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The lion, the stitch . . .

15 May 2015

Pat Ashworth talks to the owner of a record-breaking Narnia embroidery

andrew firth

Wrapped up in the story: the Revd Michael Maine with the Narnia embroidery, outside his church in Sussex

Wrapped up in the story: the Revd Michael Maine with the Narnia embroidery, outside his church in Sussex

SEA chests have always held a flavour of mystery, a salty air of yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. But few can match the contents of the one owned by the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cuckfield, the Revd Michael Maine. His contains 1600 feet of tapestry illustrating the Narnia Chronicles, embroidered for him as a boy by an extraordinary Cornishwoman, Margaret Pollard, who died in 1996 at the age of 93.

She was a great-niece of Gladstone, a Cornish-language bard, an organist and harpist, and the first woman to get a Double First in Oriental Languages, Sanskrit and Pali, when she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1920, at the age of 17.

An intellectual and romantic idealist, passionate about preserving the Cornish coastline, she was among a group of friends who formed Ferguson's Gang, a group of anonymous benefactors to the National Trust. Using pseudonyms - hers was Bill Stickers - they revelled in the fun and mischief of simply dropping bags of money into the Trust's headquarters, and leaving.

MARGARET POLLARD had a privileged upbringing in a largely atheistic household, and was converted to Christianity in the 1940s after reading C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. She corresponded with Lewis for years, but had never read the Narnia books until she met Michael Maine, then a boy chorister at Truro Cathedral, in the 1970s.

Ferguson's Gang had helped to fund and build a new Roman Catholic church in Truro. Mrs Pollard had worked for a spell as secretary to the Bishop of Truro, Dr Joseph Hunkin, but had become a Roman Catholic after his death in 1950, and was organist at the new church.

Because the boy was learning to play the organ, his godparents took him to the consecration of the church, where Mrs Pollard let him play the instrument. A rapport was struck, and the two became firm friends. Mr Maine (a late ordinand) was to go on to become organist and director of music at All Saints', Hove. He was instrumental in saving the great organ of the Dome at Brighton, and a regular on BBC Radio 2's The Organist Entertains.

At this stage, though, he was a young teenager with a passion for music. He remembers being invited to Mrs Pollard's house, a cheerfully cluttered two-up, two-down dwelling in Truro. A woman with no regard for material possessions, she had been giving them away even before the death of her naval-captain husband, Frank Pollard, in 1968.

THE house was extraordinary, Mr Maine remembers. "She had painted all her favourite sayings on the wall, in English, Latin, and Sanskrit. Things like, 'If things are worth doing, they're worth doing badly.'

"I thought it was all amazing. There are people who transform lives, and she transformed mine and enlarged my vision, for which I am ever grateful. She had spent 20 years playing patience, she told me, and said I had fired her to do things."

Mrs Pollard had created earlier embroideries: Mr Maine remembers seeing one of them in the cathedral, which she had made in the '40s for one of the side altars. The boy enthused about his beloved Narnia books, and suggested: "Why don't you embroider them?" And that's how it started, he says.

"I drew up a list of titles, rather like a cartoon sequence, and she would draw a picture and say, 'What do you think?' Then she'd draw the picture on to the material - at first, linen crush, but then the much cheaper curtain-lining - and embroider over it." He reflects, "She hemmed all the pieces of fabric in tiny stitches. The hours she must have taken!"

HE REMAINS staggered by the amount of work and the imagination that Mrs Pollard, whom he considers a good artist with a good eye, brought to the pictures. Pauline Baynes's original illustrations were her inspiration, but the rest were "a product of her fertile imagination, and my suggestions", he says.

"I put the organ of Birmingham Town Hall in the banquet hall of The Silver Chair." Pieces of text - tiny letters sewn with a single thread - were incorporated into the pictures, of which Mrs Pollard did one a day. "Some are very elaborate, and some are more basic. But she captures this movement in them, which is extraordinary," Mr Maine says.

"There's a sequence in The Silver Chair where the Lady of the Green Kirtle turns into a serpent. It's an amazing sequence of five or six pictures of her doing that, full of movement and life."

He loves, too, the sequence in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobein which Aslan comes back to life. "There's a wonderful sunrise. The two girls are watching, the stone table cracks, and it's simply beautiful the way she catches it with the sun just coming up above the landscape."

When the project was started, the pair envisaged the end result to be something just in excess, perhaps, of the 230 feet of the Bayeux tapestry. "The stories were quite truncated at the start, a fairly broad sequence," Mr Maine remembers.

"But then I made it more and more detailed, until we got to The Last Battle. And that was a huge roll at the end."

He was in his twenties by then, and had moved from Cornwall to Sussex. Reflecting together that it was a shame they had been "skimpy" over the earlier books, particularly The Magician's Nephew, Mrs Pollard started again, reworking much of that book in much greater detail, despite her deteriorating sight.

They remained close friends, although Mr Maine was able to get to Cornwall less frequently towards the end of Mrs Pollard's life. He remembers her, even at that stage, as a woman of encyclopaedic knowledge, who kept up with all kinds of people and sent money out to convents in Africa. She could recite from memory whole chunks of the Lays of Ancient Rome.

THE tapestry, which has always belonged to Mr Maine, has not been seen in its entirety since being unrolled, many years ago, in the corridors of the BBC TV Centre, "for either Blue Peter or Record Breakers", he recalls. "I have occasionally shown bits of it through the years, and the whole of it once at Hove Parish Church, where people were staggered at the scale of it all.

"But it needs to be cared for properly, and that exercises my mind. People should be able to see this and the other embroideries -most on religious themes - and be enriched by them. They are such amazing works."

The National Trust has offered, in the past, to take them on, and that is something that he will consider, especially given Mrs Pollard's unique connections with the Trust.

The story of the tapestry surfaced again when Mr Maine was interviewed by the Mid Sussex Times on his recent arrival at Holy Trinity, Cuckfield, and the reporter asked whether there was anything he could tell the paper that might be of particular interest.

"I said I'd been told off for playing the organ too loud in Westminster Abbey; and I also mentioned the Narnia tapestry," he says.

"It's been with me for years and years, and now it's wonderful seeing people's reactions to it again."

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