A stitch in time: Conservation of 1951 wall hangings begins

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

Today, a very exciting part of Our Country Lives began – in fact, it is almost the starting pistol to the project! Accredited conservator Kate Gill will begin conservation work on two of our Michael O’Connell wall hangings. These are huge, 7×3.5m pieces of textile art made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and this work will allow us to put them on public display for the first time in around 62 years in our new extension. See this moving GIF to see its unveiling!

We have only previously brought out the hangings for special occasions or for researchers.

We have only previously brought out the hangings for special occasions or for researchers.

Michael O'Connell in his Melbourne workshop.

Michael O’Connell in his Melbourne workshop.

Their creator has been described as a ‘Lost Modernist’, a textile artist whose style and colour typify the 1950s and ‘60s, though at the time they were considered stylishly bold, brash and modern. Artistically, O’Connell found his feet in Melbourne, Australia where he honed his craft skills by building his own house in 1923, something he was forced into after a health inspector condemned his previous home, which consisted of a tent and bits of ragged furniture. His romantic lifestyle on the outskirts of Melbourne society, often journeying into the Australian bush to paint and draw, was a far cry from his upbringing in Dalton, Cumbria. His previous aim was to study Agriculture but his artistic talents were never in question: when held as a prisoner of war in WWI, one of his guards complimented his work and encouraged him to pursue a career in it.

It was also in Australia where O’Connell hit upon various pioneering methods of dying fabric with his wife, Ella Moody, both of whom were prominent in the Australian Arts & Craft Society. They returned to England in 1937 and developed a close working relationship with Heal’s of London, who proved instrumental after the Second World War in supplying fabric for the Festival of Britain wall hangings.

O’Connell’s commission required wall hangings to decorate the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, held in May-September 1951. The Festival came after six painful years of recovery and rationing and was intended to celebrate British industry, science, art and people, but it was also thought that another great exhibition would help lift the spirits of the nation after the Second World War. It was intended to be a ‘Tonic to the Nation.’ For the hangings themselves, O’Connell had to reflect the versatility and variety of farming in Great Britain, and so he took a tour of the nation, reflecting what he saw and experienced in his art. The result are seven hangings covering most of Great Britain, representing the distinctive character of our regions and providing an artistic snapshot of the state of British farming in the early 1950s.

The hangings will be conserved within the galleries on this large table.

The hangings will be conserved within the galleries on this large table.

The two hangings which we are conserving cover Cheshire and Kent, which we believe show the breadth of the artist’s skill. Our contracted conservator, Kate Gill, will be removing creases in the fabric, as well as repairing damage, cleaning them and reshaping them in preparation for display. She will be working on the textiles in our large gallery which currently contains the Steam Engine, Threshing Machine and Farming Cycle, as this is the only space large enough to accommodate them in the Museum. You are of course welcome to come and have a look!

The hangings will be displayed in rotation for five years each in their own special case, housed in a new extension to our gallery as part of Our Country Lives. We are also having a bookable family session tomorrow throughout the day where you can make your own wall hanging using fabric, stitching, and your own imagination!

How one of our new extensions may look with the wall hanging in it.

How one of our new extensions may look with the wall hanging in it.

Weekly what’s on: August 4th to 10th

You can find details of all our forthcoming events at on our What’s On pages, but here’s what’s happening at MERL this week…


jethro 8 cutout flipSummer holiday family fun!

For details of all our events and activities for families this summer, download our new MERL families guide or visit the Family events page.

As well as the ‘Make and takes’ and workshops listed below, there’s garden games, a rat trail, dressing up and more to entertain children of all ages any time you visit.



Origami windmillWeekly make and takes
5th to 10th Aug – Origami paper windmills
£1 per child, drop-in
For details visit the Summer family events page on our website




wall hangingApplique and stitch wall-hanging workshop
6 August, 10-11am, 11.15-12.15pm, 1.30-32.30pm. 2.45-3.45pm
£4 per child. Booking re
Be inspored by this unique opportunity to see one of the Museum’s beautiful 1951 Festival of Britain wall-hangings. After examining the wall-hanging, create your very own landscape using layered fabrics and hand-stitched details. With artist, Julie Roberts.



Guided tours

WGuided tourednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.





DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the Special Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme


greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.