In 1816, Elizabeth Fry, concerned by the plight of women prisoners in gaol and during transportation, formed the Quaker group, The British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. One of the many improvements that the Society implemented was to offer prisoners useful tasks such as needlecraft to keep them occupied during incarceration. Prisoners were given sewing supplies, which included 10 yards of fabric, 100 needles, threads, pins and scissors.
These provisions were carried by the 180 women prisoners on board the Rajah as it set sail from Woolwich, England on 5 April 1841 bound for Van Dieman’s Land. When the Rajah arrived in Hobart on 19 July 1841, Governor Franklin’s wife was presented with an inscribed patchwork, embroidered and appliquéd coverlet: the Rajah quilt.
A fine cross-stitch inscription on the lower border declares the quilt was made by the prisoners for ‘The British Ladies Society’ in gratitude for their kindness. This testimony was unusual as most items made were kept by the women or sold en route.
Several different women with varying sewing skills produced the Rajah quilt. The 2,815 fabric pieces of the quilt are joined in the medallion or framed quilt style popular in the late 18th century in England and Ireland. The central field (and the area surrounding the inscription) is decorated with broderie perse orappliqué chintz. This is bordered by eight rows of patchwork in printed cottons, which showcase the fashion and changes in the textile printing industry at the time.
The Rajah quilt is a work not only of great historical significance but also of visual symmetry and elegance, an important example of Australian women’s art of the 19th century.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002