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Unidentified women of the convict ship, HMS Rajah

Unidentified women of the convict ship, HMS Rajah

makers

Kezia HAYTER

England, Great Britain 1818 – Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1885

designer (attributed to)

  • Movements: to Australia 1841

The Rajah quilt 1841 pieced medallion style unlined coverlet: cotton sheeting and chintz appliqué, silk thread embroidery pieced medallion style unlined coverlet: cotton sheeting and chintz appliqué, silk thread embroidery
325.0 h x 337.2 w cm
Gift of Les Hollings and the Australian Textiles Fund 1989
Accession No: NGA 89.2285

ENLARGE


  • The Rajah quilt is one of Australia’s most important early textiles. The quilt was made by women convicts on board the ship Rajah while being transported from England to Van Diemen’s Land. While it is a compelling document of convict life, it is also an extraordinary work of art – a product of beauty from the hands of many women who, while
    in the most abject circumstances, were able to work together to produce an object of hope.

    The British Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, established by the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, had offered prisoners training in useful tasks, such as needlecraft, to keep them occupied during their transportation and incarceration, and donated fabrics and sewing supplies for this work. When the Rajah arrived in Hobart on 19 July 1841, these supplies had been turned into this inscribed patchwork, embroidered and appliqué coverlet. The coverlet was presented to the Governor’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, as evidence of the women’s industry.

    Made using the pieced-medallion style common in the late eighteenth century, especially in Ireland, its central panel is worked with broderie perse, a term used to describe appliquéd chintz, probably because of its supposed resemblance to Persian embroidery. The inscription is finely worked in silk yarn. From the quilt’s 2815 pieces we can see a cross-section of contemporary textile technology of the period, its patterns, printing techniques and design influences.

     

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • 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.

    Deborah Ward


    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