Hey Diddle Diddle

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.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Red Nursery Rhyme Quilt

And here is AAE’s quilt.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
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.

Appliqued and embroidered designs on a child's quilt
Amelia Amy Earl’s interpretation of Hey Diddle Diddle

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 Bluethe 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.

Illustration from a child's book of nursery rhymes
Harold Jones illustrates Hey Diddle Diddle

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.

Blue coloured illustrations from child's nursery rhyme book
Raymond Briggs illustrated Hey Diddle Diddle

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.


Embroidered figures on a quilt block with a title HEY DIDDLE DIDDLE
Red quilt maker illustrated Hey Diddle Diddle

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.

A pen and ink sketch illustrating a nursery rhyme
The sad end of an unnatural elopement – illustration by Randolph Caldecott


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.


Stories in Stitches


I may have become obsessive during the recent Making the Australian Quilt exhibition at NGV Australia. (Getting nods from the visitor services staff is a clue that you’re there too often.) It was completely worth it to get to know my favourite quilts intimately.

Co-curators Katie Somerville and Annette Gero did a wonderful job, and I was fortunate to be invited to the opening.

A woman stands in front of a colourful quilt hung on the wall of an art gallery
Margaret Robson Kett in front of Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes NGV Australia

In Perth, about 2004, I went to a presentation by Dr Gero with my friend Sue, exquisite quilter and sister children’s librarian. The evening was hosted by WAQA  and meeting the Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (pictured above) was the highlight of it. This splendid array of applique and embroidery looks like 42 covers in a picture book display. There are 32 nursery rhymes represented in 34 of the squares – Jack and Jill and The Queen of Hearts are depicted twice – and the eight remaining are popular stories and books.

The books were an important factor in dating the unsigned quilt – publication dates being more exact than the older nursery rhymes and stories. During that evening, I helped identify a block labelled ‘Amelia Ann’ as a book by Constance Heward, first published in 1920. (The title is actually Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella.) Here she is.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Amelia Ann and her Green Umbrella at centre top of this detail from Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

The other books were Bambi, Brer Rabbit and a mysterious gem called The Forgetful Elephant which is peeping out from behind a dressing gown in this picture.

My increasing impatience with people exclaiming ‘Look! There’s Babar!’ (have I mentioned I saw this exhibition many times?) led me on a mission to identify this story. After a false (but charming) lead, I found it at State Library Victoria.

A children's story book with a red cover and the title The Forgetful Elephant.
Cover of the mystery children’s book depicted on Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

Unfortunately the book, like the quilt, is undated, but the noble cataloguers at SLV have estimated it as 1944. It was called ‘garish and vulgar’ by a leading Australian children’s literature critic  but that’s a bit harsh. Here’s the title page, which the unknown quiltmaker has used as the block design.

Black and white illustration of an elephant with pants on in a children's book
Title page and inspiration for block of the same name in Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes

There was another ‘story’ quilt close to this one in the exhibition : Child’s Nursery Rhyme Quilt by Amy Amelia Earl, signed and dated 1923.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt by Amy Amelia Earl

These weren’t the only quilts made for, or used by, children – Mary Jane Hannaford’s delightful Good Night quilt, made for her grandson, was another. No doubt many a bored Victorian girl amused away a Sunday looking at tiny embroidered names and figures – some designed by book illustrator Kate Greenaway –  in a crazy quilt.

I began looking really closely at the nursery rhymes depicted on both of these quilts, which were companions in the exhibition, and wondering how and why particular ones were pictured. I was intrigued to see those from my childhood that my children never heard or don’t know (Dick Whittington), and to not see the most wellknown Anglo-Celtic one of their generation (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

I’ll be examining some of the rhymes, and how these quiltmakers represented them, in upcoming blogs. I won’t be talking about what the rhymes ‘mean’ – that’s covered by the excellent scholarship of the Opies –  but I will be looking closely at how their transformation into needlework has elevated them beyond the ditty.

I did say I may have become obsessive.