Mrs Amelia Brown, who made this quilt, lived in Bowning, a village just north of Yass in New South Wales. She probably made the quilt for Margaret Swann of Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, and was known to the Swann family at least as 'Grannie' Brown. Some sense of Mrs Brown's life and leanings can be inferred from examination of the quilt itself - from the economy of its construction, the rhythm and balance of the design, and the subject matter of the central appliqué medallion.
The paradox of patchwork traditions is that they are generated by circumstances of both abundance and scarcity. The juxtaposition of differently coloured, textured and patterned fabrics, carefully selected, cut and stitched together to achieve a decorative effect, and often to express an idea, is the essence of patchwork, and can be achieved with new fabrics, acquired for the purpose, or with old ones, hoarded and recycled. On the face of it, the present poor condition of some of the printed cotton pieces in this quilt could be due as easily to wear, tear and washing during the quilt's useful life as to Mrs Brown's re-use of fabrics. The back of the quilt, however, provides clear evidence of her practice of economy, as it too has been pieced together with different-sized scraps from a variety of white materials.
The design of Grannie Brown's quilt is an elegant and light-hearted composition, which clearly demonstrates her considerable artistic ability, using mainly earth colours, with some soft blue-green, she has created a playground of rectilinear forms and a complex interaction of tonal values around the central red and white medallion. Working outwards from the medallion, each 'row' is composed of a series of squares, variously constructed from smaller squares, rectangles and triangles. Their differing orientation creates an extremely lively effect.
The appliquéd central medallion, which depicts the unofficial Australian coat of arms is balanced and accentuated by the corner placement of four red seven-pointed stars. Although the subject matter is probably a reflection of Mrs Brown's serious support for federalism, the upside-down placement of the shield is suggestive of a certain irreverence. Margaret Swann, for whom the quilt was made, is known to have been a champion of federation and was also president of the Women's Suffrage League. Given the enormous commitment of time needed to make a quilt, and this one is sewn throughout by hand, Grannie Brown must have had a particular affection for Margaret Swann, with whom she seems to have shared the political ideologies of nationalism and feminism.
Because of the coat of arms, and the quilt's historical significance, the central medallion was chosen as the logo for the national quilt exhibition, Quilt Australia '88, held in Sydney to mark Australia's bicentenary.
The scale and 'flatness' of patchwork quilts renders them eminently effective as art objects. While their place in the private and museum collections of the world certainly does justice to their beauty, and to the talent of their makers, the original purpose of most quilts was to provide warmth, covering and comfort. That they provided pleasure beyond the purely functional is implicit in the elaborate care which went into their making and in their survival as treasured family heirlooms.
Christina Sumner, Curator Decorative Arts & Design, 1991
'Decorative Arts and Design From The Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, p.95
This quilt was designed and made by Amelia Brown (1817-1905) of Bowning, New South Wales, some time after her arrival in Australia in 1857. It is one of a pair of quilts made by Amelia, the other having been made on the voyage to Australia and with a red cockerel as the centrepiece. The quilts bear a strong relationship to each other both in materials and construction. Amelia Brown was born in 1817 in Exeter, England, and migrated to Australia with her husband John Brown and seven children in 1857. They settled in the Bowning area and Amelia died there in 1905.
The significance of this quilt lies in its symbolism and history rather than any excellence in needlework. Indeed, it is not particularly well made. Pieced rows of squares and triangles radiate out from the central medallion. There is much evidence of manipulation of the pattern as irregularly sized sections have resulted in rows that do not meet perfectly and additional pieces have had to be inserted. This supports the family's belief that it was 'made by children'. The quilt also displays evidence of economy: the back of the quilt is made of small patches of white cotton frugally sewn together.
Much has been made of the significance of the coat of arms in the centre of the quilt. Appliqued in red on a white background this shows an early version of the Australian coat of arms with an emu and kangaroo standing on either side of a shield and looking away from it. The shield has been sewn on upside down, possibly necessary because of the tight fit of the central medallion. This coat of arms had been in unofficial use since at least the mid 1800s and was particularly popular in the gold rush years. It often appears in prints by S.T. Gill and on the cover of emigrant guides.
Amelia Brown met William and Elizabeth Swann and their nine daughters when William was headmaster of the Bowning Public School between 1877 and 1880. Although the Swann children were much younger than the Brown children, friendships sprang up between them and continued when the Swanns moved to Parramatta. At some stage in the late 1800s, the quilt was given by Amelia Brown to Margaret Swann.
Kimberley Webber, Senior Curator Australian History, 1999