Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

The Prospect of Happiness

July 29, 2022

Architectural Portraits & Word-landscapes by Liz Mathews

Burgh House, Hampstead, 6 – 17 July 2022

Burgh House, portrait in terracotta by Liz Mathews

The Prospect of Happiness draws together Liz Mathews’ portraits in clay and paper of special London houses, with the words of writers and artists who inhabit and haunt this timeless place.

The title’s ‘prospect of happiness’ is the view across London from the heights of Hampstead Heath conjured by Frances Bingham. Up here on the heights we may also meet Virginia Woolf visiting the newly-opened Kenwood, before she takes a bus down Tufnell Park Road to visit her friend Roger Fry — and later bravely crosses Blackfriars Bridge by night. Dr Johnson, Constable and Keats all put in an appearance, and Dickens has a moment in Bloomsbury, while Winifred Nicholson colourfully invokes the essence of a happy home. Down by the river Maureen Duffy has a vision of the floating city before plunging into the old Round Reading Room of the British Museum. Handel brings the plane tree to Bloomsbury, and Blake celebrates ‘London’s towers’ among ‘England’s green and pleasant bowers’.

The exhibition’s arranged in three sections, centred on the portrait of Burgh House, and circling out both geographically and with other kinds of connections and conversations between the works.

The first section opens with

The Prospect of Happiness

and

Vision of the Floating City

1. The Prospect of Happiness

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Frances Bingham from The Principle of Camouflage (2011)

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

Fitz, who speaks these words in Frances Bingham’s novel The Principle of Camouflage, has just returned from wartime exile to beloved London, and climbed to the Heath’s heights to look out over the city and the future. In the last couple of years I’ve often thought about these words of hope, and how, after all the trauma of the war, Fitz looks forward to happier times with resolution — hope takes courage.

I used Thames water and twigs from the Heath for the lettering, to bring the material presence of this view into the work; and the watercolour of the city spread out below includes a few landmarks – St Paul’s, New St Pancras Church (Virginia Woolf’s favourite London church), the British Museum, our house — all the important places. I like to think of this paperwork as an incantation, bringing together the good things about our city and possibilities of the future, under those optimistic words:

The prospect of happiness opens out before me like a sudden view come upon by chance over the brow of a tree-crowned hill, the city with all its possibilities lit up below, the river widening through it to the sea, the downs rising grey-green on the other side, beauty reaching far into the distance…

2. Vision of the Floating City

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Maureen Duffy from Alchemy (2004)

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

Here we are in company with Maureen Duffy, scribe of London and modern-day troubadour, looking across the river from the Strand side to the South Bank, for a nocturnal companion piece to The Prospect of Happiness. I love the way that the dreamlike quality of the words imbues rather solid architecture with visionary character, romance and yearning, as the city gazes at itself in the dark waters like Narcissus. I made this painting with watercolour and acrylic paints mixed with Thames water, and lettered it with a driftwood stick picked up one mudlarking afternoon, down by the Festival Hall, so that the river itself has a material presence in the painting. The river-line, as in The Prospect of Happiness, was painted with one stroke of the brush, and the paint for the lettering is mixed with grey stoneware-slip, to give body to the grey stone buildings.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

26. Blake’s Graffiti

Banner-book with pages made from flotsam wine-box, handmade paper, linen tape and acrylics, and lettered with a driftwood stick

Words: Kathleen Raine’s What Message from Imagined Paradise?

When we go mudlarking down by the river, we find all sorts of treasures — clay pipe stems of course, but also beautiful river-carved, evil-smelling planks of wood which shrink to splinters as they dry.  I often use driftwood sticks as as lettering tools in my books, and this banner book has pages made from jetsam — or is it flotsam? — a broken wooden wine case that we found on the Thames foreshore down by London’s Southbank Centre, sadly empty. I made another painting on the lid, and for this banner book, painted the crushed sides and bound them roughly together with handmade paper and linen tapes, then lettered them with Kathleen Raine’s poem, asking: What can we hope or pray for that can heal these / Mortal wounds of our brief beloved earth? A good question in the 20th Century, but so much more urgent now.

3. Prism II

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Winifred Nicholson, from I like to have a picture in my room.

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

I used a wooden clothes-peg as an improvised pen to set Winifred Nicholson’s view of the beneficial effects of colour in the home — as a nod to shining domesticity. I include this joyful rainbow as a celebration of London Pride, and of home, though it’s stretching a point in this London-centric exhibition, because WN was living very happily in Cumbria when she wrote this piece. My excuse is that she did live in London earlier in her life, and was extremely consistent in her lifelong passion for colour and prismatic light.

The effect of the clothes-peg pen on the handmade paper is lovely — because the paint / ink flow isn’t controlled, it floods across the textured paper, so used quite swiftly, it lets a lot of light through the letter-forms, where the liquid paint floats across the hollows of the paper — perfect for these words. Now and again ‘the ebb and flow of the outer world’ can be a bit overwhelming. I like to think that colour itself can be an essential constituent of the ‘harmony of space’. Winifred Nicholson’s writings are always illuminating, sometimes revelatory, and I particularly enjoy how painters often express their views in literary, even romantic ways, so that one can make a fully abstract design with the words themselves.

4. Lightshaft

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 40cm x 70cm

Words by Julia Strachey, from her Diary 21st July 1933

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

In July 1933 Julia Strachey went for an illicit lunch with Wogan Philipps, at the beginning of their love affair, and afterwards they went to see a picture framer in Lambs Conduit Street to collect some of Wogan’s frames. (He was married to Rosamund Lehmann at this point.) For this atmospheric London interior, romance and excitement mingled with melancholy, I used charcoal, chalk and raw clay powder on black handmade paper, and cantilevered the words round the stairwell to catch light filtered through air heavy with dust-motes. I love the incantatory quality of Julia’s words, but I do wonder if they ever found Wogan’s frames.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Next we move on to the gallery’s long wall, and the architectural portraits:

Whitechapel Pottery and Potters’ Yard box-framed together in the exhibition

19. Potters’ Yard

and 20. Whitechapel Pottery

Architectural portraits in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, both signed and inscribed on reverse

Two glimpses of the artist’s own house: on the right, Potters’ Yard in Tufnell Park is our fourth pottery; we moved here from Whitechapel Pottery (on the left) in 2006. I’ve made portraits of all the places we’ve lived and worked since Frances and I set up our first pottery together in West Hampstead in 1986, and this one’s a quirky, plain little house, built in 1980 on the footprint of the coachhouse of the big house next door. We have the studio and kiln on the ground floor and live above the shop. Whitechapel Pottery, including studio, gallery and living space was all on the ground floor, with a warehouse behind the shop — one room, 90 feet long, and neighbours upstairs, who didn’t really have such lovely window-boxes as I’ve given them here. Nice thought though.

It can be difficult to make a portrait of one’s own house, rather like a self-portrait, due to over-familiarity. But one can choose to be merciless or kind; I aim for accuracy always, but tempered with mercy to achieve the truest likeness possible. In the portrait at least, the lavender is always in flower.

Potters’ Yard, echoing the proportions, floor levels and brick detailing of the big house next door, on its coach-house’s footprint. The Yardroom on the left is our micro-showroom for the pots; the beehive even further to the left once housed bees of North Norfolk, and now stores our garden shears.

Hogarth’s house, in box-frame on the wall

5. Hogarth’s house

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, inscribed on reverse:

Hogarth’s House, Chiswick

William Hogarth 16971764

Lived and worked here 1749-1764

Here’s a much grander artist’s house. Hogarth’s house in Chiswick still stands in a high-walled garden protecting it from today’s thundering traffic. Though the house and garden are much restored, it’s possible still to imagine this most humane and un-vainglorious of eighteenth century painters working in the light-filled rooms, and living a contented life there. I’m a great one for brickwork, and the much-repointed façade was a joy to work on. I like how the disproportionately large oriel bay of the piano nobile, which must have flooded the room with light, overshadows the most ordinary, unflashy entrance.

Hogarth House in exhibition box-frame

6. Hogarth House

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, inscribed on reverse:

Hogarth House, Paradise Road, Richmond

Home of The Hogarth Press and Leonard & Virginia Woolf

Known as Hogarth House in Virginia Woolf’s day and Suffield House now, this elegant Georgian mansion in Richmond gave its name to the Hogarth Press, and retains many features from the Woolfs’ time, including a very impressive doorcase, but it’s much cleaner now, and bears a blue plaque. Virginia Woolf called it ‘Paradise Road’, and she and Leonard moved in to the two lower floors in 1915, setting up the legendary Hogarth Press in the basement a couple of years later. I’ve aimed to catch something of the house’s slightly seedy grandeur in their time, without actually coating it in soot; and I’ve shown the wisteria in full bloom in honour of the flourishing of their work while they lived in the house. Railings are another feature I particularly enjoy in making portraits, as they give me the chance to paint a trompe l’oeille of the view through them to the lower section of the windows, dissolving the solidity of the clay.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

9. Blake’s London

Portrait of Euston Arch on handmade paper

Watercolour, graphite and coloured pencils

Words by William Blake from Jerusalem. Signed and titled on reverse

These words are from Blake’s Jerusalem — not the great anthem we sing (And did those feet…) — that’s from his Milton, but from his later weird and visionary poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, of which the poet Southey got a quick preview in 1811, and ungratefully described as: “a perfectly mad poem called Jerusalem”. Blake’s timeless vision, in which ‘a single inspiration informs words and decoration alike’ (according to Kathleen Raine, Blake’s biographer), seems considerably less mad today.

Euston Arch was built in 1837, just ten years after Blake’s death, as the grand entrance to the brand new railway station, Gateway to the North, and embellished with the letters  E U S T O N  cut into the architrave in letters of gold — and then it was demolished in the new London of the 1960s, to the distress of many Londoners including John Betjeman. I drew the arch from an early photograph, and thought Blake’s ‘golden pillars’ could well stand for the beautiful trees of Euston Grove, over 200 years old, contemporary with Handel’s great plane trees of Brunswick square (see Handel’s trees). They’ve survived not only the bombs of the Blitz but the more insidious erosion of Euston Road, the most exhaust-laden air of London, and played their part in protecting Londoners from those lethal fumes. But like Euston Arch this sylvan grove is now threatened with demolition, to make way for HS2 building works and car parks, to the great distress of many Londoners.

I referenced Blake’s own design for his poem in making the work, setting the text in little clouds, and took the lettered font from one of the pages of Jerusalem in Blake’s own finished and illuminated copy of his book, which he kept until he died. The starry sky is from a watercolour drawing in his Book of Job: The Morning Stars Sang Together.

The final lines stand as a plea, an invocation of Blake’s spirit to aid the hopeful vision of a future in which this particular green and pleasant bower may be spared the fate of Euston Arch.

6. Benjamin Franklin’s house

Architectural portrait on handmade paper, with graphite and coloured pencils, and a subsequent intervention

Franklin lived in this house at 36 Craven Street between 1757 and 1775, years that brought him from agent for Pennsylvania Assembly to representing colonial interests before the Crown, making the house in effect the first American embassy in London. After he left London, he was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and later of the Constitution in 1787, when he was also elected President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

The discreet house behind its closed shutters contains a story of times no less tumultuous than our own, and initially I lettered the accompanying lines from the Declaration of Independence with only the minor and reasonable intervention of replacing the words ‘all men’ with ‘all people’; but the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade on 24th June 2022 gave me such grief that I’ve re-instated ‘all men’, because that’s how it is really, isn’t it?  (And this is only the beginning.)

But I’ve also recently learned that Benjamin Franklin, the great polymath, among his many other inventions also came up with home-abortion remedies, showing that the support of at least one of the Founding Fathers for this iniquitous present situation would be extremely unlikely.

Freud’s house in box-frame

11. Freud’s House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Now Freud Museum London, this house in Hampstead’s Maresfield Gardens was where Freud lived for the last year of his life, and his daughter Anna for 44 years until her death in 1982. Freud escaped from Nazi Germany with his family to London in 1938, and his house was a fascinating subject for me, its complicated exterior seeming to conceal the mysteriously complex interior, though one would expect 388 window panes (reader, I counted them) to shed quite a lot of light on the inner scene. It’s rather a solid-seeming house, and the dominant central bay (a little reminiscent of that at Hogarth’s house) was challenging: with low relief sculpture I have to build in the perspective, and it can be difficult to get this to work from several different possible viewing angles. I’m glad to say it does, here, and I always like subjects that take my technique a step further. This dominance of the central bay seems entirely in keeping with its famous owner’s continuing cultural significance. Virginia Woolf wisely declined Freudian analysis, though the Hogarth Press published his work.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Fenton House in exhibition box-frame

12. Fenton House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

A gem of the National Trust, handsome Fenton House with its elegant gardens and orchard is an enchanting house. Last time we visited, each instrument in the house’s extraordinary collection of harpsichords, clavichords and other historic keyboards was played, the delicate Baroque musical patterns perfectly complementing the atmospheric interiors. Fenton House offers four equally compelling façades to the portraitist — I’d love to do a series of studies of this house alone — but for this collection I chose the entrance front, facing east, with its balustraded projecting end bays, irregularities of roofline, and elegant Doric entrance loggia (c.1807). On one of the chimney stack bricks (those beautiful bricks) was found the date 1693, and its high hipped roof with a steep pitch is very much in the 17th Century tradition. Those freestanding columns were a real challenge, requiring very careful drying of the freshly made portrait, as the columns would have dried much more quickly than the mass of the construction — and since clay shrinks as it dries, the columns could have easily come adrift at the top or bottom joint, or cracked across the middle. (I watched it like a lynx for a fortnight.)

Burgh House in exhibition box-frame

14. Burgh House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

I love making miniature portraits in clay; it’s possible to achieve a real likeness and physical affinity with the subject when a portrait’s made in the same material as the building. Burgh House is built with Georgian terracotta bricks, and its later additions follow the style of the original house very harmoniously. The portrait is made in the same kind of clay as these bricks, a warm terracotta, fired to a similar temperature; the only difference is that my hand-building clay is much cleaner than the brick clay would have been, so I have a finer surface to work with. As well as the beautiful brickwork and the elegantly proportioned windows, to catch a likeness of Burgh House I focused on the feeling of height you always get, looking up at the house from the flowery charm of Gertrude Jekyll’s terrace — and of course the glorious wisteria in full bloom.

With this portrait positioned as the centrepiece of the exhibition, I arranged many of the other works geographically in relation to Burgh House or conversationally to each other, within the confines of the exhibition space (which explains a somewhat haphazard numerical order of works here, as the actual installation departed — as it always does — from the plan).

Also centrally positioned is a working drawing of a portrait of Kenwood:

13. Kenwood

Working drawing for an architectural portrait in pencil on graph paper

As we approach Kenwood — Pevsner’s ‘finest eighteenth century house in London’ — it appears like an insubstantial fairy palace floating on a lake of green.

In September 1925, unwell in bed, Virginia Woolf dreamt of jaunts they would have when she was better: ‘I’m going to Greenwich, to Caen Woods, to Gunnersbury, all in the dripping autumn weather, with tea at an ABC & home to a hot bath.’ She and Leonard got their first walk at Hampstead on Saturday 5th December that year: ‘It was very cold — it had a foggy winter beauty. We went in to Ken Wood (but dogs must be led) & there came to the duelling ground, where great trees stand about & presumably sheltered the 18th Century swordsmen.’  They talked about their friends, particularly Lytton (Strachey), and Morgan (Forster), ‘as we trod back over the slippery hillocks seeing little as we talked’ — and Virginia was reminded, as always by ‘this part of Hampstead’, of Katherine (Mansfield) — ‘that faint ghost with the steady eyes’.

Her visual impressions come swiftly, mingled with the foggy winter beauty, and each impression links to the past, to other places, other people, other images, in a woven fabric of memory and imagination.

This drawing shows one of the early stages of making a portrait: I begin with a rough sketch to establish the disposition of parts and proportions, then a detailed working drawing like this is made, ready for me to transfer it to clay slabs or to thickly textured handmade paper. Each portrait subject imposes different structural limitations on the materials; here, Kenwood is too long in proportion to its height for the clay to accommodate in a single portrait, nor would it fit my kiln shelves in one piece. I’ll construct it in three sections, with joints either side of the central range, making those slightly recessed anterooms underlap the main front so that the division is hidden, though clearly visible in the divided base. Because of the complex detail of the façade, I’ll be making it in a fine creamy stoneware with a very smooth texture that can be readily modelled and sculpted.

Then, when the claywork is done, the drying will need to be very carefully monitored to avoid warping, as each section will move and shrink as it dries. This stage takes at least three weeks, sometimes more, before I can begin the first decoration onto the fully dried raw clay, painting everything that will be under glaze — windows, and any gloss paintwork or metal downpipes. This will often include trompe l’oeille interior views through the windows (like in the next portrait of 2 Willow Road), including perhaps plants in Kenwood’s Orangery, or the corner of a painting visible through the window. Once that first decoration is dry, I’ll commit the portrait to its first (bisque) firing, a long slow cosmic transformation lasting anything from 10 to 14 hours, which takes the kiln to white heat. After this, two days cooling before I can look in to see if the work has survived the process.

If it has, it’s ready for the second stage of decorating — all the stonework, brickwork (chimneys), roof, foliage — and when that’s done, the glazing, applied by brush carefully to the windows over the decoration that’s already fired on. And then the glaze fire. Slowly the portrait takes form and detail, slowly takes on a life and significance of its own, becoming a tangible, visual evocation of the subject that can contain all sorts of personal associations and meanings for the viewer, especially when someone has commissioned a portrait of their own house or a building uniquely meaningful for them, becoming a container of memory and imagination in physical form.

But I like to think that these pencil lines of the working drawing catch something of the airy unsubstantiality of the fairy palace, something elusive and promising, a house of the imagination.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

2 Willow Road in exhibition box-frame

15. 2 Willow Road

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Their first modernist house, 2 Willow Road was acquired by the National Trust in 1994. It’s a real home, designed and lived in by Erno Goldfinger and built around 1937-39, and it’s an exciting subject for a portrait. The variations of plane within the continuous street frontage are almost as complex as Kenwood’s, and the variety of materials also gave me an opportunity to play with the textures achievable in clay. I made the portrait in a high-firing creamy stoneware with the structural strength to make the columns — the tricky bit, as on Fenton House. I enjoyed showing the lively interiors through the plate glass windows. Glazing the windows after painting a trompe l’oeille of the view inside gives the impression not only of proper windows glazed with actual glass but also of the whole internal space. The front doors, still their original colours, are shaded by the upper storey, which overhangs them in a way reminiscent of Lauderdale House‘s still-slightly-jettied upper storey. And the balconies sport jaunty flower boxes of red geraniums. Each time we passed 2 Willow Road on our way up to Burgh House for the exhibition, the windows were all open in the summer heat, giving a strong impression of the three houses still being real, lived-in homes, a characteristic shared by almost all of the subjects in this collection.

Lauderdale House in box-frame

10. Lauderdale House

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Originally built in 1582, and saved from demolition in the 1800s by William Morris, Pevsner calls Lauderdale House ‘one of the few survivals in the London area of a large house still partly built in the timber-framed tradition’. Its earliest form was probably on a courtyard plan, and this surviving façade still indicates the jettied upper floor of the original timber-framed house. Wesley preached here (see John Wesley’s house and Leaves from the Gospel Oak), and its history includes fires, rebuilding, Quakers and a reputation as ‘one of the most elegant boarding houses in London’. Now it’s home to a vigorous programme of cultural events, including exhibitions, book launches, and the occasional open-air opera. For this portrait I aimed to allow its unadorned façade to give glimpses of the vibrant life within this ancient building, its warm heart still beating.

Next, the final section of the long wall:

16. Keats’ House and Library

Architectural portrait on handmade paper and graphite, signed and inscribed

Just around the corner from 2 Willow Road is the serene enclosure of Wentworth Place, where John Keats lived for a couple of years from 1818. The house (to the left of the drawing) was then two dwellings in one villa: Keats lodged in the left-hand side, and Fanny Brawne lived next door. The villa was built here close to the Heath in 1815/16, a Regency semi, and was converted into one house after Keats’ time. The Library, on the right in this drawing, is a much later design from 1931, harmonious though the pair now seem. As a subject, the house is a fine example of the way a place, much altered since its moment of greatest note, can still retain something of the character and atmosphere of that time. I aimed to catch the feeling of leafy serenity, birdsong and trees, and the calm elegance of the villa — and perhaps in the lines a faint scent of the poetic spirit that still survives two hundred years after Keats’ time there.

Kentish Town Baths framed in the show

18. Kentish Town Baths

Architectural portrait on handmade cotton-rag paper, with coloured pencils and gold acrylic paint. Inscribed and signed on reverse.

I have a passion for the combination of architecture and text, and Kentish Town bath-house, described by Pevsner as full of ‘fun and games’, is labelled in gold Art Deco script with its name, function, and —helpfully — with the designations ‘Men’s Second Class’, and (poshest door) ‘Men’s First Class’. Three other doors to the right must be for women (first, second and third class)? No — ‘Public Hall’. Oh well, we’ll have to bathe in the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath then — No men or dogs beyond this point.  I’ve chosen, perversely, to make the portrait of this particularly terracotta palace of pleasure on handmade paper rather than in clay because I wanted to catch its festive façade-articulation without the aid of the tactile clay-affinity of a terracotta portrait. I’m looking forward to making a portrait in clay next time — a subject as full of vitality as this one never ceases to be inspiring.

But in a curious way, the handmade paper has many similarities with the clay, not only in its original wet state. As a ground, it’s porous and accommodating, allowing the lines of the drawing to be incised into the density of its surface, so that each brick, each letter, is incised and sculpted into the depth of the plane. This works so well with the brickwork, allowing each brick to be separately delineated, yet merged with the whole, and it gives a really curious three-dimensional feel to the drawing.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Dr Johnson’s House and the Curator’s Cottage, in box-frame in the exhibition

21. Dr Johnson’s House

and 22. The Curator’s Cottage

Architectural portraits in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, both signed and inscribed on reverse

I’ve only recently completed these two portraits, having considered the best way to go about them for years. The five storey house would be an excellent subject, with beautifully articulated façade and elegant windows and door-case, but for the fact that it stands on the north side of Gough Square, and extends eastwards (to the right) into the corner of the range of buildings that form the east flank of the square, with the upper stories of the house wall internally contained within the neighbouring house, and only the ground floor forming the side wall of an arched roadway (sottoportego).

And the cottage, tucked into the tiny courtyard to the left (west) of the house, stands at right angles to the big house, looking towards it as though keeping an eye on it, so a clay portrait in low relief of the two together is a challenge.

This highlights one of the difficulties with making portraits in low-relief: they’re not three-dimensional models, but rather show the view from a human perspective, not the bird’s-eye-view that gives a lot of roof. Any building that asks to be seen from several angles is always worth a group of studies, exploring the different character of each face. For this portrait, I eventually decided to include the otherwise hidden upper section of wall above the alley, and to make the Curator’s Cottage separately, in proportion to the master house, standing in attendance. The red camellia growing in the courtyard links the two, as does the charming repetition of detail, like the door-case, scaled down for the little house.

I like the feeling in the portraits of the big house’s focus being all on the interior, with some of the contents (portraits, library, lamps) visible through the lighted windows, in contrast to the attendant cottage, where the focus is all external, looking out towards the big house. And it seems appropriate that a portrait of Dr Johnson’s house should involve a lot of thought.

The Curator’s Cottage, with its scaled-down twin front door-cases, brick facings and zinc dormer hoods, echoes the big house very engagingly, and its haphazard collection of pots and flowering plants in the shared courtyard only adds to its charm. This is one of my favourite pieces in the collection, perhaps because its miniature scale packs a lot of character.

Charles Dickens’ House & Museum

23. Charles Dickens’ House & Museum

Architectural portrait on handmade paper, with graphite and coloured pencils, signed and inscribed.

There are several of Dickens’ London houses extant — including one in Highgate; this one at 48 & 49 Doughty Street is also an excellent museum. The blue plaque records that

CHARLES DICKENS

1812 – 1870

Novelist

Lived Here

but that was actually only for a couple of years from 1837 to 1839. Here he finished The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, both novels which expose the brutality of poverty in London at the time, and the disparity of power between rich and poor, conditions he had experienced. The house/museum really does feel as though Dickens has just stepped out to take the air and will be back home in a minute. I used paper in homage to his work, and it proved a marvellous subject, nicely disrupting the uniformity of the terrace with a few quirky details, such as the vivid scarlet front door. A writer’s front door, like the British Library, should be red, of course.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

John Wesley’s house and Leaves from the Gospel Oak, sharing a box-frame in the exhibition

Opposite Bunhill Fields where Blake lies buried, Wesley himself laid the foundation stone of his ‘perfectly neat but not fine’ house on 21 April 1777. He lived here from 1779 until he died in March 1791 aged 87 — but only in the winters. In summer he was out preaching, often living rough, doing his honourable duty in a wicked world.

24. John Wesley’s house

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

and 25. Leaves from the Gospel Oak

Artist’s book on handmade paper, words by Frances Bingham from London Panopticon, in watercolour and acrylic, lettered with an oak twig

Like St Augustine, Wesley preached under the Gospel Oak. I used a twig from a big old oak tree on the Heath as a lettering pen for this artist’s book celebrating that local legend, vanished now but for its name, but perhaps, in the right light, still possible to find.

Leaves from the Gospel Oak heralds the final section of the exhibition showing artist’s books:

Talisman

and Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

17. Talisman

Artist’s book on a sheet of handmade paper, words by Maureen Duffy from Darkling. On reverse front and back covers, signed and attributed.

Maureen Duffy’s poem Darkling addresses John Keats directly, poet to poet, citing the poet’s words as his ‘true portrait’. I found an example of Keats’ handwriting in a letter (now in the Bodleian library) from him to Shelley on August 16th 1820, and imitated his flowing script with a steel-nibbed pen such as he would have used, in sepia ink like the faded once-black of the letter, on soft creamy grey handmade paper, like the aged paper of the letter. I used this paper unadorned as the ground for the first two pages, painting a watercolour sky for the rest of the pages. The words circle round, high-lit in silver paint over the brown ink, with the stars splashed about in silver. For me, the book form shares some qualities with clay portraits: it’s a vessel, a volume filled with meaning, where object and  meaning can become one — a talisman, containing not only the words of Duffy’s poem, but even Keats’ words too, ‘shimmering down the years’.

Talisman‘s front cover and slipcase: each of my artist’s books has a lettered and painted slipcase in handmade paper

The front cover and slipcase for Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

8. Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

Artist’s book made from a sheet of handmade paper

Words by Virginia Woolf from The Years; on the reverse, the book’s front cover, titled, and back cover with attribution and signed

Here is Virginia Woolf stepping out over Blackfriars Bridge, pausing in one of its little alcoves to look down on the water, minutely examining the qualities of the water, and observing what it does with the light. This combination of material quality and imagination was foremost in my mind when I made the book from a single sheet of handmade paper, folding it first before painting the moon with iridescent acrylic paint mixed with Titanium white, and then I brought the swirl of silvery blues mixed with Thames water gradually out to the deckle edges of the paper. Then I lettered the words with my favourite Thames driftwood stick, highlit the words in places, and then when all was dry, tore the sheet into the page sequence. Sometimes when I’m painting like this, I like to load the brush with river water, and dip it briefly into the paint colours, then allow it to flood out over the paper where it will. I don’t want to control it too much, and I love it when this kind of watery effect happens of its own accord: the river glideth at his own sweet will (as Wordsworth would say, upon Westminster Bridge).

Crossing Blackfriars Bridge (detail)

27. Constable’s Clouds

Artist’s book with words and cloud composition by John Constable, handmade paper, watercolour and acrylic paints, lettered with a twig

This artist’s book, too, is made from a single sheet of paper (always handmade cotton-rag paper), which I’ve painted, folded and torn into a sequence of six double pages, so that it can be opened out to the whole sheet and framed. I particularly enjoy the dual nature of these books: the volume containing a painting, or the book hidden inside the picture. 

The words are from Constable’s notes for cloud and sky-studies in 1821, describing the skies of the Heath and the view from the top of this hill; the composition of the cloud study is from one of his luminous small paintings in the V&A.  During lockdown, when the usual roar of planes and London traffic shrank to a whisper, the skies above the Heath returned to almost the pristine state that inspired Constable so much: clear, full of birdsong and breezy freshness. But the roar’s back now.

Constable’s Clouds – cover and slipcase

The Round Reading Room at the British Museum in box-frame in the exhibition

28. The Round Reading Room at the British Museum

Artist’s book on handmade paper 1m x 70cm, words by Maureen Duffy from Londoners. On reverse: front and back covers, signed and attributed.

It’s hard to remember, now we’re all devotees of the British Library, that it only took over in the late 1990s from the round Reading Room in the BM beloved by generations of writers, with its circular desks and 19th Century scholarly ethos. But that round room, covered now with exhibition spaces, continues to exist in the minds and memories of many writers. In her 1983 novel Londoners, Maureen Duffy’s hero Al is writing a biography of an early French poet, and having a very trying time with the director of a radio documentary; Al takes refuge in the round Reading Room, and celebrates its treasures and the embrace of its calm atmosphere in this lyrical text. I set the flowing riff on a huge single sheet of handmade paper, words circling towards a still centre, in the calm blues and golden greys of the original beautiful domed space.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Rough City Song in box-frame

29. Rough City Song

Artists’s book on handmade papers with acrylics; words by Virginia Woolf from The Docks of London, one of six essays for Good Housekeeping 1931.

One of my early artist’s books, this riverside London scene’s made from torn shards of handmade papers, and a quirky collection of little ships. It’s quite closely related to my monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk, now the largest book in the British Library, though it’s much smaller. 

It, too, has an incantation by Virginia Woolf —

Here growls and grumbles that rough city song, that has called the ships from the sea and brought them to lie captive beneath its warehouses.

Written for The Docks of London, this is from one of six incandescent essays called The London Scene that Woolf wrote for Good Housekeeping in 1931 — and my goodness, what articles they are! (If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.) I lettered the words with a Thames driftwood stick, in paint mixed with Thames water. I took many of the ideas from this setting on to later books, and some of the techniques too; and though I wouldn’t make it in exactly the same way now, I like how its roughness and simple construction reflect the words.

Turning the corner with Trackside

Trackside in box-frame

30. Trackside

Artists’s book on 28 sheets of handmade paper in concertina form; watercolour and acrylics, text lettered with a driftwood stick, setting a complete poem Trackside by Maureen Duffy, from Wanderer (The Pottery Press, 2020).

Maureen Duffy read her poem Trackside at the launch of her latest collection, and told us how it was inspired by a train journey out of Liverpool Street Station, eastwards along the river to Southend, to visit her cousin — and as she read the poem, we in the audience could see the grime of station and sidings and East End gradually give way to the ‘backdrop of woods and fields… green and growing.’

I found this poem irresistably inspiring for an artist’s book, steadily diminishing railway tracks providing a design framework to draw the narrative through the pages — one long line, all the way to Southend — and the view, close up and far, following the text. I photographed the rails and sleepers at Kentish Town West overground station to get the stones and the fixings right for the first, closeup pages.

I think of books like this as contemporary illuminated manuscripts, and perhaps they can serve the same function as the medieval ones did — and still do — objects of contemplation that can connect us with spiritual truths behind the everyday.

Trackside – cover and slipcase

The final group in the exhibition begins with Handel’s trees

and ends with The rushes in the ditch

31. Handel’s trees

Artists’s book on single sheet of paper, lettered with a plane-tree stick

Words from London Panopticon by Frances Bingham.

Handel’s beloved Persian plane trees still grace the sacred precinct of London’s Brunswick Square, two centuries and more since they were first transplanted there beside the Foundling Hospital so dear to his heart, as well as Hogarth’s. The trees have survived storms and drought, bombs and Blitz, and generations of children hanging from their huge spreading branches.  We visit them each season, picnic beneath their shade in summer, photograph them in snow, celebrate their first leaves each spring, and collect their russet leaves each autumn.  This book was lettered with a twig dropped by one of the trees, and the leaf canopy painted one August, after a picnic among cavorting dogs.

32. In Norfolk

Double-sided artist’s book on a single sheet of handmade paper, with

watercolour and acrylics; words from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

On a summer’s day in Mayfair, Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread (in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway) stand on the corner of Conduit Street after lunch with Lady Bruton, looking in at a shop window, not wishing to buy anything, wishing in fact to part — ‘only with contrary winds buffeting the street corner, with some sort of lapse in the tides of the body, two forces meeting in a swirl, morning and afternoon, they paused.’  Richard Dalloway is ‘half-thinking’ of Norfolk, the vision dreamily swirling in the air so that the windy London street corner transforms into a soft warm wind blowing on petals and waters, where haymakers rest at noon from their morning’s labours amid the rustle of grasses and cow parsley trembling in the breeze, and we feel the ‘steadfast blazing summer sky’ in Norfolk that is actually shining down on the lunchtime London street corner.

To bring in this sense of duality, being in two places at once, and the tension between the two aspects, I set this text as a double-sided book on a sheet of blue paper, the words flowing round from one side to the other, swirling like the wind and ruffling the pages. I lettered it with a driftwood stick from a Norfolk beach, and a wooden clothes-peg.

The Strand of the Thames in box-frame

The Strand of the Thames, limited edition quarter-size facsimile

Page detail from The Strand of the Thames

33. Strand of the Thames

Artists’s book made with handmade papers, digital prints and acid-free photo mounts in an edition of 20; watercolour original now in the British Library. Words by Virginia Woolf from her diary 1939.

For this artist’s book we followed in the footsteps of a walk that Virginia Woolf took along the foreshore of the Thames, bravely clambering down some rickety steps and exploring the riverside beaches. I made grisaille watercolours of sites along the route, on handmade paper with Thames water to mix the paint, and constructed these into a 1940s-style photo album.  That book is now in the British Library’s collection, along with one from this edition of quarter-size facsimiles — a signed and numbered edition of 20 — in which photographs of the watercolours are made into an album, mounted with acid-free photo corners. In the exhibition, a concertina book like this can only be shown one page at a time in a box display, so I put in a couple of copies of the limited edition to show one or two different pages.

Page detail from The Strand of the Thames

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

33. From Grass to Harvest

Artists’s book made from 24 sheets of handmade paper constructed into a double-sided concertina book with one page for each month; the December page can be joined to the January page with linen tapes to form a circle reflecting the unending cycle of the year. 

This is the February night page, a wintery scene from Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Set in London, Woolf’s novel gives a vivid picture of the changing city through the seasons and over one woman’s lifetime. Woolf knew north London well, living in Bloomsbury, visiting her friend and rival Katherine Mansfield in Hampstead, walking in ‘Caen Wood’ and regularly taking the ‘beloved omnibus’ down Tufnell Park Road to visit her friend the art critic Roger Fry at Huddlestone Road. For this book I gave each month a page, alternating day and night scenes from The Years, and set the words mostly in Woolf’s London places. On this page, the ‘beautiful’ snow is Titanium white paint mixed with snowmelt, and it falls on Tufnell Park Road’s northernmost end where it rises towards Dartmouth Park, Highgate and the Heath (with the number 4 bus stop on the left).

35. Fired City

Artists’s book made with 14 sheets of handmade paper, acrylic paints and inks; words from Riversoup by Frances Bingham and the Agas map of 1560s; maps drawn from the Agas map, Hollar’s ‘Exact Surveigh’ of London 1666, and Luftwaffe photographs from 1940.

This book takes a trip down the river through time and space.  Riversoup is an artist’s film that Frances Bingham and I made together — her words, my images — following the Thames from the Pool of London down to the estuary, and this part of the film-script links the Great Fire of 1666 with the Blitz in 1940. For this artist’s book, I set her words running along the river within a continuous map of London, beginning in the 16th Century’s ‘antient and famous City of London’ and the gardens and great highways of the West End (from the Agas map of the 1560’s), on through the devastated city burned by the Great Fire as far as the Tower (from Wenceslas Hollar’s 1666 ‘Surveigh’), and out to the heavily bombed wartime East End and the Isle of Dogs (1940 Luftwaffe photos).

I’ve juxtaposed words from Frances’ film-script with the caption from the Agas map’s escutcheon celebrating the ‘abundance of commodities’ and ‘plentifulnesse’ of fresh water fish that the river of Thames provides.  I drew the maps from successive times, layering the physical appearance as well as the texts; the devastation of the Great Fire was revealed by Hollar’s ‘Exact Surveigh’, completed soon after the disaster of 1666 to record the damage for the great re-building effort that was to come; and the devastation of the Blitz revealed by Luftwaffe photos taken in 1940, also to record the extent of the damage, but for a different reason.

36. London Panopticon map

Drawings in pencil and map in coloured inks and pencils for London Panopticon by Frances Bingham, published by The Pottery Press, 2020

London Panopticon begins down by the river near London Bridge at high tide, about four o’clock in the morning.  Blue, a London guide, walks a pilgrimage through time and the city, up to the heights of Hampstead Heath with its twilight view over the city — and ends with another curious journey.  And so this tour comes full circle, back to the Heath.

I drew a series of pencil drawings for the book’s chapter-heads, inspired by the illustrations in one of my favourite London books, Walter Jarrold’s London of 1925, with Ernest Haslehurst’s paintings and Robert Lee’s black and white title-drawings. Here, the original pencil drawings are mounted on handmade paper with the hand-drawn map which is the book’s contents page.

The rushes in the ditch, the final work in the exhibition

37. The rushes in the ditch

Artist’s book on a sheet of handmade paper, watercolour. Words by Richard Jefferies, from his essay A Pageant of Summer, quoted in Jeremy Hooker’s Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place. On reverse: front and back covers, signed and attributed.

Back on the summer Heath, the rushes I painted for this single sheet artist’s book were bulrushes in a Heath-ditch.

Of this visionary text, poet Jeremy Hooker says: ‘The writing is charged with love of its subject’, and he shows how ‘Jefferies emphasizes the supreme value of the ‘common rushes’ as if for the instruction of a reader who may overlook it, or the refreshment of a reader starved of the proximity of a flowering ditch.’

And further, he shows the way that Jefferies uses ‘a pictorial style not to indulge in word painting, but to render the life of the rushes and their interaction with the environment.’

This interaction is what I seek out in all my work, the connections and containments.

That, and ‘writing charged with love’.

Thank you for joining me on this tour of The Prospect of Happiness at Hampstead’s Burgh House in July 2022.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

To enquire about any work in the exhibition, buy or commission please contact me on this link. (It takes you to the contact page on my house portraits website, in a separate tab.)


Eight artist’s books by Liz Mathews

February 18, 2020

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Paper Wings

55 love poems by Maureen Duffy set to paper by Liz Mathews

A contemporary illuminated manuscript in the form of a double-sided concertina book, setting 55 love poems by Maureen Duffy with one poem to each page of handmade paper (30cm x 42cm). The dazzling variety of the poems, and their recurring themes and motifs proved inspirational for the use of vibrant and diverse materials and tools in making the book. Materials include handmade papers, acrylics and watercolours mixed with honey, wine, blood, snow-melt and rain; lettered with diverse tools including reed pen, Japanese brush, driftwood stick, clothes-peg and swan’s feather quill. The book was originally exhibited (before construction) as an installation flying overhead in the London gallery of Enitharmon Press in 2014.

Book measurements: 31cm x 22cm x 7.5cm closed: opens to 11.5m long x 31 cm high. (Portfolio slipcase 33cm x 23cm x 8.5)

One-off original in slip-case £4000

(A half-size facsimile of this book copy – 1 in a special facsimile edition of 5 – is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, in a new exhibition of the work of 17 contemporary book artists – all women.)

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Tatter’d colours

Text by Anne Finch from The Soldier’s Death (17th century)

Eight flag-pages made from French linen canvas, bound with a continuous length of linen bookbinding tape, to be read as a book or hung in the form of regimental colours. I came across this poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in AP Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers (Jonathan Cape 1944), and found its appalled pacifist-Jacobite overtones both astonishing and inspiring within the Field-Marshall’s collection of favourite poems, known to him by heart. I too am a pacifist (probably also an ‘appalled pacifist-Jacobite’ in fact), and much of my work has been concerned with conflict, and, like this poem, with the effects of war on the individual. (For more on this, see The Dunkirk Project, and my artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.)

Materials include linen thread and bookbinding tape, acrylic ink and paints, charcoal, soot, ash, chalk, clay slip, mud, tea and acid-free matt varnish, the text lettered with a driftwood stick and large Japanese brush. Contained in a kitbag/cover made from English cotton duck, linen thread and tape, and acrylic paints, with materials and instructions for hanging and restoring to book form lettered on the flap of the kitbag case.

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Tatter’d colours (artist’s book by Liz Mathews) exhibited at The Forum, Norwich, and photographed by Gary Florance

‘To hang Tatter’d Colours, remove book from kitbag cover and unroll to flat book form. Unthread the long end of the tape binding the pages at top left, and hang from hemp ropes or beams in diagonal sequence as illustrated on the kitbag flap, fixing each flag with twine through the loops at the top. To rebind into book form, fold pages into sequence, aligning top edges with care, and thread the long tape back through the top left loops in the order indicated on the kitbag flap.’

Measurements: each page 70cm high x 40cm wide, book opened to hand extends up to 4m including the interval tape linking the flag-pages. Kitbag measures 47cm x 14cm x 11cm

One-off original  £1000

Tatter'd colours by Liz Mathews (detail of kitbag/cover)

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Sir Orfeo

Text by Maureen Duffy from her epic poem Sir Orfeo (published in Past Present, Pottery Press 2018)

Artist’s book made from a single huge sheet of handmade paper. The paper is painted, lettered, folded and torn into 12 double pages, but still retains its ability to be restored to the whole image – in keeping with the text, a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus story in an English medieval romance about a king who loses his queen and his position and identity, almost his life, and then by great good fortune and his own goodness, regains everything. This restoration to wholeness is echoed by the form of the book.

The whole sheet is lettered with Sir Orfeo’s name; the large letters then form the framework of the design for the individual pages, where the story is told and reflected in a semi-abstract design of watercolour and handmade acrylic inks. This book was originally shown as the stage backcloth to the first public performance of this bardic poem by the poet, accompanied by jazz pianist and composer Dorian Ford and world singer Vimala Rowe, performing Dorian’s original settings of words from the text (at Burgh House in Hampstead, London, 2017). After the performance, the backcloth was folded into the form of the book, but can easily be restored to the single sheet. I am particularly interested in this tension between duality and integrity of form in my books, especially where it reflects some aspect of the text itself.

Measurements: whole sheet of paper 200cm x 70cm high, book closed 25cm x 28cm x 2.5cm. Contained in portfolio slipcase made from handmade papers 33cm x 29cm x 3cm

One-off original £800


Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

Singing the Year

Lines from Vita Sackville-West’s English epic poem The Land.

In the form of a double-sided concertina book with 12 pages, one page for each month, Singing the Year is constructed so that the December page can be attached to January, and the year flows in a seamless cycle, repeating and renewing, like ‘patterns on a scroll unwinding’. I have kept the design simple to allow the vibrant colours, sounds, sights and atmosphere of the text describing the organic seasonal cycle to speak for themselves.

Materials include various handmade papers, watercolours and handmade acrylic inks, acid-free adhesive, and the book is lettered with driftwood sticks and a wooden clothes-peg. In the ‘May’ page shown below, the blue beehives are made with little stacks of paper, the swarm with a scrap of russet gold paper attached to the page with honey mixed into the acid-free adhesive, and the warm golden colour of the lettering also has honey mixed into the paint, lettered with a little wicker stick.

Each page 42cm x 30cm (approx), opening to a circle with maximum diameter of about 5 metres

One-off original in slip-case  £1200

May page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

February page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)


Version 2

The Seasons Alter

Text from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the 1623 First Folio version, with original spellings and renderings.

This book is made from a single sheet of handmade paper 52cm x 72cm, painted, lettered, folded and torn into a sequence of pages which draw the text continuously across both sides of the paper, creating a double-sided painting which folds to a book with 24 pages in sequence. The text is from Titania’s prescient Act 1 speech in which she warns of climate chaos and the dissolution of the cosmic order as a consequence of conflict, exploitation and reckless violation of the natural world. The colours and brushwork reflect the flowing sequence of the text and present the confusion of the seasons swirling to an inescapable vortex, mixing the gentle, traditional and predictable characteristics of each season with violent disruption and discord.

Materials include handmade paper and acrylic paints mixed with mud, rainwater, icicle-melt, so that the weather has a material presence in the work; it was air-dried in winter sunlight, and first shown in an exhibition in Norwich Millennium Library. In slip-case made with the same materials.

Measurements: double-sided single sheet of handmade paper 72cm x 52cm

One off original £1200

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Swallows on the Thames (text by Matthew Arnold)

Swallows on the Thames

Lines by Matthew Arnold from The Scholar Gypsy

Another book made from a single sheet of paper, setting Arnold’s lines in a painting made with acrylic paints mixed with water from the Thames, and lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. The single sheet is made up of 12 pages that flow across the sheet ‘as the ox ploughs’, in a continuous unending sequence, and fold down to a book 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx), and the work can be read page-by-page as a book, or framed for display on the wall. This dual nature can perhaps reflect an imaginative idealisation of a mid-summer reverie, an afternoon’s shady lazing on the river in its country-mode, which contrasts strongly with its urban manifestation in the following book, Strand of the Thames.

Measurements: sheet opens to 72cm x 52cm, and the closed book is 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx). Contained in portfolio slip-case made with the same materials.

One-off original £700

Swallows on the Thames (page 5)

Swallows on the Thames (page 6)

Swallows on the Thames (detail) text by Matthew Arnold


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Strand of the Thames

Text by Virginia Woolf, from her Diary (1939)

Artist’s book in the form of a 1930’s photograph album: a setting of Virginia Woolf’s diary record of a Thames-side walk, set in 15 grisaille watercolours of the actual sites where she’s walking; watercolour paint mixed with Thames water and the text lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. This book lent itself particularly well to a small edition; I took monochrome photos of the watercolours for each page, and constructed each volume for the edition in the same way as the original/prototype, as a concertina photo album on black handmade paper, fixing the photos in with acid-free photo corners. (All materials in both original and edition acid-free.)

The one-off original is now in the permanent collection of the British Library.

Measurements: original 42cm x 31cm x 5cm (approx); limited edition 15cm x 12cm x 1.5cm

Signed and numbered limited edition (of 20) £40

Read more about this book on the British Library’s blog in a guest article by me: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Walk

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Rag – Luideag

Text by Ruaraidh MacThomas/ Derick Thomson; book by Liz Mathews

I was inspired to set this extraordinary poem (in the original Gaelic as well as the poet’s own translation to Scots English) by the moving poignance of the idea, and by how surely the words describe the fragility of the language, surviving shredded and scattered, clinging to sharp rocky headlands, used only by ‘ragged children’, exposed to the wind and weather, sounding with the sea in its voice.

I set the lines in both languages, one like a shadow or reflection of the other, on 8 clay pages, scraps torn from a single sheet of stoneware clay, the words scratched into the surface of the clay, so that they are ‘written on the rocks’. The hard sharpness of the fired clay shards reflect both the harshness and fragility of the poem’s atmosphere and meaning.  The clay pages are tacked with linen thread to a rough cotton cloth, ripped and wind-torn to a ragged softness. The scruffy cloth is distressed with a mixture of paint, charcoal and soot, strong tea and Scotch whisky, and finished with an acid-free sealant. Contrasting in texture with the stony clay, it wraps the shard/pages to protect them when the wall-hanging is folded down to a book. The closed book is contained in a box made from recycled cardboard and handmade papers, tied with a rough cotton and linen strap, like an old cardboard suitcase.

Measurements; box 30cm x 16cm x 13cm; book opened to wall hanging approx 120cm x 70cm at widest

One-off original  £1600

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Liz Mathews with young visitors to turnthepage artists’ book fair, Norwich

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]

You can read more about this book on the British Library’s blog, in a guest post by me: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Walk

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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:

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

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– 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. The British Library are now showing their copy in an exciting new display in the Treasures Gallery, which features the work of 17 women book artists within an exhibition called The Art of the Book.

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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.