Banners are important. I am not talking about the flashing headers that constantly pollute our screens. I mean the meticulously designed and often beautifully handmade messages held aloft by people demonstrating for change. They have a long and proud history, being used prominently by unions, suffragettes, human rights campaigners, land rights fighters and today – thanks to the revitalised “craftivism” movement – in climate change protests. Historically, this point where politics and policy meets skilled craft and artistic flair was sometimes the only place where women could contribute powerfully to a cause.
When Beaver Trust received an offer from a trustee’s mother to embroider us a banner to use instead of the ubiquitous pull-up printed alternative, we jumped at the chance. It seemed right that we should have something more organic, homemade and real. Little did we know that this kindly woman, June Simms, was actually a highly skilled embroiderer and that the banner itself would contribute to getting her safely through the first pandemic lockdown. This piece of shimmering cloth depicting wet woodland, beavers and the glorious mess of nature has become a whole lot more than a corporate logo.
June Simms spent her life in public service as a nurse, starting her training in 1950 in Rugby before moving to London in 1954 to complete additional training in midwifery, and then to Oxford to train in the still innovative field of plastic surgery before becoming a theatre nurse and finally a Junior Theatre Sister. “I liked this best of all,” says June, “I felt I was in the right place doing the right thing.” After raising a family, June returned to study in 1977, learning embroidery-based textile art. She has taught and exhibited continuously ever since.
In the autumn of 2020, during a brief window in this year of lockdowns, I travelled to Essex where June now lives to meet her, talk about the banner she had made for Beaver Trust and to bring it back to our HQ at the Cornwall Beaver Project. The banner was taller than June herself and takes the viewer through a watery landscape, from flower-dotted flood meadows to the riverbank and the water itself, the wet woodland beyond. Insects buzz, birds tweet and the beavers work steadily on their dam. The colours sing and the detail is exquisite. As a lifetime student and practitioner of science and art, June brings both together seamlessly.
Embroidery at this level takes hundreds of hours of work and we were conscious that June had been working away on the banner during a time of great stress and potential isolation for someone living alone. June explains here how creating the banner helped her through the difficult time of lockdown, giving her a purpose and a sense of creating something lasting and positive in a time of great loss and restriction.
June tells Nicky how making the banner helped her through lockdown.
Soon after picking up the banner we all went back into lockdown and so the banner stayed in its specially made banner bag, safe but with no chance to show it to visitors and friends. We are really looking forward to finally hanging it in its rightful place in Cornwall and telling June’s story about a remarkable keyworker, the power of art, the importance of science and how the beaver brought them all together.
A sample of June Simm’s other work can be seen in a commission for Bread, Print & Roses in which she takes the style of a union marching banner, inspired by striking women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Threads in Time (2018) – an autobiographical work produced to mark the NHS’s 70th anniversary and exhibited at the Oxford University Hospitals special exhibition at the Churchill – is informed by the colours of the uniforms she wore in those early days of the service back in the 1950s.
Beaver Trust Associate Director
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© Nicky Saunter 2021.