I’m looking at several of the nursery rhymes which appear on my two favourite quilts of the NGV’s 2016 exhibition Making the Australian Quilt (see previous post). I can’t resist the opportunity to share some of my favourite children’s book illustrators’ interpretations as well.
The names given to the quilts by their collector and curators were, respectively, Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (by unknown maker/s) and Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt (by Amy Amelia Earl). Those are definitely accurate but potentially confusing for the reader from hereon in. So, with no disrespect to either, I’ll be using the shorthand names I used when taking notes onsite at the exhibition.
Here’s part of the Red Nursery Rhyme Quilt.
And here is AAE’s quilt.
One of the challenges of depicting stories and rhymes on quilts, as in books, is which character and/or scene to pick. The first rhyme I’ll be talking about has much to challenge the textile artist.
Iona and Peter Opie, writing in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, call it ‘probably the best known nonsense rhyme in the [English] language.’
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such sport
and the dish ran away with the spoon.
Most of AAE’s quilt is composed of separately worked patches, appliqued onto a large piece of furnishing fabric. That she loved animals is evident in how many there are on this small quilt. The enigmatic penguin in the upper left of this picture is one of several unknown stories that AAE told to the lucky children she knew: sad viewers of the 21st century can only guess at it.
But Hey Diddle Diddle is still recognisable to us. The cat fiddler’s coat resembles faded chenille, and his couched silk shirt, along with golden violin and bow, hint at former grandeur. The other creatures of the rhyme being merely cross-stitched reinforces him as lead player. (Another, larger, black cat made of the same fake fur gazes plaintively with shirt button eyes in another part of the quilt.) Faces on a small scale weren’t really AAE’s forte but her Moon’s cheesy eyes and mouth are the right mixture of crater and grin. They draw us in on the joke while simultaneously avoiding the kicking cow. The knickerbockered dish shoulders the spoon as it runs, and the little dog puts his whole haunches into the laugh.
Harold Jones’s illustrations for Lavender’s Blue, the beautiful collection of nursery rhymes compiled by Kathleen Lines in the late 1950s, also puts the cat at the centre of the story, if not the scene. All of the characters appear in the shadow of his luminous moon.
The cow’s satyr-like silhouette frames the scene and the dog’s open-mouthed laugh directs the viewer to take in the incongruity. The pie dish and the spoon scuttle across the field bathed in cold light like fleeing mice – we can’t see their faces. The only figure with any real colour – the cat – deliberately turns its back on the scene which its concentrated music-making accompanies.
Raymond Briggs’s Mother Goose Treasury is a stupendous achievement of illustration. Like Amy Amelia Earl, he makes his figures are sturdy rather than sentimental. In his Hey Diddle, diddle, the animals don’t effect clothing.
Briggs’s waning crescent moon smiles up at the cow, stretched out towards the inky night like the side of beef it will become. A skeletal dog has flipped itself into mimicking the moon, while the cat is fiddling as if hypnotised. The dish and the spoon run towards the edge of the page,their shadows before them, hands almost touching. The Puffin Mother Goose Bedtime Rhymes, a taste of the original in board book form, sets the rhyme in a background of shiny bright yellow moonlight, which only serves to emphasise the bizarre blue scene.
And so to the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt’s version. Whoever decided to make this block literally cut to the chase.
It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the dish is eyeing the spoon’s slender form lasciviously: a child will just see their glee as naughtiness we hope. If I’m right though, the master, Randolph Caldecott, pictured the end of the story best.
The Opies say that Hey Diddle Diddle‘s first appearance in print was in a book called MG’S Melody around 1765. That version has the line, ‘The little dog laughed to see such craft‘ : thanks to these quiltmakers, so do we.