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!

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.