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 Dreams, Dark Satanic Mills, Wild Places, Beyond 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 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.