Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

A walk with Virginia Woolf

September 25, 2017

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The British Library has recently acquired three more of my artist’s books for their permanent collection. The first is called Strand of the Thames, and in it I’ve set an extraordinary entry from Virginia Woolf’s Diary of 1939. She writes about discovering the Thames foreshore in London, observing and thinking as she walked – and so I followed in her footsteps seventy years later, and found everything (everything) still as she described. I made the book in the form of a 1930’s photograph album, with 15 grisaille images of the places where VW’s walking and observing, like photographs in watercolour, and to bring the material presence of the river itself into the book, I mixed the watercolour paint with Thames water. The words are lettered with a little driftwood stick from the river, picked up on that same strand.

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A limited edition of Strand of the Thames

Making editions of my artist’s books isn’t always easy or appropriate; one-off works sometimes don’t lend themselves to duplication in any way.  But I like to make editions where possible, as they are a much more affordable version of the artwork, and for this book, because of the photograph-album reference in the original, I’ve made a quarter-size facsimile (4×6 photo size), constructed in exactly the same way on handmade paper, with black-and-white photographs of the grisaille images mounted with acid-free photo corners. This is a signed limited edition of 20, and the British Library have also added one of these to their collection, but there are a few left available from the studio, at £40 each. [Contact lizmathews(at)pottersyard.co.uk]

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From walking with Virginia Woolf to flying with Maureen Duffy

The other one of my artist’s books that was recently added to the British Library’s collection is Paper Wings.

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One of a special edition of five, this artist’s book is again constructed in exactly the same way as the original. With Paper Wings, the ‘original’ is also a prototype, since I intended to make an edition of the work from the start. It’s one of my all-time favourites among my oeuvre – inspired by Songs for Sappho, a very exciting love poem cycle by Maureen Duffy, which the poet allowed me to set in its entirety and to publish for the first time here at The Pottery Press.

A new love song cycle by Maureen Duffy is an event in itself – and these poems are engaging, witty, moving, personal yet universal, and a profound exploration of all the weathers of love by a poet who brings her years of experience and a deep, sensitive humanity to the work. And the cycle itself is dazzlingly inventive, drawing the reader into the immediacy of the experience with running themes and motifs, contrasting humour and vulnerability, strength and tenderness, darkness and light in the different weathers and moods, the spiralling hopes and fears of a love documented from its beginnings through the seasons of three years, and on into the future.

Paper Wings detail

I’ve written before here on Daughters of Earth about my work on the book, and its first flight as an installation at Enitharmon’s London gallery. The book itself is now constructed into a double-sided concertina that opens fully to 27 metres long, with each poem-page forming a link in the chain and set so that the first and the last songs are back-to-back, forming an unending cycle within the book, in reflection of the song-cycle itself. This form gave me an opportunity to reflect that infinite variety and inventiveness of the individual poems by giving each a full page of handmade paper 30cm high by 42cm wide, and working on the design of each setting individually, often incorporating materials from the words.

I mixed paint with wine, riverwater, honey, wax, sugar, salt, mud, snow, rain, earth, clay, herbs, tears or blood, and lettered the words with a driftwood stick, a twig from an apple tree, a white dove’s feather, a reed pen, a clothespeg, a chopstick, a hand-cut bamboo nib, a paintbrush and a clay-working tool, as well as the occasional steel nib – and I used many different methods of construction for the pages to reflect each poem as closely and as materially as possible. I’ll show you a small selection of poem-pages here, beginning with Song 42, where it all started for me. I was delighted when Maureen Duffy came to a private view at midsummer 2012 of light wells, my exhibition at The London Centre for Psychotherapy  – and even more pleased when she bought one of the pots in the show. At this private view we talked a little about the possibility of my setting some of her work – I’ve been a very appreciative reader of Maureen’s fiction and poetry for many many years, and wanted to work with her words – and to my great pleasure she was open to the idea. You can perhaps imagine my delight when she sent me this poem a few days later – a poem inspired by one of my own bowls – the latest in the poem cycle she was then writing. And we went on from there:

Song 42

The idea of these love poems as messages flying through space, linking the parted lovers with a strong cord, is one of the themes running through the cycle that evoked very powerful images for me.

Eleventh Song

Also present in that first poem-page is the motif of the cosmic circle or sphere, or by extension two parted hemispheres, that conjures Donne – a motif that I’ve referenced throughout the cycle, including the pages for the first and last songs, as well as in the circular structure of the book itself:

Twentysecond Song

Fifth Song

Many of the poems were written in direct response to a contemporary event; this next one evokes that extraordinary cosmic moment in December 2010 when the light of the sun shining on the full moon was completely eclipsed by the earth’s shadow:

Song 24

Third Song

‘Like Hafiz seven centuries ago’, I formed the letters of Third Song with a reed pen from Persia – exactly like those that can be seen in the British Museum – dipped into red wine.  For the next one, I drew and lettered with a traditional Japanese brush and based the design of the image on a 10th Century woodcut from The Tale of Gengi – also written by a woman:

Song 32

And for this next one I posed for 32 self portrait silhouettes in a variety of hats, and lettered the poem with rainwater mixed into the white paint:

Thirteenth Song

For Song 44 I made a snow-cage through which to glimpse the words with white paint mixed into snow-melt:

Song 44

Because I was setting the entire cycle, and couldn’t pick and choose which lines to set, I found one or two challenges to my image-making skills among the poems.  These poems are very contemporary, wrought from the fabric of everyday life, and I’ve never before set a poem with the line ‘my email is down’ –

Eighth Song

– or one referencing a draining board:

Song 53

but with both of these, I thought that what worked so well in the poem would also work in the image it evoked in my mind, and just trusted the words – with some success, I think. Some of the poems brought a strong visualisation readily to my mind, and clearly suggested materials I could include – for the next one I mixed the honey-coloured paint with sugar:

Sixteenth Song

and this one I lettered with a white dove’s feather picked up on Hampstead Heath:

Song 30

For my favourite of all, I mixed the paint with honey, and lettered it with a wicker stick:

Song 33

– and if you look closely, you can see some little stripy bee-shapes in the surface texture of the handmade paper, transferred from the drying towel in the press – another embodiment of the words in the material form of the setting.

Paper Wings DVD

You can see that I took these photographs of each poem-page before the construction of the book, and I used them to make an artist’s film. More than a simple film-of-the-book, Paper Wings the film is an exciting, immersive experience. As the pages turn, Maureen Duffy reads each poem – her lived-in voice bringing a living and breathing presence to the cycle, within a soundtrack of the seasons.

The film is available on dvd from The Pottery Press, for £10. (Contact thepotterypress[at]pottersyard.co.uk)

 

Paper Wings limited edition book

From the photographs I also made a limited edition of 100 full-colour books, bound suspended from a top-binding for two reasons: first, to reflect the form of the installation (where the poem-pages were strung overhead like prayer-flags with the words flying through the air), and also to allow the reader to follow the through-the-year sequence like a calendar, so you can stand the book and turn the pages day-by-day. Each book in this edition is numbered and signed both by the artist and the poet, and again, available from The Pottery Press for £15 – we have a few copies left.

Paper Wings special edition

And the Special Edition of five (one of which the British Library have just added to their collection) is a half-size facsimile of the original, constructed in exactly the same way as the (27-metre-long) concertina book, from full-page digital reproductions of each page and acid-free adhesive. It’s contained in a slipcase made from off-cuts of the handmade papers in the original, and it’s numbered and signed by the poet and the artist. I have a couple of copies still available for £250.

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I think of Paper Wings as a key feature of my continuing Singing the Year collection of contemporary illuminated manuscripts. I’ve enjoyed screening the film at arts festivals, including BABE 2017 at the Arnolfini in Bristol, and turn the page artists’ book fair in Norwich, as well as showing the book at events including The National Poetry Library’s Material Word, and King’s College London’s Fabrication Arts and Humanities Festival. But somehow I feel reluctant to part with the original, which is still with me here in the studio. It took me five months to make, during a time when I was very ill, and it was quite literally a life-saver, an escape from the harsh realities of pain and fear into a world of inspiration and poetry.  It represents for me something inexpressible – as perhaps the best poetry always does – and it gives a material form to a poem-cycle that speaks of unending love. I’ll be reading it again on National Poetry Day.

 

 

 

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

Hot ice and wondrous strange snow

June 18, 2016

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Hot ice and wondrous strange snow appear in a catalogue of contradictory concepts in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and my summer exhibition explores a world of strange times, weird weather, dislocations and ultimately, the joy of finding oneself in the right place and time.

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The exhibition focuses on The Seasons Alter, an artist’s book which sets Titania’s speech about the disruption of the seasons – words eerily recognisable in our time of climate change and environmental upheaval.

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As a lettering artist, I translate poetry into the language of material form – here it’s a single sheet of handmade paper folded into a double-sided page sequence, endlessly circling like the year, and the text is lettered with a driftwood stick in handmade inks mixed with snow-melt, rainwater, mud and dust.

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I work with poetry, anciently prescient or modern, that says something relevant and often paradoxical about contemporary concerns, focusing on the layers of meaning within each text, so the words can speak afresh, directly to us and about our world.

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The 30 artist’s books in Hot ice and wondrous strange snow mark five anniversaries in 2016 that are particularly important to me.  As well as the two artist’s books setting lines from Shakespeare in this year of his 400th anniversary, I’m also including two works setting lines by Virginia Woolf in the 75th year since her death.

Light through (detail)

This is a detail from Light through, with words from VW’s 1929 diary.

I’m also celebrating the birthday of one of my favourite living poets: Jeremy Hooker is 75 this year, and I’m including nine artist’s books setting lines from his poems; his work is a very important inspiration to me and his most recent collection, Scattered Light, just out from the essential Enitharmon Press has some of his finest poems.  His major collected, The Cut of the Light, is one of my most-read and all-time-favourite books.  I’m just finishing an artist’s film setting 16 of Jeremy Hooker’s poems, and I live much of my working and reading life immersed in his words.

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Above and below two details from By way of words, setting lines from Jeremy Hooker’s City Walking II, a poem that draws on Shakespeare’s King Lear:

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Another very special anniversary (and another poet whose work has been essential to me for a long time) is the 50th anniversary of Maureen Duffy’s novel The Microcosm.  This book changed the world for me when I first read it in my early 20’s, when it was already nearly 20 itself, and I’m proud that my tattered copy was signed for me and my partner Frances by Maureen when we met her in a Soho club years ago.  It’s still essential reading.  Her poetry, too, is a constant inspiration, and I’ve been very lucky to work with her on several major projects in recent years, including our artists’ film of Paper Wings – which will be screening throughout the turn the page artists’ book fair (which is hosting this exhibition).  I’ve included two books setting poems from Maureen’s brilliant most recent collection (again from Enitharmon), Pictures from an Exhibition:

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The image above is a page 3 detail from Turn, and the one below is a detail of All things in flux, setting some lines from First Light, a poem about Turner so moving and engaging that it inspired me to risk a Turner-esque painting of my own:

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And the fifth, but not least, anniversary that the 30 artist’s books in Hot ice celebrate is a professional one; it’s 30 years since I set up as a studio potter.  My partner the writer and poet Frances Bingham and I set up our first studio together not far from here in North London back in June 1986 – and her work has not only been the most formative and significant influence on mine – I couldn’t have done any of it without her.  So the final section of this Norwich exhibition opens with two of my settings from Frances’s novel The Principle of Camouflage, which brilliantly transposes Shakespeare’s Tempest to the north Norfolk coast in the last year of the Second World War, in a magical exploration of place, exile and home, the powers and duties of the artist, the restoration of lost things, the discovery of love and the survival of hope in an apparently doomed world.

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Hot ice and wondrous strange snow 

Artist’s books by Liz Mathews

The Millennium Library in The Forum, Norwich

from 24th to 29th June 2016  10am to 8pm

Open daily, free entry

part of turn the page artists’ book fair

at The Forum, Norwich

Friday 24th and Saturday 25th June 2016

10am to 6pm, free entry

 

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

http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com

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

Writing Britain at the British Library

March 13, 2012

I’m very pleased that my monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk which is now in the British Library is to be featured as a ‘key piece’ in the British Library’s major summer exhibition:

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

from 11 May to 25 September 2012.

From the British Library’s What’s On page:

‘As the world’s attention turns to the UK this summer, the British Library will be celebrating some of the outstanding treasures of its English literature collections. Featuring a range of stunning items, some of which have never been seen before, Writing Britain will draw on the breadth of the Library’s collections to explore how writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Hanif Kureishi have been inspired by, and helped to shape, the nation’s understanding of landscape and place.

From William Blake to the 21st-century suburban hinterlands of JG Ballard, Writing Britain will examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate the nation’s great literary works. Taking location as its starting point the exhibition will allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation and critical reception over the years, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.

Key pieces

• Laurie Lee
Cider with Rosie, 1959 – the manuscript of one of the great nostalgic paeans to rural living. Cider with Rosie is an autobiographical account of Laurie Lee’s childhood in Slad, Gloucestershire, an idyllic village community, at the very point at which modern technology such as motor cars began to sweep away the traditional ways

• Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin
Remains of Elmet, 1979 – Ted Hughes spent his earliest years in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire (the ancient Celtic kingdom of Elmet), and celebrated the area in a poetical/photographic collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin. Hughes wrote to Godwin: ‘Without your pictures there would have been no poems at all.’

• William Wordsworth
‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’, 1806, and Guide through the District of the Lakes, 1810 – The Guide was written to train the minds of his readers to the same loving response to the landscape of the Lakes that Wordsworth knew after many years of devoted observation. The draft of ‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’ is heavily scored through, indicating Wordsworth’s rejection of it and obscuring the text almost completely

• Liz Mathews/Virginia Woolf
Thames to Dunkirk, London, 2009 – This 1 metre high by 17 metres long concertina book is a watercolour map of the length of the Thames, with text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and lettered by the artist using a piece of Thames driftwood as a pen

• Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century – This early manuscript copy of The Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims who assembled in Southwark, and references to the capital abound, including the Prioress’s suspect French, learnt not in ‘Parys’ but the more humble ‘scole of Stratford atte Bowe’

• J G Ballard
Kingdom Come and Crash – J G Ballard defined the hidden violence of anonymous peripheral landscapes: gated communities, hyper-real shopping malls, clinical airport terminals. The violence of the novel’s suburban portraits is reflected in the force of the hand on paper on the manuscripts in the exhibition

• Angela Carter
Wise Children,1991 – After time in Japan, Carter settled in South London, and Wise Children is a mourning for a lost London of Lyons tea shops, and also a celebration of the dizzying linguistic richness of its inhabitants. It reflects on a century of London life, and on divisions within the capital

• William Blake
London, 1792 – William Blake was a staunch Londoner, who lived, and is buried, in the capital. Like the narrator of his 1792 poem, London, Blake would walk the streets of his neighbourhood

The exhibition will also feature a series of newly commissioned video interviews with British authors, exploring a sense of place in Britain today and how their work reflects Britain’s unique landscapes, together with two specially commissioned environmental soundscapes, recorded and composed by UK artist Mark Peter Wright.

For further information about the exhibition, including when tickets will go on sale, please register for our e-what’s on newsletter www.bl.uk/newsletters/subscribe.html.’

For a page-by-page preview of Thames to Dunkirk, opened out to its full 17m extent, please click here.

To view Thames to Dunkirk as part of my online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project, please click here.

The downs in snow (and the city too)

December 17, 2010

Another snowy post, because I can’t resist it. Late this morning we were waiting for a bus at the bottom of Highgate Hill when the snow suddenly started. Five minutes later it was already 3″ deep and blizzarding. I’ve never seen snow fall and settle so fast; as we walked we were snowmen almost immediately, and the streets and trees and houses instantly took on that wonderful black and white look (mostly white) – and then the sun came out and it was an Alpine scene in north London.

Virginia Woolf also couldn’t resist describing the beauty of the downs in snow again in her diary of January 1941 (as she did almost every year), and her evocative, understated text inspired this one elephant book, made from a single sheet of paper torn and folded to form the sequence of pages. The composition of the painted whole sheet reflects the folded squares of the paper, as well as the graphic layout of the fields:

With the pages torn, folded, and opened out, Frost looks like this:

As you can see, the text starts in the middle, to allow for the sweep of the downs’ skyline in the right place at the end of the sequence.

For more information about my one elephant books, or any of my work, please leave me a note in the comment box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

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.