Roll over Bayeaux

IssueJuly - August 2009
Comment by Roger Stephenson

The idea began at the Friends Meeting House in Taunton in 1981. 11-year-old Jonathan Stocks felt that the room where they held the children’s meeting needed cheering up. He discussed it with their teacher, Anne Wynn-Wilson. They needed pictures. Why not a history of Quakerism in collage or mosaic? Or embroidery?

Anne was a professional embroiderer. She had recently completed a study of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not really a tapestry but a 70-metre-long strip of linen embroidered with woollen thread: a frieze telling the story of the Norman conquest in words and pictures.

Thinking constantly about the Quakers, she had a vision of what it should be: a series of panels each illustrating one event or idea from Quaker history. Each panel would be made (researched, designed and embroidered) by a differing Meeting or group, but she would have to oversee the design to keep it unified.

Another part of her vision was that, being a community project, making the tapestry would bring people together. In the end, the tapestry was made by over 4,000 men, women and children from 15 countries over a period of 15 years, until 1996.

It was decided to limit the number of panels to 77. They were originally chosen and arranged in thematic groups each relating to a chapter or chapters in the book produced by the yearly Meeting of Quakers: Quaker faith and practice.

There were six themes ranging from “God and man” and “Publishing truth” to “National and international responsibilities”. They are now hung chronologically to tell aspects of the Quaker story from the beginning to the present. The impact of all these panels together is overwhelming.

Walking along the closely-hung rows, I stop at three panels:
“Quaker Vigils for Peace” shows a demonstration that took place in Trafalgar Square in May 1980: a thousand people standing silently, many holding a banner or placard. This one image is used to represent the many vigils Quakers have taken part in calling for peace and social justice, including in 1966 against the war in Vietnam and in 1991 against the Gulf war.
“British Quakers protest to parliament against the Slave Trade in 1783”: In June 1783, the British Quakers’ yearly meeting sent a petition to parliament signed by 273 Friends urging that participation in the slave trade be forbidden absolutely.

The panel shows, on the left, the yearly meeting, and, on the right, the petition being read in parliament.

“Relief work overseas”: “In the relief of suffering we maintain the principle of impartial giving to all, of whichever nation, race, creed or class are in need.”

The Quaker Tapestry tells us about our history, but it also tells us about the present. As in all great art, the images and events have a continuing resonance and relevance.

This year, there are two subsidiary displays: the “Weapons of the Spirit” exhibition, which shows several of the ways in which Quakers have worked for peace from their founding in the 17th century to the present day (reviewed in PN 2508) and the Barrett Friendship Quilt. This is a counterpane made from small squares embroidered by 34 women members and friends of a Quaker family from the beginning of 1899 to the end of 1909.

The work was done individually and separately, and then assembled into the whole. The simple outline designs show women’s interests and concerns of the time: the Boer war; the children’s nursery, appropriately for a counterpane – sleep; the language of flowers; and the passing of time.

This is an extended version of the taster in the last issue of PN.