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The World of Lucy Boston

17 March 2001 No Comment

by Celia Eddy

Lucy Boston, who died in 1990, aged 98, left an enduring legacy in her house, The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Huntingdonshire, and the wonderful garden around it, her children’s books and over twenty remarkable examples of the art of English patchwork. Today, thanks to Lucy’s daughter-in-law, Diana Boston, visitors to The Manor can experience Lucy’s world for themselves as house, garden and patchworks are all available to be viewed. Please note, though, that viewing is strictly by appointment.

For an appointment to view the house, the gardens and the patchworks, please ring 01480 463134

Various items are available to purchase from Diana Boston at The Manor House, Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire. P E 18 9BN They include postcards of the house, the garden and the patchworks, and the following books about Lucy Boston:

Memories by Lucy Boston
The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston
Lucy Boston Remembered Memories of Lucy Boston recorded by her friends and family.


Many of you will probably know – and if you don’t, your children or grandchildren almost certainly will – the Green Knowe stories by Lucy Boston, particularly since The Children of Green Knowe was dramatised for television during the 1970s. But did you know that Lucy Boston, who died aged 98 in 1990, also excelled in two other activities, namely gardening and patchwork? Her involvement in both these areas was as intense and productive as her interest in writing and resulted in her magnificent garden and in the twenty-two extraordinary patchworks which she created.

The Manor, Hemingford Grey

Her involvement with patchwork began long before the Seventies, when the craft began to gain the popularity which it enjoys today. Lucy had none of the benefits of specialist supply shops, classes or exhibitions which we now take for granted, so in her enthusiasm and dedication to the craft, her determination in seeking out and buying the fabrics she required and, most of all, in her inspired use of fabric pattern, colour and design, she was years ahead of her time.

In some respects, Lucy Boston was a classic late developer. She was well into her forties when she began to create her garden and her patchworks, and 62 when her first book, The Children of Green Knowe, was published. Although she became well-known both as a writer and as a gardener, her patchwork, which she took no less seriously and to which she devoted a great deal of time and thought, was scarcely known until 1976 when an exhibition of her work was arranged at the Kings Lynn Festival.

View of The Manor from the river

Her commitment to patchwork was such that on occasions it took precedence over her other interests, so that in one letter she writes: ‘The patchwork is romping to a conclusion. I have been doing it when duty called in every other direction. The house is a mess and the book hardly begun’.

The Patchwork of the Crosses -detail

Her first patchworks, made in 1938, were a curtain and a sofa-throw comprising rosettes of large, simple shapes in fairly muted colours. It was shortly after this that Lucy acquired The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, a Norman house surrounded by a moat. While restoration of the house was in progress her attention turned to the need to furnish it. It was by now war-time and new fabrics were hard to come by, but as she had always been a keen seam- stress Lucy thriftily made use of her stash of remnants and scraps to make curtains, bed-spreads and door curtains. Her patchworks from this period are a true reflection of the ‘make do and mend’ tradition in which the craft has its roots. If what was produced was utilitarian AND aesthetically pleasing, this demonstrated the skill and artistry of the maker in ‘finding creative solutions within a given framework’, as Jonathan Holstein aptly expresses it.

High Magic, created for Lucy’s friend, Sir Martin Ryle, the Astronomer Royal

Lucy’s earliest patchworks were made to answer entirely practical needs. For example, during the war she held regular weekly music evenings to which men stationed at nearby RAF Wyton were invited to hear some of her extensive collection of records. As the only seating she could offer the expected bus load of men was one sofa and a few Regency chairs, she pieced together what remnants she had, making bed-spreads to cover mattresses and covering pillows with various fabrics to make them into cushions.

Lucy clearly had an eye for old quilts and was buying them as early as the 1940s. One of these early acquisitions is pieced with small hexagon rosettes and is very weighty because of the thick backing, sheep’s wool interlining and heavy quilting – no doubt necessary to anchor the sheep’s wool firmly. The quilt has an inscription ‘Begun in 1801 …. completed 1803′. These old quilts were not put away and hoarded but were pressed into everyday use as draught-excluders and window curtains, some of which are still in place. Of course, the quilts suffered under the constant wear and tear and the destructive influences of wood-smoke and light so that every winter Lucy had to restore them, which she did by using new but appropriate fabrics.

This, however, was a task she relished and in which she even found the inspiration for one of her books: ‘I had been repairing the old patch- work curtains hanging in the dining room, in which every piece of material was pre 1803. As one turned over the folds, it was easy to pick out the clothes of the whole house- hold, young, adult and old, every- day and best, master and maid It grieved me to have to cover any of them up, but a hole is no use even historically. Out of the study of ravishing hand-printed muslins, cot- tons and and cambrics – the quality of the materials themselves was a joy to the eyes and fingers – came the idea for The Chimneys of Green Knowe.’

In the end the curtains were almost entirely her own work, but Lucy’s skill and artistry in the choice of fabrics and their arrangement are apparent even in the repairs. Today, her daughter-in-law Diana Boston, sitting in the dining room facing the big curtain when it is drawn at night, says that she can see where many of Lucy’s early ideas for patchwork originated. At first she simply used fabrics of a similar colour randomly cut but later began to cut hexagons with more thought for the final result, using the patterns # in the fabric to create new patterns. She also used stripes to create new patterns in a way which many of us might more readily associate with con- temporary quilt makers like Jinny Beyer, but this use of pattern in fabric to create intricate patterns within the patchwork became the hallmark of Lucy’s work.

Although the current ‘boom’ in patchwork and quilting enthusiasm dates only from the Seventies, the history of Luy Boston’s involvement with the craft clearly shows that the practical interest in it had never completely died even if it did not excite the interest that it does today. Lucy’s first ideas and inspiration were gained from the catalogue of A.J. Scott of Brook Street, Watlington, Oxford. This included basic instructions for making patchwork as well as offering a wide range of patchwork templates and ideas for the designs which could be created from them, showing that there was a demand for patchwork tools and instruction. By way of example, one of Lucy’s orders, in 1961, was for:

1000 1″ hexagons, 1000 1′ long diamond cards, a set of templates to make a sixteen- pointed star, a set of templates to make a fine-pointed star and 100 2′ diamond cards.

The prices were 10d. for 50 hexagon or octagon cards, 6d. for 50 squares and although buying these ready-made cards might seem an extravagance to us nowadays, Lucy’s neat and tiny stitching (twenty stitches to the inch, remember!) meant that with care they could be removed and used again. Later, when prices escalated, Luey made her own paper and card templates, sometimes getting friends to help – provided they could cut accurately!

Among her surviving patchwork equipment there are many of these re-used cards with tiny perforations round the edges, from the over- sewing, and holes showing where they were tacked. In 1967 she acquired Averil Colby’s book PATCHWORK and no doubt there was some Colby influence after that date, but her previous designs were entirely her own. Perhaps, without knowing it, she was following the trend which Averil Colby was then encouraging. In her patchworking as in her writing, Lucy ‘was fully in touch with the spirit of the times’ as Jill Paton Walsh has said. Her experience of repairing patchworks taught Lucy the importance of using fabrics which would last, so, apart from during the War, she never used worn clothes or furnishing fabrics but preferred unused remnants from garments, chair covers or curtains. At a certain stage she began to search out and buy fabrics specifically for patchworking, tirelessly searching the shops, often in the company of her niece, Caroline Hemming, who describes one such trip:

‘Shopping for cottons was as exhilarating as any other specialist chase. Much would depend on whether it was a good year. You might draw a blank with crude designs and dyes or fashion might decree subtle batiks in which case you would buy as much as you dared. I was in Liberty in 1952 with Lucy, buying cottons with her characteristic authority and painter’s eye for what would or would not do. It was an exhilarating half hour, and we left with the usual frisson of pleasurable guilt’.

Notice that there were none of the specially produced patchwork cottons which are ubiquitous today and on which we tend to rely so much.

Many of the patchworks were worked in the traditional ‘block’ method, one which nowadays we tend to associate with American patchwork but which was in fact often used in English patchwork from an early date. Lucy concentrated on a single block and when it was completed put it aside in one of the large but flat baskets which she kept beside her while she worked. In her introduction to the 1976 exhibition she describes graphically the practicalities of patchwork:

‘The occupation is disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials’. She adds that ‘…traditionally one needle should do the whole quilt, and it shapes itself into a curve most convenient for oversewing.’

When the blocks were finished, they were spread on the floor or on a double bed and moved around until she was satisfied with the arrangement. Then they were sewn together, often with sashing and borders, in which case as much thought went into the choice of fabric for the joining as it did into the actual blocks. The tiny stitching of the blocks was immaculate and Diana Boston describes them as looking ‘as if they were sewn by the Tailor of Gloucester’. Since all Lucy’s time and energy in the summer went into her garden, her sewing took place in winter, in the very dark dining room of her ancient house, by artificial light. But the hands which produced this fine work were not soft and dainty, as one might expect, but large and practical.Peter Gunn, in Lucy Boston Remembered says: ‘what was immediately remarkable were her large, gnarled and weathered hands, like those of a competent artisan’. They were hard and rough from her weeding and planting in the garden.

Lucy worked at her patchworks until well into her nineties. Her enjoyment of ‘the chase’ for fabrics continued almost to the end, despite failing sight which hampered her sewing activities. Writing to Caroline Hemming she says: Please order 1 yard of each of these [fabrics] for which I enclose £2. Should I be too blind to do another patchwork I will give you my whole store.’

She adds, touchingly, that she is seeing an occulist the following week and that she ‘hopes to achieve fine sight.’

The restoration of The Manor also involved the restoration and development of the garden. Her garden, as her patchwork, showed evidence of Lucy’s painterly eye for colour and shape. Here are her words on the subject of colour in patchwork:

‘IT is a fallacy that in patchwork any colour goes. The pleasure of the work comes from using one’s own choice of colour for each two little pieces one sews together, as a painter would. A desperate search through tumbled masses of bits for the right tone is often necessary, and one can only use what one has.’

In the garden the emphasis was on scented flowers, particularly the old fashioned roses, and there were herbaceous borders, a topiaried chess set and a wilderness area. The house and garden provided the inspiration and the real-life setting for the Green Knowe books, in which the children who have lived there from the 12th century to the present meet each other.

After Lucy’s death in 1990, her son, Peter, and daughter-in law, Diana, took on the daunting task of maintaining the Manor House. Lucy had been completely resistant to the idea of any but the most basic modernisation of the house, being determined to maintain the spirit and atmosphere of its Norman past. When Peter and Diana decided to move in, although they found themselves living without some of the expected refinements of contemporary life, they were just as committed to preserving the original ambience of the house as Lucy had been.

Diana undertook the restoration of the garden, a daunting task as Lucy had been unable to keep it properly under control in her later years, and with the help of a gardener, she has now restored it to its original splendour. She also, importantly, undertook the care and preservation of the patchworks, some of which needed expensive conservation work. Her book, The Patchworks of Lucy Boston, appeared in 1995 and contains colour illustrations of almost all the patchworks. All this was done in loving memory of Lucy and because they both believed that the world which Lucy had created at The Manor had a value and interest which outlived its maker. Following Peter’s death 1999, Diana has continued her work of maintaining house, gardens and patchworks, all of which can be viewed by appointment.

For an appointment to view the house, the gardens and the patchworks, please ring +44(0)1480 463164

Various items are available to purchase from Diana Boston at The Manor House, Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire. P E 18 9BN They include postcards of the house, the garden and the patchworks, and the following books about Lucy Boston:

Memories by Lucy Boston
The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston
Lucy Boston Remembered Memories of Lucy Boston recorded by her friends and family.

© Celia Eddy

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