Tracy Chevalier

The author of Girl with a Pearl Earring meets the curator of the V&A Quilts exhibition as research for a special V&A Magazine short story and her own forthcoming novel

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Video Transcript

Tracy Chevalier

My brief here, apart from doing research for myself, for the V&A I’m writing a story about one of the quilts. A lot of the quilts already have real stories attached to them, so I don’t want to interfere with a real story.

There’s no documentary evidence about Girl with a Pearl Earring, the painting, and that’s why I wrote the novel about it because we know nothing about her. A lot has been written about Vermeer, but nothing about the models in his paintings and I wanted to give her a voice.

I spend loads of times in museums. Both in the front, in the public, and then in the back in storage spaces like this one.

With the research, I often find I want to do the real hands-on stuff. So with ‘Remarkable Creatures’ I went out on the beaches and went fossil hunting.

It was so strange getting your email telling me about this exhibition of quilts and asking me if I’d write a short story about quilts.

It’s a very small part as far as I can see so far of the novel. I thought ‘my main character is going to make quilts – It’s what she does when she has any time to spare’.

She’s quite repressed and she expresses herself through a quilt.

I’m very ignorant on this, you put together…you make each individual square and then you stitch all the squares together. How do you get it to have these patterns of stitching? Is that the actual quilting?

Sue Prichard

Yeah. So basically you start off with your patchwork project and you would’ve stitched your little pieces of fabric together with a little paper. And then what you would have done is you would have assembled all your blocks and stitched all of your blocks together. And then you would have a layer of wadding with wool or cotton, and a lining, and then you would’ve stitched through the three layers.

Tracy Chevalier

I am a very tactile person. I write long hand, my books, before I type them into the computer. I have a real need to be with the genuine thing, and so I want to be with the quilts. In order to be able to write about somebody who makes quilts a lot I need to be with them, and I need to make one myself, even if it’s a little one.

Most of my ideas for books come to me in a flash, in a moment. For ‘Remarkable Creatures’ a book I’ve just had out, a novel about Mary Anning. She was a fossil hunter in Lime Regis. I was at a dinosaur museum with my son and I saw a little exhibition bit about her and I read about her and I thought ‘I’ve got to write about this woman’. It was just like that.

Sue Prichard

She’s used print sources to recreate the scenes in fabric. So all of these scenes are actually pieced fabric. But what’s really interesting is the way she’s actually incorporated herself as observer, narrator of history. We’ve actually managed to find this particular print, and in the original print source, the female figure is missing.

Tracy Chevalier

So that’s her! [laughter]

Sue Prichard

So what she’s done, she’s stitched herself in between the two. Here she is.

Tracy Chevalier

[Laughter]

Sue Prichard

So you’ve got a scene of great poignancy aboard ship.

Tracy Chevalier

He’s hurt.

Sue Prichard

He’s obviously been injured.

Tracy Chevalier

He’s injured. Yeah.

Sue Prichard

He’s bleeding profusely. We assume that his shipmate here is dead.

Tracy Chevalier

Dead.

Sue Prichard

And yet here she is, she’s popped over her head.

Tracy Chevalier

She’s popped up her head.

Sue Prichard

Over the side of the ship and she is observing this historic event.

Tracy Chevalier

That’s very funny. Great. Wow.

Tracy Chevalier

I was surprised really by how stained they were and it reminded me, these were actually used on beds where all kinds of things went on. Birth and death and love and everything together. It really… they just feel very personal, and they do feel really full of stories. In an earlier quilt I saw, George III reviewing the troops, the maker actually put her face into it, in a couple of places, and I thought that was wonderful, and funny. You don’t think your quilts are going to have a sense of humour but they do, they have all kinds of things – they’re tragic and they’re funny and they’re all of life all together.

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To mark the opening of Quilts: 1700 - 2010, V&A Magazine commissioned the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures to write a special short story. As it turned out, Tracy was about to embark on some serious quilt research for a forthcoming book about quaker imnmigrants to America. To learn about quilts and their history for both stories, Tracy visited the textile store at Blythe House, home of the V&A reserve collections and its archive where she met Quilts curator Sue Prichard.

 

This film follows the author as she describes how she uses real historic collections and objects to inform her writing. It focuses particularly on the George 111 quilt, the extraordinary design that inspired the short story Tracy Chevalier wrote for V&A Magazine.