Posts Tagged ‘The Dunkirk Project’

An invitation to Dunkirk

May 26, 2020

The Dunkirk Project invitation card

You are cordially invited to visit 



for the 80th Anniversary 2020



from 26th May to 4th June




A new short film of the largest book 

in the The British Library


A new series on the art of Dunkirk

1. John Craske’s epic embroidery

The Evacuation of Dunkirk


Highlights from Dunkirk stories, including

a jam sandwich, a tattered news-clipping

a top hat and twelve pairs of silk socks

The Dunkirk Project

an interactive installation

by Liz Mathews


An extraordinary panorama

May 19, 2015

The Dunkirk Project invitation card

The Dunkirk Project 2015

‘An extraordinarily vivid panorama of the untold story of Dunkirk 1940’

On the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of 300,000 allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, The Dunkirk Project will be sharing breaking news of what was happening day-by-day live every day from Tuesday 26th May to Wednesday 3rd June 2015.

Follow amazing personal stories of courage, heroism, triumph, despair, and downright eccentricity through the Nine Days Wonder, in the wake of ‘the little ships of England that brought the army home’.

Since 2010, The Dunkirk Project has been collecting material on Dunkirk 1940 in a River of Stories: not only extracts from a mass of published accounts and reports, but also many unpublished accounts from archives, and memories and eye-witness stories from individual contributors.

You are invited to add your own story, family memory, comment, poem, artwork, question, response or link to the ever-growing collection that has become ‘an extraordinarily vivid panorama of the untold story of Dunkirk 1940’, showing how it was for the individuals in that great crowd, as well as for those who rescued them, those who nursed them, and those who waited at home desperate for their safe return. (And even one or two of those who bombed them.)

This new edition of The Dunkirk Project for 2015 features:

* many new contributions in the River of Stories

* a page-by-page tour of my 17m long artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk (now in the British Library)

* a new page on BG Bonallack, Virginia Woolf’s diary and the making of Thames to Dunkirk

* new poems and artworks including Dunkirk phossils by Charlie Bonallack

The Dunkirk Project 2015

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.


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.


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.

Questioning Dunkirk

June 25, 2010

Nearly 1000 people have now visited, revisited, contributed or responded to my interactive installation The Dunkirk Project in the month it’s been online. And so many people have asked me questions about it, that I thought it was time to post an update here.

The most frequently asked question is: when will I be exhibiting Thames to Dunkirk, my 17m long free-standing paper sculpture that forms half of the online installation? I will be showing Thames to Dunkirk in a nice big space later this year, and I will be posting all the details here. Meanwhile The Dunkirk Project continues online, with contributions and comments still coming in. You can add a response on any page or participate in any of the discussions started – some very interesting points have been raised and I’d love to hear your views. The River of Stories will form part of the gallery installation later in the year, so all comments or responses added now will be included in the paper river. 

About what set me off: the making of Thames to Dunkirk, and the progress of the installation is described in a nine-part work-in-progress blog hosted by Artists’ Newsletter, Towards Dunkirk, with photos of some of the making processes and a fairly frank discussion of some of the problems, as well as the inspirations. But also, see the next question… 

I’ve been asked why choose to do an online installation instead of a gallery exhibition?

First, I thought it a very interesting way to use the medium – to make a communal work on the internet, where people could contribute their own views or ideas easily, and add their voice to the collective story – instead of  just using the internet to show my own work. I have long had an interest in communal or interactive artworks or events. At the private view of my installation in the Southbank Centre Poetry Library in 2008, over fifty people completed with me Sea of Space, an artwork lettered on to the glass wall of the Southbank Centre’s very groovy new glass lift.

This event was very exciting, and generated a lot of interest among the participants, some of whom have told me that they will never forget it. But it was not without its difficulties: one contributor, a rather well-known artist who had come to the PV, said ‘How brave to let other people muck about with your work’ – and indeed, though most participants engaged wholeheartedly with the work, one person got a bit overexcited and defaced other people’s contributions with her lipstick – an unexpected and unwelcome intervention/sabotage. And though the result was really interesting and curiously fragile/expressive, it was not wholly appreciated by some viewers, who thought it ‘messy’. Just what I’d hoped for, actually, but never mind. Anyway, this experience fed my taste for something a bit more anarchic and uncontrollable than we’re usually allowed to do, and also raised some questions for me about the relative values of participants’ contributions, and how we judge them, about issues of transparency in process and interpretation.

All this led me towards developing the idea for an online interactive installation that would invite participation in making a River of Stories, layering fragments of individual stories from a huge collective event (Dunkirk 1940) in a inter-connected stream, where each contribution, whether eye-witness account, memory, anecdote or imaginative engagement would have an equal place, and where hidden, previously unheard voices would find a hearing, including those from outside the established archive, or the accepted or usual sources. I hoped to hear from gay people whose stories are only now coming out, from women who had participated or whose lives had been affected by the war, from pacifists, from people with a different take, as well as from people whose memories hadn’t seemed important enough for telling outside the family, and thereby to gather a very vivid and detailed picture of the phenomenon, that would engage younger people who weren’t there in an imaginative empathy and understanding. I think I can say that it has certainly proved enlightening about our inheritance of the continuing issues.

Second, it’s not instead, it’s as well. The online installation is just the start. In the gallery, Thames to Dunkirk will stand unfolded the length of the room, for the viewer to walk around, and the River of Stories will flow round the walls on a painted paper river, with postcards and cut-out boats provided for participants to add their own response directly – responses of all kinds, from memories and personal stories to imaginative connections and lateral thoughts.

I’m very interested in the view from here – how our great national legend looks in the light of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other pressing contemporary concerns – what we can make of our collective past, and how it shapes our choices about the present and future. Some of the most telling comments I’ve heard from people about Dunkirk are how their father’s experience ruined (or fulfilled) his life (and by extension, theirs) or how their mother won’t stop talking about it, or how they don’t see why we should question such heroism, or whether we have the right to re-examine the legacy or challenge the ‘established’ history at all. These are questions that affect everyone, pacifist or militarist, soldier, sailor, weekend cowgirl, feminist, artist, football fan. All of us are still affected by the legacy, so the scope of our apprehension and understanding must include this complexity and diversity. Dunkirk seems to me a myth that expresses so much of our national psyche, but also a story that involves so many issues of our own time – duty and individuality, how we live in society, our own freedoms and oppressions.

Mutinously I submit to the claims of law and order.

What will happen? I wait for my journey’s wages 

In a world that accepts and rejects me.


But, bearing in mind the lipstick, I have learned to expect the unexpected, and welcome unpredictable contributions, since the unprescribed can sometimes be the most enlightening.

Beyond Dunkirk

June 9, 2010

My online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project has reached a new stage. The River of Stories, the daily unfolding online of Dunkirk stories on the day they happened 70 years ago, ran from 26th May to 4th June (involving an unwonted amount of early rising at Potters’ Yard), and I’ve been astonished at the response – hundreds of people followed the stories daily, contributed something of their own or added a comment, and more contributions keep coming in, either via the comments boxes on each day’s page, or by email to the project at Some really interesting and unexpected questions have been raised by contributors – someone even asked what right we have to re-evaluate our national myths in this way. I think this is more of a duty than a right – but it’s a very interesting question. You can still add a comment or join the discussion – and every contribution adds to the scope and diversity of the collective story.

Many people have also responded to my 17m paper sculpture, Thames to Dunkirk, and I’d just like to mention again my blog on the making of this work hosted by Artists’ Newsletter – Towards Dunkirk.  I’ve been writing this blog throughout the ‘live’ days of the installation, and recording its progress, as well as talking about some of the making processes, problems and inspirations.

The real-time aspect of the daily stories live online has been a very effective part of The Dunkirk Project – but many people have also asked me about the real-space aspect too, wanting to see and experience Thames to Dunkirk in the flesh, having seen it in the photo sequence on the project. I’ll be giving details about the installation later in the year. I’d like to thank everybody who’s responded so generously and with such interest to The Dunkirk Project, which is obviously going to run and run…

Towards Dunkirk

May 24, 2010

My online installation The Dunkirk Project starts its daily following of this extraordinary event this week on Wednesday 29th May, continuing each day as the stories progress for nine days until 4th June. Every day about a dozen stories will be added to the River of Stories, and I’m hoping that this complex legendary event that holds such a strong place in our national consciousness can be re-evaluated by this multi-faceted accumulation of stories. I’m inviting contributions, not only of first-hand accounts and memories by eye-witnesses, but also from later observers of the Dunkirk phenomenon.

I’m particularly hoping for participation or contributions from people whose voices are more rarely heard, and who are under-represented in the existing archive – from women, pacifists, non-combatants, gay people and other alternative or hidden voices, and I’d love to hear contemporary views about the continuing relevance of the issues, and the development of the myth. A brilliant contemporary (ie wartime) protest from Vera Brittain starts on 28th May, for example, and I’m hoping that it will provoke some interesting responses.  Please do participate if you’d like to – any contribution, however small, increases the scope and diversity of the project.

Alongside The Dunkirk Project, I’m writing another blog about the making of my 17m long freestanding paper sculpture Thames to DunkirkTowards Dunkirk, on the Artists’ Newsletter website. Here I’m discussing the relation of this great mass of information to a specific artwork, and talking about some of the other works it references, as well as the making process itself. 

But I will be adding to this blog too, over the next few weeks – there are several new elephants in the herd. (I worked out that Thames to Dunkirk is a 100 elephant book.)

The Dunkirk Project

May 15, 2010

For the last year I’ve been completely engaged with the largest single work I’ve ever made. It’s a freestanding paper sculpture,  1 metre high and about 17 metres long, constructed in the form of a huge concertina book. It’s called Thames to Dunkirk.

This May 2010 sees the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. In the course of my research when making Thames to Dunkirk I was struck by how extraordinarily different each person’s account was of an event shared by hundreds of thousands of people, the sheer variety of experience within such a momentous shared event, and the far-reaching effects of conflict on the individual. Through fragments of stories, my work explores the forces of compulsion and power, the tensions between individuality and duty that led to this sea’s edge extremity.

The book, opened out, reflects in its size something of the surreal scale of the event, and altogether subverts the concept of ‘book’ – something familiar, useful, dependable, portable – into something altogether unfamiliar and difficult to handle, which you have to walk all the way round to read. It also reflects some of the tensions between individuality and communal responsibility that we’ve seen so much of recently – how we can be swept away on rivers not of our own choosing, into conflict or State-determined disaster, or indeed sold down the river by the powers that rule our lives. During the time I was making this work (July 2009) 94 soldiers died in Afghanistan; the contemporary relevance is evident without overstatement.

Thames to Dunkirk is now part of a major online interactive installation, which I hope will give some new insights into the lasting legacy of one of our most potent legendary events. The Dunkirk Project is online now, the story will be unfolding daily during the nine days of the anniversary, and I hope you’ll want to contribute to the collective story.

The Dunkirk Project is at