Artist’s books & bookworks
I started making pots and working with clay in 1986 – I started making artist’s books 20 years later in 2006, and the first ones had clay pages, developing quite naturally from my waterfalls and banners, works in which a poetic text flows across several (or many) clay sections, with hemp cords, copper pipes, driftwood and other found materials binding the sections, like pages.
Poem White Page White Page Poem is one of the first artist’s books I made for my installation in the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library in 2008, with text by Muriel Rukeyser. Very fine sheets of paperclay are bound together with linen tape and bamboo; the binding serves as a hinge/spine, and also allows it to stand upright in the round, like a pot.
The layered pages allow the text to flow through the work, overlapping and interconnecting. The texture of the clay pages is really interesting to the hand, with a combination of strength and fragility, and a curiously skin-like feel that emphasises the clay/body connection:
(Signed one-off. About 20cm high x 23cm wide closed).
I soon started to consider other materials. The flax content of paperclay led me towards banner-books with linen pages:
Tatter’d colours has eight pages like flags or the beaten and worn heraldic colours of a regiment, and is lettered with a poem by Anne Finch (born 1661). The pages are bound together with linen webbing in such a way that they can be turned and read as a book, or hung aloft as regimental colours, and the book is stored rolled in a kitbag:
(Signed one-off. Closed measurements 96cm x 58cm x 3cm)
And (again for the Poetry Library residency in 2008) I started working with handmade papers with a high fibre content, and often with a combination of materials, making works where the text flowed across several or many page-like elements:
In Edge a cataract of text pours down overlapping pages of handmade paper, veiled with very fine sheets of transparent paper so that the tumbling words are seen as through water vapour or spray. The poem is by Elizabeth Daryush. (Signed one-off. 50cm wide x 40cm high. 16 pages.)
I continued the idea of construction with a form of book made like a concertina or fan, often double sided, where the pages hinge each other, back to back. This form works well for longer texts (and in fact can be infinitely extended with a growing text), and it’s very adaptable. In recent years I’ve made many artist’s books with this structure, from the small-scale –
(Text by Helen Waddell, her translation of Boethius’ poem De Consolatione Philosophiae. Signed one-off. 18cm x 23cm x 2cm.)
– to the very large. Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book I’ve made (so far), and it’s the largest book in the British Library’s permanent collection:
Unfolded, it’s a freestanding paper sculpture 1m high and 17m long, which you can see in full on The Dunkirk Project. There’s also an illustrated account of the challenges of making Thames to Dunkirk on my Artists’ Newsletter blog Towards Dunkirk. Thames to Dunkirk was shown unfolded in the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition in 2012,
and I very much enjoyed talking to a wide range of people about it in the context of exhibition tours with the curators, and contributing to the BL’s blog about the exhibition – see Roughened water, and A topography of Thames to Dunkirk.
(Signed one-off. Open 17m long x 1m high, concertina book comprising 12 double-sided pages, each 140cm x 100cm. In portfolio/slipcase. BL shelfmark:HS.85/37)
The Thames is very much my Ur-river, and I’ve made many other books with the Thames running through them:
Fired city is constructed as a concertina book, made from handmade papers with 7 hand drawn pages mapping the London Thames from the Great Fire to the Blitz, with text by Frances Bingham and from the ‘Agas’ map of 1560’s.
(Signed one-off. Book closed 21cm wide x 21cm high, open 21cm high x 2.5m long.)
The Strand of the Thames is constructed as a fan book with 14 grisaille watercolours (with text lettered in black ink with a driftwood pen) mounted on black handmade paper like a photograph album of the 1930’s. The text is by Virginia Woolf.
(Signed one-off. Album closed 30cm wide x 22cm high; open 22cm high x 3 metres long.)
Looking through is a double sided fan book constructed with 6 pages of hand made paper, setting another river text, from Alice Oswald’s poem River, lettered (like Thames to Dunkirk) with a driftwood pen.
(Signed one-off. 18cm x 23cm x 3cm. 6 pages with cover and slipcase.)
Stream is a short concertina book with a contemplative text by William Blake:
This book is shown in detail on Riverlight, a Work in focus post. (Signed one-off. 3 pages.)
Handmade paper can be very close to clay in its texture, wet origin, porosity and most of all a curious kind of integrity in the made wholeness of the sheets, with their deckle ‘selvedge’ very like that of a rolled clay panel. I often like to use a single sheet of paper, torn and folded into a sequence of pages, so that the book contains a single ‘whole’ image, but also a page-by-page exploration of the text.
This is Crossing Blackfriar’s Bridge with text by Virginia Woolf. (50cm x 40cm), with a detail of the last page here:
– the text starts at top left, following the title, and continues round in a spiral to the last page in the centre. Sometimes the text spirals out from the vortex, as here in Storm:
– the text starts in the middle:
and whirls round the sheet of paper to finish at top right:
Storm sets a vivid text from Frances Bingham’s novel The Principle of Camouflage. All these books can be framed and wall hung, or read page-by-page as a book. They are made without any construction glue or extra parts, just a single sheet with nothing added or taken away – maintaining the integrity of the original artefact. The whole sheet is folded first, then painted, then torn into a spiral. Wha I am sets text from the Scots poet Helen Cruickshank’s poem The Ponnage Pool:
Here the text flows out from the central pool along the river past the fish towards the bird’s flight in the upper air. The setting of the text in a spiralling movement, moving either towards or away from the vortex can give a particular resonance with the words.
This is closely related to the way I set text on my pots: always with reference to the centrifugal structure of the thrown vessel and its contained volume.
The sheets of handmade paper I work with range from smallish (about A3 or 40cm x 30cm) – as in On this high hill (text by Dylan Thomas) below:
– through large (approx 70cm x 50cm) – elephant size, as in Winter pleasures with text by Thomas Campion:
and double-elephant (approx 100cm x 70cm) like Spring (text by Frances Bingham):
or Our inland sea, with text by Virginia Woolf:
to the very large (2m x 80cm) banner books –
(this is One such night as this, with a text by Valentine Ackland)
– the scale always reflecting the requirements of the text. Most often I work with Khadi paper’s elephant size, about 50cm x 70cm:
These books are sometimes double-sided, allowing the text to flow endlessly within, without and through the form:
The world is alive sets a text by the Welsh poet Thomas Telynog Evans, celebrating the joys of the return of summer, and it’s one of a new collection of work in the form of contemporary Books of Hours, or illuminated manuscripts, all setting texts about the passing of time, the seasons and the cycle of the year. This collection is called Singing the year, and it really began for me with the making of another large project, the four books that make up Love and Freedom: Burns’ Year, which are now in the permanent collection of the National Library of Scotland. There’s one banner-book for each season, setting texts by Burns:
These beautiful texts set on some of the largest sheets of handmade paper in the world (from Khadi Papers) have inspired a whole collection of new work on this timeless theme, including contemporary ecological concerns and some wry celebrations of our weather; I’m adding to this collection all the time, and will be featuring more of these artist’s books in ‘Work in focus’ features as time goes by.
I’ve also developed a new collection of Artist’s books for children with six titles so far – I’ve found that young enquiring minds respond very strongly to the intriguing and stimulating qualities of this new work. I’ll be writing more about these little books in a ‘Work in focus’ feature soon.
They’re on a very different scale from Thames to Dunkirk, but they are very effective and compelling.
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All photographs copyright Liz Mathews.
Permission is needed for any use of these images.