Archive for the 'Gallery talks' Category

Past Present at The Pottery Press

September 19, 2017

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The Pottery Press is proud to announce the publication of a new title, the first in a new series of Pottery Press Pamphlets.

Past Present: Piers Plowless and Sir Orfeo

by Maureen Duffy

(From the Forward by Frances Bingham)

In Past Present the coupling of two long poems by Maureen Duffy makes a weird and powerful statement about England on the edge; a land with an imagined mythic past, a millennial present and perhaps apocalyptic future. For the past: her catchy, robust translation of Sir Orfeo, a medieval narrative lay which migrates the Orpheus myth to the England of a folk tale and gives it a happy ending; the classical Underworld becomes Elfland under a green hill, the Arcadian landscape an English orchard.

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Duffy’s skilful translation catches the energy and rhythm of the original, its narrative immediacy and sturdy language, so that the reader experiences it as a bardic re-telling in that truly folk idiom.

And as for the present:

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The New Vision of Piers Plowless is Duffy’s contemporary riff on the visionary medieval poem Piers Plowman – an inspired evocation of everyman Piers and his creator Will Langland with Blake and the protesting Muses in a dark satirical vision of 21st Century austerity Britain.

And where is our Piers who can set all to rights?

Where should we search for him?

Who’ll build us Jerusalem?

Blake’s vision of London as the new Jerusalem, a place of visions and nightmares, is ever-present in Duffy’s London trilogy of novels and her poetry, and in this long poem it inspires her to a magnificent rant, addressed to fellow-author Will Langland who wrote his protest song for everyman Piers and the ‘fair field of folk’ so many centuries ago.

Her protest against a so-called austerity which causes suffering to the poorest in society while sparing the richest, and tries to silence the arts and deplete learning and libraries, has never been more relevant.  But crucially, like her medieval model, there’s robust humour here too – and a breath of hope, a call to arms.

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                                         … I see them stream

as in Blake’s darkest dream over London Bridge…

‘Blake’s darkest dream’, the cover image, is by lettering artist Liz Mathews who has worked with Maureen Duffy’s poetry before, notably in Paper Wings (also published by The Pottery Press).  Liz has also lettered titled pages and painted 9 full-page colour images for Sir Orfeo; atmospheric colour studies rather than illustrations, they accompany the text, dreamlike and evocative.

Frances Bingham, London 2017 (from her Forward)

Past Present: Sir Orfeo & Piers Plowless  (The Pottery Press 2017) £5

contact thepotterypress(at)pottersyard.co.uk

Past Present and Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo, an artist’s book

I’ve also made an artist’s book inspired by Sir Orfeo, setting lines from Maureen Duffy’s translation into a work made from a huge single sheet of handmade paper – 2 metres long by 70cm high – torn and folded into a sequence of pages, but readily restored to the unifying whole image, the hero’s name writ large across the sheet like a medieval banner for Suleiman the Magnificent.

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In July the banner was hung as a stage backdrop at the launch event for Past Present at Burgh House in Hampstead, where a capacity crowd heard a spirited reading of Piers Plowless from Maureen Duffy, followed by the premiere performance of Songs for Sir Orfeo, a work in progress: celebrated jazz pianist Dorian Ford is composing a jazz opera setting Maureen Duffy’s translation, and some of the first songs were performed by award-winning world music singer Vimala Rowe. (This exciting event was filmed and will shortly be available on dvd.)

Here is my artist’s book, page-by-page. Each double-page spread is followed by close-up details so that you can read the poem:

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Sir Orfeo is a one-off signed original on handmade paper 2m x 70cm, in a slipcase. £700

 

 

BABE 2017 BLOG POST # 3 – LIZ MATHEWS

April 4, 2017

T to D at BL for BABE2017

Tomorrow morning we open the doors to BABE 2017. With hours to go and set up fully underway, we put some questions to artist Liz Mathews about her work and what she’ll be bringing to the festival…

Source: BABE 2017 BLOG POST # 3 – LIZ MATHEWS

The moment that holds you

January 11, 2017

enitharmon-invitation

A walk through the year, season by season, moment by moment, with poet Jeremy Hooker.

My new artist’s film The moment that holds you gives a vivid portrait of the turning year seen through the eyes and words of West Country poet Jeremy Hooker.  Evocative, summoning, the poems draw you in to a landscape wherein everything connects – the material world plaited into the skein of time, all illuminated by shifting scattered points of light.

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In sixteen artist’s books, I’ve set the poet’s word-images of the turning seasons that catch each moment as it draws together time past and future, not by illustrating the text with pictures, but in such a way that the words become the images.  (These books are all part of my Singing the Year collection of contemporary illuminated manuscripts.)  And this close association between word and image is further echoed by the dialogue between poet and artist as we read the poems, among sounds of the seasons and music by jazz pianist Dorian Ford.

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The premiere screening of The moment that holds you has now been rescheduled; it will now coincide with the London Book Fair, and will be at Enitharmon‘s Bloomsbury gallery on

Wednesday 15th March at 7 for 7.30pm

I’ll be introducing the screening, and the artist’s books featured in the film will be on exhibition in the gallery, along with Enitharmon’s beautiful editions of Jeremy Hooker’s poetry collections, and we’ll be celebrating with music and wine.  What better way to anticipate the clocks springing forward and the days lengthening?

  • Join the guest list at info@enitharmon.co.uk 
  • and the film is available to buy on DVD from Enitharmon for £8 (or leave me a note in the comment box below to buy one direct from me).

Autumn on the wing

September 28, 2015

Maureen Duffy invitation

I’m looking forward to some autumn events: firstly an evening with Maureen Duffy on 14th October, as part of Fabrication: King’s College London’s Arts and Humanities Festival.  I’ll join Maureen (in conversation with Katie Webb) to talk about working with her poems in artist’s books, and show Paper Wings, my setting of her love-poem cycle Songs for Sappho, which reflects some of the dazzling inventiveness of the poems. Paper Wings is now constructed into a 28-foot-long double-sided book – following its incarnation as an installation at Enitharmon’s Bloomsbury gallery last autumn – and we’ll be discussing some of the unusual materials and processes of its making.  The event will be followed by a drinks reception and you can reserve free tickets at

https://maureen-duffy.eventbrite.co.uk

Paper Wings Song 43 (text by Maureen Duffy)

Song 43 from Paper Wings  (text by Maureen Duffy)

Then on Tuesday 20th October I’ll be giving a talk to the North London Lettering Association, called By way of wordsa quote from Jeremy Hooker’s poem City Walking (1) – and I’m looking forward to showing some of my recent work setting his texts on clay, driftwood and handmade paper, as well as talking about lettering materials and techniques, and life as a lettering artist seeing everything by way of words.  The NLLA welcomes non-members to its meetings (tickets £4), which regularly feature artists, letterers and calligraphers in demonstrations and talks of great interest to anyone who reads the world by font, language and pictogram; details and directions at

http://www.northlondonlettering.co.uk/programme/

Detail from p1 of In the light (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

Detail: page 1 of In the light  (text by Jeremy Hooker)

And my third outing this autumn will be to the Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall on 6th and 7th November; I’ll be on the Artists Books Online stand with several other book artists, and I’ll be showing books from the small to the very large, all for sale and easily carried away.

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SmallPubsFair 2015 Ecard

The fair is a thrilling annual event stuffed with beautiful, thought-provoking, imaginative, quirky and affordable artworks which would restore anybody’s faith in the vitality, diversity and inventiveness of the book arts, and indeed the multifarious imaginations of British artists, designers and makers working with text.

Autumn from All the year by Liz Mathews (text by John Clare)

Sweet Autumn   (text by John Clare)

Paper wings and the material word

November 19, 2014
Maureen Duffy and Liz Mathews with Paper Wings at the Poetry Library Open Day. Photo by Jessica Atkinson

Maureen Duffy and Liz Mathews with Paper Wings at the Poetry Library Open Day. Photo by Jessica Atkinson

The 6th Poetry Library Open Day on Sunday 16th November took the theme of ‘The Material Word’, and featured a fascinatingly eclectic selection of exhibits, from poetic beer mats and brilliantly designed text/art to ‘proper’ books with beautiful covers, including several published by Enitharmon Press.  The publicity led us to expect ‘edible poems, poems on T-shirts and poetry teabags’, all of which were entertainingly present, but there were also a lot of very beautiful, considered and complex manifestations or embodiments of poetic texts, including Michele Roberts and Caroline Isgar’s artists’ book The Dark and Marvellous Room, in which 12 very short stories, each a vivid vignette from an observant ten-year-old’s quirky take on family life, are balanced by 12 equally unsettling images – all set on a concertina string of detachable postcards in an oval framed cardboard case, like a souvenir from another time or place. We also liked the look of Pascal O’Loughlin’s witty Chocoholochismo, but didn’t expect it to survive the day without some encroachment from the general public.

Lots more images can be seen here, from the Poetry Library’s record of the day – not a complete catalogue, but a very good selection. We were there with Maureen Duffy, as the Poetry Library had included our Paper Wings, screening the artist’s film of the book throughout the day, and showing the limited edition printed book, which is a half-size digital facsimile of the original artist’s book/installation. It was a pleasure to meet so many poetry readers and artists’ book lovers, as well as to enjoy this entertaining and thought-provoking selection from the Poetry Library’s treasures.

On Saturday, we’d visited the Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall, an event crowded with the most extraordinary range of books, artists’ books and things you could call books at a pinch, as well as prints, letterpress posters, laser-cut graphic art, pages made from vegetables, and some little things that looked like tiny paper hats – all for sale, and all so covetable.  So having cleaned ourselves out for the month there, it was quite a relief just to look at the exhibits at the Poetry Library event, and not to be able to take some lovely things away with us. It is however, still possible to buy a copy of Paper Wings, in either book form or the DVD, from Enitharmon Press where the book is a limited edition (of 100) signed by both artist and poet, for £15, and the DVD is £10 (+VAT).

Paper Wings book and DVD

Fly away on paper wings

August 29, 2014

Poster for Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press

 

I’ve recently been working on a very exciting project: an artist’s book on a similar scale to my huge Thames to Dunkirk (now in the British Library) but with a very different concept.  I’ll be showing it as an installation at the beautiful Bloomsbury gallery that is the new home of poetry publisher Enitharmon Press, from 22nd September to 17th October.  [Please note the exhibition is now closing on 15th October.]

I’ve set all 55 poems of Songs for Sappho, a brand new love song cycle by celebrated poet and author Maureen Duffy, whose 80th birthday was marked last autumn at a splendid Symposium at King’s College, London, her alma mater.  The poems chart the changing weathers of a passionate, living love, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together.  All the moods and colours of the poems are reflected in their dazzling variety on sheets of handmade paper, to be bound together in a contemporary illuminated manuscript, or Book of Hours.  But for their first flight, they will be shown in this installation, hung aloft in Enitharmon’s airy bright space like washing on the line, or prayer-flags in the breeze.

The title Paper Wings is from Maureen Duffy’s poem Life Writing (from Environmental Studies, Enitharmon 2013):

                                                         I box up

my archive, my writing life.  Do I feel bereft

seeing it vanning away to its hope of an

afterlife?  ‘We will be remembered in our songs,’

Sappho promised and Behn begged for her verses’

immortality.  These children grow up and fly away

on paper wings or cruise like Milton’s fallen angels

through the ether, and I rarely visit unless asked.

The idea of the poems flying away on paper wings is present throughout this new song cycle, written during the same period as the poems in Environmental Studies.  So many of the Songs are messages flying through the ether, virtual words spanning virtual space connecting the parted lovers. When I first read them, I saw them aloft like smoke signals or flying through space like paper darts, and later I came to see them as though slung up high from a fine unbreakable line between two fixed points, both connecting them and measuring/mapping the distance between them, while the words of the messages are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

Fifth Song (text by Maureen Duffy) from Paper Wings (artist's book by Liz Mathews)

Some of the poems are swift as Cupid’s arrow, some light and gauzy as a heart-shaped kite, while others hang heavy as wet washing on the line, and so I envisaged this installation allowing us to glimpse or catch these intimate messages in flight.  But I also recognised Songs for Sappho as a true song cycle, a sequence of love poems in the eternal present, without a beginning – because this love is prefigured – and without the (apparently inevitable) end of the affair – world without end, amen – circling back on itself like the seasons in an endless cycle of renewal.  This cyclic aspect suggested to me the physical form of a concertina artist’s book, where the linear sequence allows the end to turn back upon itself to join the beginning in an unbroken circle of continuity.

The circle is itself a recurring theme in these poems, from the two hemispheres that make up the lovers’ metaphysical world, to the ring where love and war fight it out, and the bowl of sky given by the poet to her beloved.  And this world of love mapped by the lovers’ words and dreams is centred on the heart, a heart-shaped earth (like the ancient cordiform world map found buried in the archives of the Museo Correr in Venice), and completed, first, last and always, by the lovers’ ‘meeting lips’.

This is not to say that the weather of the world of love is unrelievedly sunny: many poems lay bare love’s pains and sorrows, absence, anguish and yearning, evoked by ‘the dead hand of winter’, heavy hanging clouds, wearying rain or imprisoning snow. Yet with the natural cycle, spring returns suddenly, ‘summer renews’, and the world is again alive for the lovers, a real solid physical earth, their ‘earthly Eden’ a ‘safe landing’ for the ‘loving symbols in wings’.

In the form of both the book and its pre-construction manifestation as an installation, I’ve aimed to reflect these themes and poetic preoccupations, allowing the connections to reveal themselves gradually as the reader moves through the cycle, without (I hope) blocking out other insights and interpretations.  A primarily visual first response to a poem can sometimes open other ways of apprehending – revealing sounds, rhythms and structures more clearly, for example.  I believe this love song cycle to be very important, a lasting work that will be widely celebrated and acclaimed, and I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity by Maureen Duffy to work with the poems.

Paper Wings book front cover

Here at The Pottery Press (our small tiny press, occasionally publishing limited edition artist’s books) we are also publishing a printed version of Paper Wings, a digital facsimile that combines some aspects of both the artist’s book and the installation, to accompany the exhibition at Enitharmon.  The book (ISBN 978-0-9930171-0-0) is out on 22nd September, and will be the first printed edition of the poems.  And there’s also a dvd version documenting the work; in this artist’s film, Maureen Duffy reads each poem as the pages of the book turn and the complete song cycle unfolds.  The film was made here in the studio at Potters’ Yard by me and my partner the writer Frances Bingham, and is released by Potters’ Yard Arts, also on 22nd September.  Both are available from The Pottery Press; contact thepotterypress[at]pottersyard.co.uk

Spiral of light (text by Maureen Duffy) artist's book by Liz Mathews

In the exhibition, the Paper Wings installation is framed by other artworks, hung apparently more conventionally on the gallery walls, but these are also (mostly) artist’s books, made from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded into a sequence of pages; with these books, I aim to set the text so that it can be read both page-by-page, and as a single whole image.  The wall-hung works continue the theme of airy phenomena set by Paper Wings, from Maureen Duffy’s great spiral galaxy in Spiral of light, or her ‘ropes of stars’ in Vision of the Floating City, to Jeremy Hooker’s ‘white birds’ which are the feet of dancing women flying round a flowery meadow in Women dancing in a field of poppies.

Women dancing in a field of poppies (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

And of course, what also continues is my own visual response to these wonderful texts: when I first read Maureen Duffy’s novel Londoners many years ago, I saw the words (in her hero Al’s meditation about the Reading Room in the British Museum) flying round the dome of that great round space, as I saw Lorca’s dreams fly up, singing with joy, and Dylan Thomas’ ‘other air’ streaming again with ‘a wonder of summer’.  The spiralling form of some of these books evokes that circling renewal of the seasonal cycle, while other books like No end (shown below, setting a stanza of Jeremy Hooker’s powerful poem Written in clay) take the form of an endless river flowing onwards…  These simple forms folded from a single sheet of paper contain both individuality and unity, as the page-by-page sequence coexists with the completeness of the whole image, reflecting how the individual words combine in unexpected ways to create new meanings within the poem.

No end (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

No end, p1 No end, p2 No end, p3 No end, p4 No end, p5 No end, p6 No end, p7

 

No end, back cover and slipcase

 

No end (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

 

Some installation shots in the gallery follow:

 

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press

Paper Wings detail

Paper Wings in the window at Enitharmon

 

 

 

Writing Britain at the British Library now open

May 18, 2012

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands has now opened, and it’s a revelatory exhibition, exploring 500 years of cultural identity as expressed in a nation’s literature of place. Among the 150 exhibits selected from the British Library’s 150 million-strong catalogue are treasures like a manuscript copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a tiny book with Jane Austen’s manuscript for Persuasion, as well as a scrap of working draft from Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie on the back of a BBC script, and a page of John Clare’s clear handwriting – his poem A Summer Morning. All offer a fascinating insight into the writers’ working processes, and how the texts come out of the landscapes, as well as feeding our consciousness of them.

There’s so much in this exhibition that it’s very hard to single out highlights, but there are such wonderful things in every cabinet it’s almost overwhelming. And yet, although so much is there, not everyone’s favourite literature of place will be included. To solve this problem, there is a brilliant interactive feature called Pin-a-Tale, where you can contribute your own suggestions to the map. I’ve already contributed my own favourite: Frances Bingham’s The Principle of Camouflage.

The exhibition ranges thematically from Rural DreamsDark Satanic Mills, Wild PlacesBeyond the City, and Cockney Visions (over 600 years of London writing), to the final Waterlands section, where my own artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is included, opened out to almost its full extent (which at 17m is difficult for any gallery space, even such an enormous one as this).

Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews at the British Library

Thames to Dunkirk is one of the largest books in the British Library, and though large-scale artworks are rather in vogue at the moment, in this case the scale is part of the meaning, an expression of the vast extent of a legendary event.

In the context of the Writing Britain exhibition, Thames to Dunkirk reads as a mapping of the landscape of a particularly British collective experience, as well as a more specific record of the watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, with the names of the little ships involved in the great rescue operation at Dunkirk in 1940. There are two texts, running the full length of the double-sided book:  the upper text above the riverline is a graphic account of one person’s experience of Dunkirk (by BG Bonallack), lettered by brush in a font based on a 1940’s typewritten letter. The second text, running beneath the waterline is from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and it provides a powerful contrast to the narrative, a protesting resistance to the overwhelming compulsion of conformity, the surging force of the river towards the sea.

This text is lettered with a pen improvised from a piece of Thames driftwood, and the combination of the irregular ink-flow and the rough texture of the paper allows the light through the lettering in a way that somehow expresses the meaning of the words very clearly.

Thames to Dunkirk is made from 24 sheets of handmade paper (each 1 metre high by 1.4m wide, and some of the largest handmade paper in the world, made by Khadi Papers). The pages were individually painted on my studio table over the course of a month in 2009, and then folded and constructed into a concertina book. For the story of the making process, see A topography of Thames to Dunkirk on this blog. My online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project has a page by page view of Thames to Dunkirk, and my blog Towards Dunkirk is a detailed diary of the problems encountered in the making process, as well as the inspiration and some of the background.

I was privileged to visit the British Library last Thursday morning, before the exhibition opened, to witness the last stages of the installation of Thames to Dunkirk in its beautiful long cabinet, and I was able to talk to some journalists invited to a Press preview. Curator Jamie Andrews gave a very stimulating overview of the shape of the exhibition, and it has already received lots of perceptive reviews, including one by art critic Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times which describes Thames to Dunkirk  as echoing ‘a key motif… recurring in literary images across the centuries’, and one in The Telegraph by Genevieve Fox, where she sums up the overall effect of the exhibition culminating in this last section:

The Thames is a character in itself, from Chaucer to Conrad and TS Eliot. Writers’ responses to it ebb and flow, feeding it like so many tributaries, sending it off in new directions, And so our perception of our physical geography is shaped. We all play our part, whether we respond through photographs, as Fay Godwin has done with Hughes’s work, or as artist Liz Mathews has done in Thames to Dunkirk, a 17m-long book containing a watercolour map of the Thames. It includes text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. By using a piece of driftwood as a pen, her work embodies this creative continuum.

Liz Mathews with Thames to Dunkirk in the British Library's Writing Britain exhibition 2012

To the sea

June 1, 2011

With June, true summer begins. John Clare’s lines from A Shepherds Calendar (June poem) capture for me not only the sights and sounds, but the feeling of the month.

We are enjoying being back in the studio after our maytime excursion to the Ice House in Holland Park, where my Watermark exhibition was the first show of the summer season. This month, I’d like to give you a tour of the exhibition, to show how it worked in that beautiful space.

This image of one of my driftwood sculptures was on posters throughout the park, leading to the Ice House.

The entrance to the Ice House.

The exhibition had 60 works in clay, handmade paper and driftwood, in two rooms, a square entrance hall and a round inner room like the inside of a great pot:

All of the work was connected by the theme of water, in the poems, in the materials, in our bodies, and running through our lives, from source to sea.

Source was the first work in the exhibition: made from Thames driftwood, with the lettering of the text carved and incised with the woodgrain:

Implicit in each beginning is its end.

(Kathleen Raine)

A dish made from a slab of clay, with the perhaps unwise inscription:

I am the poem of earth said the voice of the rain

(Walt Whitman)

Living water, a waterfall in clay with a vivid text by Vita Sackville-West flowing down like leaves down a stream.

Into the inner room, and in the middle, a Persian garden with goldfish and a large pool bowl, The voice of the river, with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

I am the voice of the river singing in your dreams

A lullaby of waters, a litany of streams

The first group of works around the circular space had several artist’s books made from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded into a continuous sequence of pages. The idea is that the image works both as a whole, and page by page in the book:

This form of book, where the text moves round in a continuous circling flow, and the paper, though shaped by hand, retains its wholeness, has for me some structural relation to the pots thrown on the wheel, and the spiralling setting of their text. I enjoyed showing visitors the way that the book opens page by page, and then reforms into a whole image.

The next group of works included some more of these artist’s books, including one called Inland, with a beautiful text by Wordsworth:

and a tall jar and paperwork, with texts by TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf:

On to the middle group:

where the central work is Tree-river-river-tree:

Here the image in four parts develops with the text, in a four-way reflection.

My own image reflected in the glass of the frame, as I photograph a paperwork with one of my favourite texts:

I am the daughter of earth and water

(Shelley)

The next group in the inner room centres on another artist’s book and a group of Water vessels:

Because I love, there is a river flowing all night long

(Kathleen Raine)

And the last group round the circle included two driftwood sculptures:

All things, with a text by Vita Sackville-West:

and Stream wash away, with a text by Kathleen Raine:

and Love flows, a tall bowl with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

In the middle of this circular inner room was a long cabinet containing concertina artist’s books, opened out to their full extent:

with Kingfisher, a brilliant text by Richard Price, in the end frame.

We return to the outer room for the last groups in the exhibition:

These pots and paperworks were shown on the brick chimney-piece of the Ice House, and included a group of Three phosphorescence pots with white-gold lustre:

three bowls with Valentine Ackland’s poem Idyll, written in Spain during the Civil War:

and six spheres with 9ct gold lustre:

And then the final group of works, or coda:

An artist’s book Coda, with text by Matthew Arnold

Another waterfall in clay, with text this time by Valentine Ackland

A pair of artist’s books, with beautiful texts by Frances Bingham:

And, finally, on the open door, the last work in the exhibition:

A little further

we will see the sea

breaking into waves

(George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

A topography of Thames to Dunkirk

November 10, 2010

Thames to Dunkirk, my enormous bookwork, has gone to its new home (just down the road) in the British Library. When we delivered it yesterday, we were able to weigh it (over 3 stone!), and unfold it to its full extent in one of the Library’s longest meeting rooms, to show it to curators in all its glory.

I supplied some background information about the materials, sources and process involved in the making of Thames to Dunkirk, which I’m including here:

A brief topography of Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews


Thames to Dunkirk is a handmade book or illuminated manuscript made in 2009.  It measures 1 metre high x 70 cm wide and about 10 cm deep when closed, and when fully opened to freestanding 1 metre high and up to 17 metres long. It is double sided, made with 24 individual sheets of paper, each page a sheet of handmade acid-free cotton rag paper in Atlas size (I metre x 1.4 metres), 400gsm.  The book is constructed as a concertina, the pages fixed back to back forming alternate hinges.

Process and sources

My own introduction to the Dunkirk story was in 1973 when I was 12, and my sister gave me Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, in an edition with Anne Linton’s line drawings.

I now realise that these beautiful drawings were based on contemporary photographs now in the Imperial War Museum archive:

In 2008 I read in Virginia Woolf’s diary her account of that time, including the story of her neighbour Harry West’s escape from Dunkirk with several looted watches. I was struck by the enormous variety of experience within this shared event – how different it was for each of the 300,000 people there, as well as those who waited at home – a spectrum of responses from victorious exultation to rage and dissent. Through research in the Imperial War Museum archives and the National Maritime Museum, as well as published accounts, I gradually perceived ‘Dunkirk’ as a constructed myth that was both created and subverted by thousands of individual accounts – a hugely complex collective story.

This sense of the scale of the event, not just in actuality but in the national psyche, led me towards the idea of constructing a surreally large book that could unfold to reveal different layers of the story.  The scale of the work would reflect the disorienting enormity of the phenomenon and embody the myriad experiences that have contributed to the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’ (Kathleen Raine).

To draw these elements together, I was again inspired by Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a letter to Stephen Spender ‘I should like to write four lines at a time, describing the same feeling, as a musician does; because it always seems to me that things are going on at so many different levels simultaneously’. Four lines at once, running concurrently, to map the myth and tell all the stories in common time.

The four lines I chose were:

1) An incised watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, running the whole length of the first side of the book,

with the names of the small ships of the rescue Armada lettered in pen and ink along the river (at the place where they came from, where possible),

beginning at the earliest navigable point with Westerly, and flooding out into the Estuary:

2) A watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches running along the other side,

(the details of landscape taken from aerial photos by the RAF in 1940, now in the IWM),

with the names of all the witnesses whose stories or accounts I had read lettered (in sepia ink with a wooden peg) on the beaches,

the formation of their orderly queues taken from contemporary photos and aligned with the river incised in reverse as though through the paper.

3) The narrative account of BJ Bonallack’s poem That night we blew our guns, lettered (by brush with a faded old black ink)

in a script taken from a letter typed in 1940,

the rigid spacing of the ‘type’ text reflecting the measured restraint of the account, and the poem running the whole length of the book, at the top of the pages on both sides:

4) and flowing beneath, a text by Virginia Woolf (from The Waves):

an alternative, subversive, questioning voice like an undercurrent, the phrases juxtaposed with the lines of the ‘type’ text to counterpoint and highlight the tensions and correspondences between them,

the free and fluid script lettered with a pen I carved from a piece of Thames driftwood picked up on the beach in London.

I made a first version with 24 sheets of A3 handmade paper, to design the layout of each page and establish the balance and continuity; this prototype revealed many technical issues – for example the variations of the paper’s absorbency with the different inks and watercolours, and the problems of printing between pages caused by absorbtion of the paste. Then I enlarged the design, each A3 page requiring 18 A4 grid sheets to scale up the layout to the Atlas page.

I worked on one huge page at a time, first folding the page in half, then incising the river (or its reverse, to map the composition on the Dunkirk side), then painting the watercolour river, or (later) the watercolour grisaille landscapes and the beach and sea; on both sides I had to pay particular attention to continuity of placing and colour. Then, when dry I sealed the watercolour painting with a clear acid-free acrylic sealant to prevent the ink bleeding, and when this was dry, next lettered the Bonallack text (upside-down, of necessity, as the paper was too large to reach across), and finally the Woolf text with the driftwood pen – the right way up. I was able to lay out the ‘type’ text in pencil first, but the Woolf text is mostly improvised.

With this order, I completed each page in a day, and set it to dry in a stack. When all the pages were done, I made the back page (which connects the Thames side with the Dunkirk side) with a text I found on a scrap of paper in the IWM archive, the unhelpful Admiralty Instruction issued to volunteering small ship crews to direct them across the channel to Dunkirk,

and then the front title page, with the back-to-source reverse image of the Thames.

With all the pages ready, I started to construct the book (with the help of my partner), a few pages at a time to reduce the risk of the adhesive soaking through the pages, and causing the ink to bleed or print across. The constructed sections, and finally the completed book, were pressed in an improvised press made with two large sheets of acid-free card and our largest art-books. I then made the portfolio/case in the same press, with even larger sheets of paper (Stockwell), but these not made by hand.

Materials

The paper was made in India, and specially ordered by Shepherds Falkiners in Southampton Row, London. The paper makers have supplied this information:

The Khadi Atlas handmade paper is made from 100% long fibred cotton rag, it is acid free and possibly one of biggest tub sized rag papers made anywhere in the world. Cotton rags have longer fibres than linters which are the shorter fluffy fibres of the cotton seed generally used in paper making. Genuine rag papers are rare and it is the fibre length of this raw material that gives KHADI rag papers their exceptional strength and durability. The cotton rag we use comes from T-shirt cuttings, a reliable source of pure woven cotton. Rags are pulped in a Hollander beater. Neutral pH internal size (glue) is added at this stage. KHADI rag papers are the only handmade papers in India made with neutral pH size and so they are the only ones that are genuinely acid free.

The sheet is formed on the mould in a vat of water. The process involves a very small amount of fibre and a lot of water. The fibre is retained on the surface of the mould while the water drains through the mesh. The characteristic deckle edges of the sheet of paper come from the slippage of pulp between the deckle and mould. The mould is lifted from the vat and the sheet is laid or couched onto a woollen felt. Another felt is placed on top and the process is repeated. When a pile of sheets interleaved with felts has been made they are pressed in a hydraulic press to remove excess water. Papers are loft dried. After drying, sheets are tub sized (surface sized) with gelatine.

The mill, KHADI PAPERS INDIA, now directly employs over 50 men and women from local villages and indirectly provides work for bookbinders, printers, envelope makers and the carpenter, Irrappa, who makes our moulds and deckles. We now have our own organic farm, irrigated by run-off water from the paper mill. Here we grow mangoes, bananas and organic vegetables.

Other materials used in the making of the book include Shepherds conservation adhesive (neutral pH), Winsor & Newton watercolours, acrylic inks and sealant, and an elderly bottle of Quink from c.1950’s. Materials used in the slipcase were acid-free machine-made Stockwell paper covering acid-free board, with conservation adhesive and linen reinforcements and tape.

Context

Thames to Dunkirk was made in the context of a group of related works called Watermark, each work relating text to form and image, and using specific material qualities in a process of building-up or layering. I like to work on the edge of where text and form and image meet, to see how the light shows through.   I work in clay (throwing on the wheel or handbuilding), driftwood from the Thames (in constructions of pages like banners and panels), and handmade papers, examining the materials’ closely related qualities and formal references. As well as watercolour and oxides, I use natural pigments and raw materials – charcoal, beeswax, salt, sand, driftwood, linen, ink – and I use improvised mark-making tools – wooden peg, clay shard, slate fragment, flint, feather, scrap of driftwood.

I use lettering as a topographical framework for design, both mapping device and entry to the volume enclosed.  The marks on the surface allow the eye to read the form and content of the inner space, not only within the vessel but also metaphorically within the planes of wall panels or the layered light-bearing textures of paperworks. I liken this process to that of setting poetry to music, with the same implication of translation and reinterpretation, and the same kind of engagement of text to form; there is also an element of performing the text.

Thames to Dunkirk is on show in the British Library’s exhibition for 2012, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, from 11th May to 25th September 2012.

The mysteries remain

July 16, 2010

I was told long ago by a wise old artist that every maker, craftsperson and artist should ‘guard their work in the privacy of their own soul, keeping it secret’ for fear not only of theft by all other unscrupulous artists, but also of dissipation; the artist who tells becomes a mere teacher who enables others to be artists, and loses their own power of creation.

Even then I strongly disapproved of this immoral notion, though I do think that teaching requires additional, not alternative, gifts. The chap imparting this old-fashioned nonsense didn’t mean ‘don’t sell your work or your skills’, or ‘don’t publicise it’ – but rather ‘do keep it a mystery, don’t tell anyone how or why you do it, because they’ll steal your ideas and copy your work, maybe better’

I’ve always thought this a bit insecure, but it’s not really old-fashioned – some people still think like that, and indeed, in my working life I have had some experiences along the lines he meant. I have seen unmistakeable elements of my work appear in the work of a much better-known artist, soon after they’d visited my studio (complimentary, that); I have discussed with another well-known artist my early-stage ideas for a work, as yet rather fragile and tenuous, to have them destructively criticised and demolished so as to be unworkable for me, though useable for them; one church for which I’d made a very successful annual fundraising commission for many years told me that someone else was going to ‘have a go at the same thing’ for them this year, as they’d got the design and it would be cheaper; and I’ve shown groups of arts students round my studio and gallery, who had been instructed by their tutors to photograph and ‘copy’ my work.

Worst of all, I’ve even found that an organisation promoting artists (that I had previously been a member of for many years) used an image of my work inappropriately as a bouncing home ‘icon’ on their website’s homepage unattributed and without my knowledge or permission (when I was no longer a member and hadn’t been for some time) – and they thought I should be pleased with the publicity and feel honoured to be chosen. When I remonstrated they gave me 2 years’ free membership, but still charged me to participate in all events (like open studios). And the photo’s still there, though my free membership’s lapsed, so they must think it works well for them – but at least it’s got my name on it now. 

None of this, however irritating, matters in the overall scheme of things – for three reasons. First, my work’s signed all over – and my style is recognisably my own to the extent that I can claim my own work effectively. Next, creative exchange is very different from plagiarism, and of course there are many mutual benefits in studying other people’s work and engaging with the thought behind it, which is all possible without exploitation. Most of all, it seems to me that making art is not concerned with concepts of ownership and theft, or appropriation and dissipation – it’s simply that certain ideas or problems present themselves to us individually and have to be examined, explored, and solved if possible.

It’s this engagement with process, the continual challenge, the investigation, the development, the vision, that’s not something that anyone can steal. So I continue to talk about my work and demonstrate techniques without anxieties about dissipation – it holds its mystery intact for me. But I like actually doing it even more than talking about it. That’s the secret.

(‘The mysteries remain’ from Trilogy by HD)