About the progress of The Dunkirk Project: today 26th May is the first day of the nine-day River of Stories on my online installation at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com. Each day I’m telling some of the stories, more or less as they happened 70 years ago. These stories are all from my research notebooks, and all went into the making of Thames to Dunkirk. I’ve already received some brilliant contributions from people telling family stories – I’m hoping to hear more from women who had to wait and worry, or indeed served themselves, or from people who feel strongly that it affected their lives in some way, or have views on the consequences and aftermath of Dunkirk. These will help us to re-evaluate the phenomenon, how a shared event becomes a national myth, and what we can learn from it. During the month I was making Thames to Dunkirk, 94 British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. I think we can’t afford to think of history as in the past; we have this huge collective experience and memory at our disposal, and we need to consider its significance, as well as preserve the archive. I’ve already had some interesting responses (either emailed to me at [email protected], or via The Dunkirk Project on the BBC website history message board (at www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbhistory) or as comments direct to the River of Stories (at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com). Please do contribute if you’d like to.


Before I started work on Thames to Dunkirk I read a lot of material, including first-hand accounts and contemporary photographs in the Imperial War Museum archive, and every book I could find on the subject. I regard all this accumulation of material as part of the design process; its filtering and reduction becomes the essential transformation from concept to working first draft. My primary concern was that the form and scale of the work should reflect the surreal scale of the event, so I was thinking really big. I found the largest possible sheets of handmade khadi paper at Shepherds Falkiners shop on Southampton Row in London, and ordered 25 of them (allowing a spare, which became the endpapers). This stack of sheets (100cm x 140cm) just fitted into our car in three huge rolls and then took over our dining table for the next three months.
I realised that I would certainly not be following my usual practice of construction first, then decoration, which is second-nature to a studio potter. These vast pages had to be folded in half and then worked on one at a time on my adapted work-bench, and then when done, dried overnight and stored in a stack back on the dining table. I’m used to working in series so that I never have to wait for anything to dry (anathema), so I had to adjust my usual practice to work out a system for working on only one page at a time and completing the whole page in a day.
I started first thing every day with incising the river line and painting it in watercolour, mapping the Thames from source to sea. (The ‘shifting north’ I was obliged to use to accommodate the line onto the pages reflects the many volunteered small ships that didn’t even have a compass to guide their Channel crossing.) I carefully measured the page edges to ensure the continuity of the line from page to page. This took all morning, so I had lunch while it dried. Next I lettered the small ships in ink on the river, then the ‘type’ text by brush upside-down at the top, and then the flowing Virginia Woolf text on the lower part of the page, with pens carved from Thames driftwood. Then I left the page to dry overnight.
For 12 days I worked on the first side (Thames side), completing a page a day. Once I’d reached the sea, I set off on the second side (Dunkirk side), first incising the river line backwards (as if it were incised through the page), which set the composition for each page, and determined the shapes of the smoke plumes and the lines of men in the sea. Then I drew and painted the grisaille watercolours of the coast, bombed town, landmarks and skyline, the views from 1940’s photos taken from RAF planes – measuring each page again to ensure continuity. Then I painted the sand and sea. Then lunch while it dried. Then the ‘type’ text above (upside-down again), then the waiting men on the beach and their names queuing into the sea were marked with a peg-pen, and then I did the driftwood lettering in the sea. After all the pages were done, and safely in the stack on the dining table, I painted the front title cover page, and the back page, which links the Thames estuary with the Dunkirk beaches via a most unhelpful Admiralty Instruction directing the small ships across the channel (‘by any… route with which you are familiar… proceed direct to Dunkirk roads’). This was lettered by brush in a font based on one of the original typed scraps of paper handed to the skippers, now in the IWM archive.
This sequence of work took 25 days (including 1 day off) – and I loved every second of it. I was on a roll, didn’t answer the phone, wash up or think about anything else. My partner looked after me throughout – she was only writing a book at the time. We had a wonderful time. Next time I’ll talk about the book construction, and I’ll add another post later today about the progress of my online installation.


Once I had the idea for the four lines at once, I could immediately see how Thames to Dunkirk could reference a number of other artworks by war artists. Richard Eurich’s extraordinary painting Dunkirk in the National Maritime Museum (Queen’s House) takes a bird’s-eye-view of the harbour, as if from an RAF plane, detailing many different fragments of the event in the turmoil of the composition, unified by the great sweep of smoke across everything, just as his Preparations for D-Day in the Imperial War Museum divides the canvas with smoke and the line of the coast. Laura Knight’s Balloon Site, Coventry 1943 unites the disparate elements in the composition with a kind of calligraphic choreography; Evelyn Dunbar’s Queue at the Fish Shop 1944 imbues a regular wartime activity for non-combatants with a monumental authority by the great linear sweep emphasising the length of the queue, combined with engaging personal detail and some great lettering. Eric Ravilious’ luminous RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee gives a very poignant relation of the particular to the universal, or at least common experience, and the huge John Singer Sargent canvas in the Imperial War Museum, Gassed 1919, tells many stories in at least four lines.

I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to bring into the picture stories that are as yet untold, or not part of the official history, by layering fragments of many people’s accounts together in a way that made them representative, while still individual. The photographs of the lines of men on the Dunkirk beaches in the IWM archive give a forceful impression of their individuality, as well as their graphic massing on the canvas of the beach, and I thought for some time about how to represent them with respect but without too much overwhelming detail: each individual is represented by a mark in sepia ink made with a wooden peg, an improvised tool that reflects their makeshift situation, while the lines of men queuing in the sea are made up of the letters of the names of men whose accounts I had read in the archive, lettered with the same tool. Each person is placed in the area where he was on the beach – the doctors by the hospital in the Chateau, for example. The grisaille watercolours of the bombed town and landscape, with the coils of smoke, came out of those contemporary photos, too.

The little ships’ stories, in the same way, I wanted to be inclusive, as well as representative. They are placed as nearly as possible where they came from on the Thames, or round the estuary or coast, and only begin (with Westerly) at the point where the river first becomes navigable. They are lettered with blue ink directly on to the incised and watercoloured map of the Thames.

On the progress of the installation: I’m very excited by the number of people who’ve already visited The Dunkirk Project (http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com); I’m running an advertisement for it in the TLS for the next three weeks, and I’m hoping that once the River of Stories begins (on Wednesday 26th) its daily unfolding of the tale, there will be lots of participation stimulated by the stories, contributing to the scope and diversity of the project.
Next time I’ll be talking about working with the large scale of the book and some of the problems of the making process, as well as how the installation’s going.


Finding the form that would reflect the scale of the event, and the complexity of the story, somehow weaving the multitude of voices into a readable narrative sequence and giving that sequence a physical shape – these were the problems that obsessed me at the start of this project. Making Thames to Dunkirk began, as all my work does, with finding the right text. Then I could see what form the work would take.

Since my installation in the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library in 2008, I’ve been making a lot of artist’s books – or book art, anyway, artworks in the form of books, but one-off, unique signed objects, each with its own purpose and integrity, though related in the sequence of works. So the idea of a book was already there – but it would clearly have to be a huge one. And how to draw so many stories together, including the hidden voices, the otherwise untold, without losing the integrity of the work? Virginia Woolf again gave me the idea: in a letter to Stephen Spender, she wrote:

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.’

I decided to make the work as a concertina book through which four lines of meaning could flow simultaneously, coming in and out of focus as the sequence progressed, but coexisting in a parity of importance throughout. This would combine the linear sequence of the narrative flow with a more complex interweaving of the meanings.

The four lines I decided on were 1) An eye-witness account in a man’s voice, lettered in a font I designed from a 1940 tyewritten letter (this text is Dunkirk by BG Bonallack); 2) A more allusive contemplative considered response in a woman’s voice, lettered with a driftwood pen (this text is by Virginia Woolf, from The Waves); 3) A watercolour river of boats, representing not only the rescuers but all non-combatants who were/are inevitably nevertheless involved; and 4) the long strand of Dunkirk beaches and town in watercolour, with the names of some who were there representing all 300,000.

Once I had this form to work with, the composition was a matter of page-by-page layout, working with a map of the Thames for the river, 1940’s photographs of Dunkirk from the air for the landscapes, and photos of the queuing troops for the compositions on the beaches. I made a small (!) version to get everything ready, which turned out to be over 5m long when opened out, so I knew it was going to be a big job. Next time I’ll write about some of the problems I encountered and what I did about them.

On the progress of the installation, I’m very excited to see that a lot of people have already visited The Dunkirk Project at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com – I hope they’ll be coming back for the story unfolding daily on 26th May to 3rd June. I’m inviting contributions, and I’m hoping to hear alternative views from women, non-combatants, pacifists and other dissenters. Any contribution, however small, increases the scope.


The nine days from May 26th to June 3rd see the 70th anniversary of a legendary wartime event, the evacuation of more than 300,000 British and French troops who had retreated to the beaches at Dunkirk and were under heavy bombardment, by a makeshift armada of boats and ships, many of them crewed by volunteers. Many artworks have been made to commemorate and celebrate this event, including The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve – my own imagination was first hooked by reading a very entertaining account in Virginia Woolf’s diary about a chap she knew who’d managed to struggle home still clutching a couple of smuggled watches – and in the course of my research I came across an amazing variety of experiences recorded within this shared event, from extremes of selfless heroism to sheer rage. Much of my work over the last few years has been concerned with ideas of conflict, and the tensions between individuality and duty – Dunkirk became for me an image of this duality, where defeat was turned to miracle and the certainty of disaster became a celebrated humanitarian triumph, ‘the greatest thing this nation has ever done’ (John Masefield).

Once hooked on the image, I needed to find a form appropriate to the scale of the event, that would also reflect the complexity of the response and the issues. I wanted some way of including the hidden voices and alternative views among the official history, and perhaps to discover and reveal more stories that haven’t been heard. I’ll be talking next time about the evolution of my huge paper sculpture, Thames to Dunkirk. To see it in full, and for more of the amazing Dunkirk story, please visit my online interactive installation The Dunkirk Project at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com where the river of stories will be unfolding daily from 26th May to 3rd June. I’m very much hoping that many people will want to contribute, with memories, stories or responses – and I’ll be recording the progress of the installation on this blog as it goes along.