Sew Engaging at the Rising Sun

Dr Jane McCutchan is back in Reading for the latest stage of  the Sew Engaging project…

Drop in at Rising Sun Arts Centre, near the Royal Berks Hospital on a Thursday morning, and you are close to Heaven. Eleven o’clock and the clients have stopped for a tea break.  The chair under Dennis (not his real name) is gently collapsing, but he smiles at me like an angel.

‘Hello,’ I say, ‘I’m the sewing lady.’

‘Rising Sun’ is one of the first community groups to take part in the ‘Sew Engaging’ project, which is reaching out to the public while the Museum of English Rural Life is closed for refurbishment. I have been invited to spend the day at the Centre and see their progress.

Sew engaging rising sun 1


The tea break is over and there is an eagerness to return to work. Larry, the group leader, holds up the quilt panels for everyone to admire; beautiful colours, carefully applied beads and lovingly stitched applique … you can hear a pin drop. I am at a loss to know what to suggest, each panel is a work of art.

‘We need help with the borders,’ Larry tells me, and I can see the problem. ‘We have a treadle sewing machine and want to stitch the squares onto a backing, but it will be a challenge.  What we really need is a hand sewing machine.’

(Note: If you would like to help Rising Sun with their quilt project, please post a comment below and we will pass on your message).


Sew engaging rising sun 2


As it happens, I have a sewing machine in the back of the car, a vintage ‘Regina’. It had been given to me by Sir William McAlpine and offered to the Museum, but as MERL already had several models of a similar vintage in its collections, if was decided that it could be put to much better use by if handed over to a group who might be able to use it. Now, spruced up and polished, there is only one problem, it doesn’t work. This is a set-back, but everyone is encouraging, ‘It’s so pretty … look at the flowers.’

We turn to and make a wall hanging for Election Day and VE Day. Hugh Ehrman has given us a patriotic needlepoint kit, and this is our inspiration.


Sew engaging rising sun 3


I take ‘Regina’ to Tom Dilley, Sewing Machine Service & Sales in Swindon. The wooden carrying case has ‘locked’ and there isn’t a key. I wait while he finds one that will fit, removes the lid and carefully examines the ‘patient’.

Sew engaging rising sun 4


The diagnosis is not good, the bobbin winder is broken and the threading mechanism is more complex than a Singer sewing machine of the same age. BUT the handle turns, the needle goes up and down and it makes a wonderfully soothing sound. Perhaps we can make perforated patterns on paper, and then everyone will be able to use the sewing machine.


Discovering the Landscape #15: The Chelsea Flower Show

Written by Adam Lines, Reading Room Supervisor 

As the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on (19-23 May 2015) is on – what better time to delve into our Landscape Institute collection for some garden inspiration!

AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

‘Paola’ by Aldo d’Adamo: AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea

These beautiful images show a Sculpture Garden for Chelsea Flower Show designed by Preben Jakobsen (1934-2012) in 1982.

Preben Jakobsen was an award winning Danish landscape architect and member of the Landscape Institute, first studying at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew before studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He designed many gardens throughout his career including this, his Sculpture Garden for Chelsea Flower Show in 1982.

The garden features a fireplace designed by Jakobsen specifically for Chelsea, as well as a range of contemporary Japanese and Italian sculptures which were flown over from Florence.

The construction team lowering Giulio Ciniglia’s ‘Night-swimmers’ into place. This sculpture was created without any design or models and depicts two tomb robbers submerged by waves in a stormy sea: AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea_3

The construction team lowering Giulio Ciniglia’s ‘Night-swimmers’ into place. This sculpture was created without any design or models and depicts two tomb robbers submerged by waves in a stormy sea: AR JAK PH5_1982_Sculpture Garden Chelsea_3

The garden at Chelsea was influenced by another of Jakobsen’s designs – a domestic garden in London from 1979, recently rediscovered by landscape architect Karen Fitzsimon – which won the British Association of Landscape Industries ‘Garden of the Year’ Award in 1981. Jakobsen worked with the same construction team, C. M. Brophy Ltd., when putting together his Sculpture Garden for Chelsea in 1982. Early designs had to be altered when the plot they had hoped for was allocated to another garden, and Jakobsen and his team were presented with an embankment plot. An original plan to incorporate a waterfall was eventually replaced by the fireplace shown in the photograph above.

AR JAK_PF_53 1

AR JAK_PF_53 1

As well as featuring sculptures by Aldo d’Adamo, Giulio Ciniglia and Rintaro Yari, the garden incorporated plant material provided by Bressingham Gardens in Diss, Norfolk, as well as furniture designed by Charles Verney (son of renowned garden designer and writer, Rosemary Verey) whose work had been exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.

AR JAK_PF_53 2

AR JAK_PF_53 2

Correspondence contained in the Preben Jakobsen archive shows that an idea for a sundial garden was put forward by Jakobsen for the 1983 Chelsea Flower Show. However this idea fell through when detailed plans were not submitted on time, and they were unable to secure a plot. The idea was revived for the 1984 show, but the same problem occurred.

For more information on our Preben Jakobsen collection click here or contact us on to arrange a visit to view archival material in our Reading Room.

You can also find lots of other Chelsea Flower Show material on our catalogue, including material from the MERL library, our Farmer and Stockbreeder Photographic Collection and Sutton Seeds Collection.



Rural Reads review: Far from the Madding Crowd

As the Rural Reads Plus book group is now taking inspiration from the University of Reading’s Special Collections as well as the Museum of English Rural Life, our recent reviews have been published on the Special Collections blog, but this one takes us back to our roots…! Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, is clearly a fan!


fftmcTo celebrate Spring and to coincide with the new film adaption starring Carey Mulligan, the group read the quintessential ‘rural read’ – Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. To quote myself at book group, ‘Why has it taken us over four years to read this book?!’ Far from the Madding Crowd embodies the Museum of English Rural Life, and there are so many elements of the novel that correlate with our collections. Within the first few pages there is a mention of a spring wagon and countless other objects we hold within our collections.

Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of Bathsheba, a young woman who inherits her uncle’s farm and decides to run it herself. While running the farm, Bathsheba becomes the target of three potential suitors: the wholesome Shepherd Gabriel Oak, the lonely and wealthy Mr Boldwood and the handsome but dastardly cad Sergeant Troy. It is this narrative that drives the story, which is filled out with events on the farm.

Hardy provides the reader with an accurate and vivid portrayal of living in the countryside in the nineteenth century. The various roles and the ways in which work revolved around the seasons are colourfully revealed with sequences that involve everything from thwacking the corn through to sheep dipping. Gabriel’s role as a shepherd caring for his flock is expertly told; Hardy uses the romantic vision of the lonely shepherd to add to Oak’s character but also delves into the technicalities and realities of shepherding.

Much of the group’s discussion focused on the personalities of Bathsheba’s three love interests. We furiously debated Captain Troy’s return and whether he was attempting to repent for his past actions that had resulted in Fanny’s death. A few members of the group believed he was a reformed character where others were not so convinced and still believed him a shallow cad.

A sense of community encircles the novel, a tight knit rural community where everyone has their role and gossip is always rife. As a group we really liked the ‘yokel’ characters that populated the book; Hardy used them to provide that sense of community.

Overall the group enjoyed the book; I personally loved it and I think that every member of staff here at MERL should read this book (we are making inroads!). For month of May we’re reading The Dig by John Preston. Join us!

What have we been up to? Our Country Lives Top 10 #2

This gallery contains 6 photos.

We’ve been very busy over the last few months, so here’s our latest Top 10 run-down of what’s been happening… 1. Bringing the wagons down from their overhead positions was a delicate and pretty scary job for our conservator and team of specialists. See how it went.   2. We’ve grown! The extension to our welcome area […]

Wellcome news for Our Country Lives!

Assistant Curator, Ollie Douglas shares some exciting project news…

It has been hard keeping the news under wraps for the last few weeks, but it is very exciting to finally be able to share some news which will have a really significant impact on the Museum’s redevelopment. We are delighted to announce that The Wellcome Trust has awarded the Museum £385,277 for a new project, ‘Our Country Lives: Nutrition, Health and Rural England’. This will support the Museum’s current Heritage Lottery funded redevelopment and introduce new themes and interactive opportunities connected to animal health, human nutrition and rural healthcare.

We will be taking on new staff to work on the project, and a panel of specialist advisors will also help deliver a dynamic and diverse programme of science engagement, including online content, hands-on experiences and artistic interventions developed in collaboration with bio-medical experts. For the very first time the Museum will be able to explore the extraordinary links between science and the countryside, connecting these vital topics to its diverse and surprising collections.

Emphasis on the science underpinning rural life represents an exciting challenge and a new direction. This project will transform the Museum from a site of agricultural heritage into a centre that engages the public in the science behind the food that they eat, the research that underpins the health of domestic animals, and some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century such as food security and human nutrition. Such topics will form the focus of interactive opportunities and exhibits in the new galleries, where visitors will be able to explore subjects as diverse as bovine tuberculosis, the challenges of animal birthing and the latest research into links between milk fat and health. These subjects will be linked to extraordinary collections including an articulated model calf used in veterinary training, 19th-century livestock portraits that reveal the power of selective breeding and a type of straw mattress used in delivery of country babies.


As a museum, we are already known for our compelling social history exhibits and for innovative explorations of how our ideas about the countryside have been shaped through popular culture. The combination of new posts, new displays and new programming made possible by this funding will help us to tell a more inclusive, evocative and complete story. It will mean that we are able to speak and appeal to a much greater diversity of visitors and that we can explore complex scientific questions and issues that are of profound importance to all our lives.

The Museum’s dedicated team are hard at work developing content for displays and interleaving this with new bio-medical and scientific narratives. A wide range of specialists from the University and beyond will contribute towards this project as it develops, helping to bring our rural heritage alive in new ways and connecting it to cutting-edge scientific thinking. Although rooted in museum-based activity and public engagement, this innovative scheme shows the potential for interdisciplinary thinking and cross-departmental collaboration to deliver exciting new departures and developments. The Museum is also keen for the project to provide students with opportunities to gain experience of public engagement and for related programming to support widening participation in the University.

We are very grateful to Professor Christine Williams OBE, an expert in Human Nutrition at the University of Reading and one of the project’s specialist advisors, for helping the Museum to secure this funding. She says “This shift towards exploring the links between biomedical science and rural life is extremely important for the Museum and for the wider scientific community. The University of Reading is committed to excellence in research and has strengths in the life sciences, particularly in relation to food and nutrition. This project will enable us to build stronger links between active research scientists and the wider public, using the Museum and its collections as an innovative platform on which to establish and build this relationship.”

We’ll be keeping you up to date with project developments in a ‘Wellcome news!’ series of posts here on the blog.

Focus on Collections: Dragons

To celebrate St George’s Day we decided to delve into the object collection for dragons.

IMG_8820Dragons are normally something you would keep well away from Museum stores. Messy eaters, far too large and prone to setting things on fire, they are possibly the least ideal animal to have in a storehouse full of dry baskets, wooden tools and straw samples.


And yet, some curator long ago saw fit to let at least a few dragons in. Our first three are fairly manageable, being altogether about ten centimetres long, made of corn and being – on closer inspection – actually quite cute. Modelled on the fierce beasts of mythology, these corn dolly dragons made by Doris Johnson appear to be aquatic rather than airborne, with only two legs, a spiral tail and no real wings to speak of.


Our next dragons are similarly flammable but, since they were made in 1787, have managed to survive. They are known as Housen, and are pieces of decoration meant to be attached to a horse’s collar. They both depict a pair of dragons in the centre, mouths set against a globe. The style of both pieces is very reminiscent of Nordic designs, and yet these two pieces were collected from Twyford. Their origin is obscure, but they may have developed from the guard attached to the front of the saddle to protect the groins of a knight in armour, which at least gives them a flavour of St George.

The lack of wings, however, make us wonder if these even do depict dragons. Are they in fact heavily stylised lions?


Discovering the Landscape #14: 1500 books now catalogued!

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

1500 items from the Landscape Institute library have now been integrated into our MERL library collection.  These items include books and pamphlets, which have all been cleaned, processed, catalogued and labelled and are available in our open access library.  A small number of rare books received from the Landscape Institute have also been catalogued into our closed access MERL LIBRARY RESERVE collection.

Amherst's Children's Gardens (1902) integrated into our MERL Library Reserve Collection

Amherst’s Children’s Gardens (1902) integrated into our MERL Library Reserve Collection

These titles complement our existing holdings, particularly our MERL library books on topics such as gardening, land policy and the environment, this new material also prompts us to consider our MERL collections afresh.   The landscape is the backdrop to all aspects of rural life, but must also be seen as a worthy subject of consideration in its own right.

Why not visit our Reading Room and take a look…

MERL Reading Room

MERL Reading Room

We’re very grateful to our library volunteers who have been a great help with the processing and labeling of this collection.  There are still many hundreds of books to go!  Please contact us on if you would like more information.

Volunteers’ Voice: Object handling

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, explains how museum volunteers are learning how to deliver object handling sessions.

For the past 6 months we have been working with Museum’s Consultant Charlotte Dew to create, develop object handling sessions for visitors to the museum which will be delivered regularly by our volunteers when we reopen. We’ll also be able to provide booked object handling sessions for groups.

Volunteering handling1
Six session plans were devised, looking at parts of our collections that could lend themselves to a handling experience. These included everything from spoon carving to shepherding. A diverse range of objects and sessions will allow repeat visitors to enjoy and learn something new each time they visit.

To ensure that visitors are provided with the best possible experience and the volunteers feel comfortable, confident and happy too, Charlotte and I have developed a training strategy. As this was the first time we had delivered this type of training and project, we planned our first session as a workshop to inform our actual training sessions. By using this model, the volunteers showed us what they needed to be taught and where help would be best placed. Two training sessions were devised; in the first session we covered the basics with some role play, the second session was focused on role play and having a go. It was important to instil confidence in the volunteers and prove to them they could do the role. This meant getting hands on with the objects, teaching the basic handling rules, i.e. two hands, hold over the table, don’t hold the handle etc.

Volunteering handling2
There is still a long time to go before we reopen and our volunteers will be able to provide handling sessions for the general visitor. In the interim period, volunteers will continue training and rehearsing. Some volunteers are also carrying out individual research into the some of the objects for handling. When the Museum re-opens in 2016, visitors will have a chance for the first time to have a go at touching some of our objects, which we hope will enhance their experience.

Discovering the Landscape #13: From garden space to masterplan

Seminar series round up: Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

Our captivating landscape inspired seminar series has drawn to an end.  We’re delighted the series has been so well attended; a testament to the speakers and to the fascinating subject matter.

If you attended any of the talks (or were unable to) and want to find out more, you can get in touch with us by emailing

Highlighted below are a few of the items from our collections which were mentioned in the talks:


Audience for LI seminar

Audience for LI seminar

As part of ‘From garden space to masterplan: the Landscape Institute collections at MERL’ our deputy archivist Caroline Gould

and landscape architect Annabel Downs gave an insightful overview of the history of the Landscape Institute and to the collections here at MERL.

Our Landscape Institute webpages are a really useful starting point for research into our collections and as a source of background information and handlists for specific collections, such as the Brenda Colvin collection, Geoffrey Jellicoe collection and Preben Jakobsen collection (which Karen Fitzsimon used in her talk entitled ‘Rediscovering Preben Jakobsen’.

Our existing MERL archival holdings also hold many treasures to the student of landscape.  Johnathan Brown, in his talk entitled ‘Changing landscapes of farming and estates after the First World War’, used several images from the extensive MERL photographic collection to great effect.  A full listing of our existing MERL archives can be viewed using the MERL archives A-Z.


1000 books cataloguedLibrary:

The library of the Landscape Institute is being integrated into our existing MERL library, further adding to areas of strength within the collection, on subjects such as domestic gardening, land use and the environment and conservation issues.  Reference books within the MERL library are a great place to start research into all things landscape.

We were able to show case our Gertrude Jekyll books in a pop up exhibition following Richard Bisgrove’s talk such as Gardens for Small Country Houses, Colour in the Flower Garden and Home and Garden.

The talk from Giles Pritchard and Barnaby Wheeler entitled ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ was another perfect opportunity for us to delve into our Special Collections and display some of our rare books relating to Reading Abbey.  We were also to display images from slides from the Moore Piet + Brookes collection relating to their work on the Reading Town Centre Masterplan and pedestrianisation.

The pictures below from Professor Timothy Mowl’s intriguing talk on ‘Pleasure and the Regency Garden’ enabled us to showcase some wonderful books featuring beautiful plates of the gardens at our very own Whiteknights (such as Hofland’s A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-knights).

Pop up exhibition in our Staircase Hall following an LI seminar

Pop up exhibition in our Staircase Hall following an LI seminar

Plate of Whiteknights from Hofland

Plate of Whiteknights from Hofland

As above for more information please contact us on, visit our LI webpages or search our online catalogue.

To continue discovering the landscape, FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) are holding a study day on Brenda Colvin (with a talk from Hal Moggridge, our archivists and a pop up exhibition) at MERL on Saturday 21 March.  See here for more information or contact to book.

Sew Engaging: Jane visits the Aman Group in Slough

Aman Group is a women’s only community group who meet at Manor Park Community Centre in Slough to learn from each other in friendship and participate in exercise, awareness sessions, health and beauty ideas and much more. In 2014, Sloughroots ‘Remedies-Remembered’ participants from the Aman Group got involved in a Quilt Project when they visited Museum of English Rural Life, and made 20 art panels reflecting feelings, colours, cultures, interests and values of the participants.

Sew Engaging Aman1

In March 2015, Aman Group, in partnership with Slough Borough Council, held an open morning, to discuss ideas for future sessions, and the ‘Sew Engaging’ project was on their list. ‘Please be here to set up your stall at 10.30’, they suggested, so I caught the village bus, taking the quilt and a suitcase of sewing supplies. Public transport doesn’t ‘connect up’ for rural commuters, one of the things we ‘hate’ about living in the country, but the M4 was grid-locked, due to an accident. I spent an hour waiting for the 0911 train, which was packed. ‘I thought you did well to get off at Reading,’ the Dispatcher said, grinning at my packages, but I caught the Slough shuttle and a friendly face met me at the station, ‘Welcome back’.

Sew engaging Aman group

The ladies were gathering in the Gymnasium, ‘Lovely to see you again! Are you coming every week to teach us sewing?’ The up-cycled needlework kit I had sent them was still in the envelope, but it wasn’t long before some of the women drifted towards my table.

Sew engaging aman lady

‘I loved sewing, until I had a stroke and lost the use of my arm, I wouldn’t be able to do it now’, one lady told me. How I wished I had brought a tapestry frame to show her, it holds the canvas taught so she could stitch with one hand.  I encourage her to sort the yarn into colours. ‘I look after my family and do all my own work,’ she told me. ‘Needlework would give me a few minutes relaxation and something pretty to hang on the wall.’

Sew engaging aman ladies

Soon more volunteers begin work on the unfinished ‘Butterfly’ canvas, eager to brighten up the muted blues and pinks of the floral cushion cover with gold thread and bead work.  This panel will be part of the ‘triptych’ showing things people love about the countryside.  Other panels have been sent to the Chinese Women’s Group in Reading  and the Powys Federation of Women’s Institutes, for their interpretation.

Sew engaging aman sewing


Next time, Jane visits Pennyhooks Care Farm near Oxford, and works with students who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder.