Posts Tagged ‘Writing Britain’

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.