Sing a Song of Sixpence

As convoluted as any royal story in today’s gossip mags, Sing a Song of Sixpence offers plenty of scope for illustration : on paper and in fabric.

This is the only nursery rhyme which I’ve attempted in quilt form (to date.) Completed in about 2002, I didn’t even try to pretend that it was for either of my children. A long and fairly directionless period experimenting with dyes left me with sizeable samples. The consequence of this experimentation was of course that the fabrics go with nothing but each other.  I chanced on one of those serendipitous buys in an op shop : six rolls of indigo cotton, each 14″ wide and more than nine yards on each. This gave me a ground and sashing to attempt my own rebus retelling, in a 5 x 4 setting.

Coloured fabric squares and naive representations of birds and crowns
Hand-dyed fabrics and rough appliqued version of the nursery rhyme

At the time, I felt that the colourways were reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’s rendition of the song. (My linear guess-what’s-happening storytelling can’t compare with his.) The chef’s triumphal entry in full view of the suburban royalty whose house is surely too small for such a theatrical dish. Engaged in their separate activities, their majesties watch the escaping birds like TV. The maid cheerfully and impassively goes on with her laundry, unaware of the one escapee attracted by her cherry red nose.

Coloured picture from a children's poetry book shows a baker staggering under the weight of a pie with birds escaping from it.
Briggs imagines the royal scene as a domestic disaster

William Stobbs shows his monarch doubting the daintiness of the dish. The birds’ open beaks portend the attack on the maid’s nose. Her raised forearm, built up with years of laundering, may triumph.

In a children's songbook, a king reacts with surprise looking at an enormous pie full of birds
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Given all these possibilities, then, this block from the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt is not one of its best. Only familiarity with the rhyme could identify this blonde bouffant with purple bubbles as a pie. The stripey deep dish is commodious enough for the two dozen blackbirds, but so much effort has gone into the working of the title that the needleworker was forced to merely sketch a few of the birds escaping.

Appliqued and embroidered picture of a fruit pie with birds flying away from it
Nineteen blackbirds have already flown the block

I’m planning a new quilt based on another nursery rhyme – inspired by the two I’ve studied and written about since seeing NGV’s Making the Australian Quilt, nearly a year ago now.

A novelty children's book collection with line drawings by Randolph Caldecott
Miniature versions of classic illustrated children’s poems and songs

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.