sold.
As for Lot 77, I did get it – at well under the low estimate price. By then interest in quilts had diminished and I now own a beautiful log cabin patchwork made by Mrs Spencer from Keighthly in Yorkshire between 1880-1890. It is made mainly from satins and brocades in bright jewel-like colours contrasting with blacks and browns. Some of the fabrics are thought to be ribbons, others embroidered dress fabrics. The quilt is backed by floral printed cotton and is 222 x 190 cm.
We never found out who the buyer was. Nevertheless, I am delighted to think that textiles of this quality are becoming more valued, loved and appreciated as decorative wall hangings as well as functional items. The creativity, patience and skill of women and some men as shown in the quilts from the past should make us stop and think in this machine dominated age.
You can contact Kerry Taylor Auctions for textile sale advice on www.kerrytaylorauctions.com
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