Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Princess and the Pea

Quilt No. 98
June 2014

The Princess and I have spent quite a few months together, a lot more time than I would have thought even remotely possible on the first day I laid eyes on her.  Of all places, the iconic artwork of Edmund Dulac showed up on Facebook, a forum surely never anticipated in 1911 when Mr. Dulac crafted his illustration for the fairy tale The Real Princess

It’s a fairy tale we’re all familiar with…a prince longs for a princess to marry – but she can only be a real princess.  Even back then it was tough to tell the phonies from the realies.  By chance, on a stormy night, a bedraggled girl shows up on his castle doorstep, begging for lodging and claiming to be a real princess.  As is the prerogative of all mothers who fear loss of their sons to scheming women, the Queen is suspicious.  She can’t creep the girl’s Facebook page or Google her.  But she has to know if the goods are genuine.  She devises a plan, and places a pea under “twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down quilts” (or twenty feather beds, depending on the version you read).  Only a maiden with such a “fine sense of feeling”, clearly the defining attribute of a real princess, would be able to detect the pea.  In the morning, true to form, the princess reveals her rightful station by complaining loudly about the lump in the bed.  He married her immediately.  Go figure.

I have my friend Bill to thank for the Facebook posting of the magnificent piece of art that inspired this quilt.  Bill cheerfully (and sometimes doggedly) lives with quite a few physical challenges.  One night he had a particularly bad night filled with discomfort.  He tossed and turned all night like the poor princess in her pea-ridden bed.  He posted the Dulac illustration with his comments the next morning on Facebook.  When I saw the photo of The Princess and the Pea I was a goner.  What a quilt she would make! Already the Princess had become personified in my mind. You can see a picture of the original painting here.

As children we all loved fairly tales.  We still love them as adults, but we tend to forget this.  Currently they’re enjoying a revival in the adult world as film makers have figured out that audiences of all ages are enthralled by movies and TV series featuring our favourite fairly tale friends and foes.  My Dad read these stories to me when I was a child.  My mother was more inclined to read to me from The Galloping Gas Stove, an imaginative concept, but not one that would translate into a quilt. 

You can find The Stories of Hans Anderson with Illustrations by Edmund Dulac on Project Gutenberg. His Princess illustration is the frontispiece (a word I don’t get to use nearly often enough) in the book.  Edmund Dulac was one of the five major "Golden Age" gift book illustrators. This was during an era that began in the early 1900’s when new colour printing techniques first allowed the mass production of story books with colour plates.  There’s more on Edmund Dulac and the printing industry at JVJ Publishing.  His talents were such that at age 22 he was commissioned to do 60 colour illustrations for the collected works of the Bronte sisters!

It was quite a task to choose all the fabric for such a large number of mattresses and eider-down quilts.  On my first attempt, I tried to match Dulac’s colour scheme as closely as I could.  What looked fabulous on canvas looked jarring on a quilt.  Without the subtlety of colour shade adjustment that paint allows, the colours could not be harmonized.  I started over, eliminating those odd green tones Dulac used so successfully in his painting, and stayed with pinks and blues for the bedding. 

The fun thing about a quilt of this nature is that you’re not locked into cottons like you would be for a quilt you that goes on a bed where someone might eat toast, get a fever, or play trampoline.  You can lavish on the satins (okay, largely satin-like polyesters) and use whatever creates the right look.  It’s liberating to be free of cotton, a fabric that, in the quilt world, teeters back and forth between the humble and the snobbish. 

The canopy ceiling and the mattresses were all done with a foundation piecing technique (also know as paper piecing).  You draw the pattern of the folds onto a fine piece of interfacing.  Fabrics go on the front of this.  You flip this over and sew it on the back, along your pattern lines.  It’s one of those quilt techniques that’s easier to do than it is to describe.  By running a line of basting stitches at the “top” and “bottom” of each mattress, I was able to gather them in prior to stitching them down.  A little stuffing (polyester, not feathers) and they have their puffy, mattressy appeal.

I wasn't going to put all the folds in the canopy ceiling.  Gag, what a lot of work!  After all, Dulac got to paint them in – he didn't have to deal with fold after fold of super thin slippery fabric.  It seemed too daunting a task, but my sister made me.  She’s older than me, so I have to do what she says.  I tried a lot of unsuccessful techniques before I hit on the foundation piecing technique. Constructing the folded part of the canopy ceiling (which was later sewn onto the quilt) took over three hours.  And I did not one, but two, of them. I'm not even counting the "prototype" I practiced on.  Don’t ask.  But, as always, my sister was right.  It was worth the effort.

As I anticipated, her face was a challenge.  I tried drawing it, and I tried tracing it, but she inevitably turned out more like the castle gargoyle than a princess.  I could not capture her expression, and even after all the months we’ve spent alone together, I cannot even begin to decipher her expression.  Such is the brilliance of Edmund Dulac.  She might be exasperated, frightened, exhausted, frustrated, haughty, humbled, coming down with a touch of ague.  I just can’t tell.  But what I do know was is that the quilt would be nothing without preserving that mysterious expression she possesses in the original painting.  To keep it true to the original I printed her face out on fabric and used that.  I still puzzle over what she’s thinking about each time I look at her.
I also didn't want to do the details on the bedposts.  Really, this project was just dragging on and on.  Quilts with more tangible deadlines kept passing the Princess by in the queue, as they went on to welcome babies, celebrate birthdays, or comfort a bereaved friend.  But when someone near and dear to me (who I just happen to be married to) insisted that the posts needed the details, I knew he was right.  Again.  Dang.  The hand embroidery took just shy of forever, but in the end I was glad I’d been arm-twisted into it.  The Princess deserves the best. 

There are many, many artists’ interpretations that accompany the innumerable versions of Hans Christian Andersens’s story, The Real Princess.  They range from stunning to whimsical to eerie, but I think Edmund Dulac did it best.  I hope he would approve of my tribute to his superb piece of art. I like to think he would be happy to know that there is indeed a pea hidden in this quilt.  As for the Princess?  Well, perhaps she is not so happy to have that nasty dried up legume in her bed.  But such are the tribulations when you are a real princess.


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