Creating Dunkirk – artists’ views 1

John Craske’s ‘Evacuation of Dunkirk’

'The Snow Goose' by Paul Gallico with line drawings by Anne Linton

Visions of Dunkirk lodge in the imagination. I first read Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose in a copy my sister gave me a copy for my 12th birthday, with line drawings by Anne Linton. Those unforgettable images are based on photos (in the IWM archive) taken on the beaches, and they were my first glimpse of the scene, with its terrifying mixture of organisation and chaos, not to mention the bizarrely surreal combination of war and seaside.


These images were very influential for the making of my artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk; I wanted to capture something of that tension between extremes that’s so apparent in the photos and Linton’s drawings, the horror and the beauty.

TtoD p17

Now, a decade after I made it, when I’m looking at other artworks of Dunkirk I can’t help considering resonances with my own work – in composition, in technique and not least in inspiration. I’m interested in whether the work was triggered by the artist’s direct personal experience; was the artist there, like BG Bonallack whose own Dunkirk story I set on Thames to Dunkirk with Virginia Woolf’s lines from The Waves as an undercurrent. Or perhaps the stimulus for the artwork was, like mine, an imaginative engagement?

John Craske, The Dunkirk Tapestry, by permission of Norfolk Museums Service

The Evacuation of Dunkirk by John Craske, by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service

One artist who certainly made a leap of the imagination is John Craske, whose great unfinished Dunkirk Tapestry is now one of the treasures of Norwich Castle Museum (and all images of his work on these pages are shown by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service). Craske was about 59 or 60 in 1940, and in very ill-health, so he couldn’t be at Dunkirk in person, there on that particular beach – but it’s obvious from the work that he knows the special landscape of a sandy dune coast intimately. His design for the embroidery was based largely on his visualisation of the wireless reports at the time, as well as photographs he saw in the newspapers – but his imaginative empathy and understanding of the terrain and the conditions is visible in every stitch. There’s something very appropriate about the medium: unusual as it is, the domestic references of a picture embroidered on canvas (perhaps a strip from a sail) carry great resonances with his vision of individual men in khaki, stranded far from home, and the desperate rescue effort, as though the tapestry embodies or makes physical the imaginative empathy and the anxious compassion of those waiting at home for news.

The great panorama of the beaches sets some challenges for any composition; my own depiction of the scene on the beaches and dunes was based on photos of the bombed town taken by RAF planes, and in Thames to Dunkirk the view is looking landwards towards the beaches from the sea/air, perhaps even from the distant shores of England across the channel. I suppose it’s the view from my perspective, looking at the scene.

Thames to Dunkirk (Dunkirk side) by Liz Mathews

Craske’s viewpoint is, poignantly, like that of the stranded people, looking from the dunes out to sea towards the ships, towards home. Perhaps, as a seaman himself, one would have expected him to visualise the scene from the viewpoint of one of the sailors on a ship, but his imaginative empathy is with the men on the beach, looking outward towards the rescuing ships, looking towards home. Many of the photos he would have seen in the paper did show this view, and of course this perspective gives him the opportunity to show the boats and ships themselves in meticulous detail.

Detail from John Craske's Dunkirk Tapestry

Detail from The Evacuation of Dunkirk by John Craske, by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service

Another crucial aspect of our designs is shared by our two portraits of Dunkirk: the length of the beaches inspired both John Craske and me to make a strangely proportioned artwork – my Thames to Dunkirk is a huge double-sided paper construction that opens out to 17 metres long and 1 metre high, allowing me twenty-three full size paintings (twelve on the first Thames side, and eleven on the back, Dunkirk side, plus the front and back covers) in which to set the scene page-by-page, each page being 140 cm wide and 100cm high; and the whole scene’s proportion is 17:1.


Craske’s picture also works with a panoramic proportion: at 9:1 his canvas’s width is approximately nine times its height. This allows him to compose not only a single wide-angle view, but within it a series of at least a dozen simultaneous scenes, all happening at once, like Giotto’s simultaneous narratives in his great fresco cycles or perhaps like a graphic art comic. Here’s one small slice in detail:


Here we have – reading from the top (and I’ve cut out the sky) – the hospital ship lying out to sea awaiting its cargo of wounded men; a rowing boat speeding through the waters manned by a disciplined crew of sailors in blue; one of the Thames tugs that went to the scene dragging roped-together dinghies crammed with soldiers, through the choppy waves; a rowing boat with eight men in khaki being rowed vigorously by four sailors; another even smaller boat full of men but apparently adrift without oars; a lifeboat that’s run aground athwart the waves close to the shore, weighed down with a full cargo, and eight sailors manfully struggling in the water to shove it afloat again; another small rowing boat stuffed with soldiers just appearing to the right of this frame being vigorously rowed by one sailor; and then on shore, sailors gently helping wounded soldiers to approach the boats – one chap looking on, his leg bandaged and his arm in a sling; and then closest, we can just see the tops of the heads and grey helmets of soldiers sitting or lying in the dunes. And then we have close detail of the sandy dunes and the shore reeds and grasses. All this in one small area, perhaps a twentieth of the great composition.

But curiously, in spite of the vividly depicted action of the vignettes, the overall feeling of the whole picture is strangely serene, though by no means static. The colours are gentle, almost pastel, the soldiers’ khaki camouflage blending with their natural surroundings effectively and contrasting with the navy uniforms of the sailors. Sand sea and sky are subtly toned, and reflect each other, the soft greens of the shore being picked up again in the sky most effectively. We see movement in details: the wash of the water on the swiftly moving gunboat in the middle distance, and the precarious balance of the little boats athwart the waves, awkwardly hauling in men. The artist shows us the wind in the smoke from the ships’ funnels, and in the bowing of the dunes’ grasses.

Version 2

We see the planes fighting in the sky amid a hail of bullets, the nurses struggling to help wounded men into the boats, the sheer effort of battling against the waves to push off the grounded boat, weighed down with its crammed cargo of men. And yet the feeling is overwhelmingly calm, as though the artist is enduring, with a great will of patience, on the beach among the queuing men, passive, powerless, unable to do anything but wait. I think this expresses a feeling that can be forgotten in all the turmoil, the accounts of appalling din, desperation, the bombing and the fear. Our eye-witness soldier-poet BG Bonallack says that after the great ‘cry of agony’ of their blowing up of their guns, a stunned state of bewilderment settled on the soldiers:

And we were left bewildered, weaponless,

And turned and marched, our faces to the sea.

TtoD p4

Perhaps Craske was able to depict both the extremes, and to understand this strange detachment of powerless waiting, because of his own life’s experience. I found some insights into his background through an unexpected connection with my own life. My partner, Frances Bingham, is the biographer of the poet Valentine Ackland, who first discovered Craske’s work and introduced him to the art world of the late 1920’s, and it was due to Valentine Ackland that Craske’s work and name became known in Britain. Frances told me this strange story:

John Craske was a Norfolk fisherman, born in Sheringham in 1881, who worked on local fishing boats until the First World War. He joined up in 1917 but was soon invalided out of the army with an illness (thought to be a brain abscess), for which he was temporarily in an asylum. He recovered to some extent, but was left with a permanent disability, sometimes drifting into a coma or semi-conscious state. Laura, his wife, looked after him, and without work they were very poor.

Unable to return to the sea, Craske began to paint naive seascapes and harbour scenes on old box-lids and bits of brown wrapping-paper. (Later, he also embroidered carefully-observed maritime subjects in wool.) He didn’t sell the paintings, but made model boats for visitors to Hemsby, the coastal village where he and Laura lived. The young poet Valentine Ackland saw his work by chance in the late 1920’s when she was visiting her mother, Ruth, at Winterton (Ruth was a local do-gooder and probably suggested Valentine might like to buy one of his boats to give the Craskes charitable help). But Valentine instantly recognised his untrained natural talent, and bought a ship painting, The James Edward, for thirty shillings. This was the first time he’d sold an artwork.

For Valentine, Craske was representative of all that she loved most about Norfolk; the independence of its people, the sea’s perpetual presence. Although comparisons with Alfred Wallis of St. Ives annoyed Valentine, Craske is inevitably considered a Norfolk Wallis; stylistically similar and equally hard up, the same use of found materials, the same sense of a special relationship with his subject.

Valentine’s life in artistic circles in London (where she modelled for Eric Gill and Augustus John) had made her aware of the current fashion for Primitive art. She decided pragmatically that Craske could benefit from it; being shown as high art would not alter the work’s essence but would help him financially. Valentine had the art world connections to promote his work; she showed the painting to Dorothy Warren, with whom she was having an affair at the time.

Dorothy Warren was the niece of Lady Ottoline Morrell (Bloomsbury hostess and patron of Garsington), and owned the Warren Galleries in Maddox Street, where she curated the kind of scandalous, successful exhibitions which were raided by the police. Mixing business with pleasure, Dorothy decided to have an exhibition of paintings by Craske, having seen the picture in Valentine’s flat, and handed over her cheque-book with instructions to buy enough of his work for an exhibition. Valentine reached a tactful compromise whereby Craske felt well-paid and Dorothy pleasantly surprised; in 1929 the show was critically well-received.

The danger that Craske might be briefly fashionable and then ignored was averted because Valentine did not forget him; she continued to buy his art whenever she could, and her recommendations brought him new collectors and patrons for the rest of his life, with more shows in London and New York. Over the course of his life he created a large body of work, much now in public collections; Valentine’s own collection was left (by her partner Sylvia Townsend Warner) to the Britten-Pears Foundation at Aldeburgh.

Craske died in 1943, in Norwich hospital, still working on his last unfinished seascape, The Dunkirk Tapestry. His inspiration for this ambitious piece was hearing radio reports about the evacuation as it happened. Small ships and rescues at sea had been his lifelong themes, and he instinctively combined his knowledge of them with newspaper photographs of the Dunkirk beaches to create a sailor’s-eye view, an imagined Dunkirk which is not unlike the Norfolk coast.

John Craske and Valentine Ackland by Frances Bingham 2020


I find it so poignant to think of Craske having this work in hospital with him when he died. Now I know that his later life was that of a grounded sailor, washed up on shore, I see that his perspective in the Dunkirk tapestry is not , as I previously thought, that of the waiting soldiers at all. In fact he’s behind them, a piece of jetsam cast up high in the dunes, forever looking out to sea. And the paradoxically calm air that pervades this frenziedly peopled composition reminds me of watching an early silent film, or looking at the sea through a closed window, the pane of glass muffling the hurly burly of the outside world. All we can hear in the work is the silken rustle of the breeze through the grasses.


Perhaps the sense of detachment also reflects Craske’s states of semi-consciousness, a dream-like visionary state that his illness had accustomed him to throughout his life. And maybe the material process of the work had something to do with it: an embroidery on this scale would not be quick to make, and he must have been quietly stitching away, working on it for many months, perhaps years. Perhaps he began work on it not long after Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, and it was still unfinished (that small patch of sky) when he died three years later. For a work of art to take years in the realisation must add something to its eventual effect, to the feeling it communicates. And it may imply that the work is more than a work of art – at this rate of production, it becomes a way of life.

Why did he choose this medium for this work? He was apparently self-taught in all his art, but Frances speculates that though all fishermen are good at painting their boats to keep them seaworthy, and sewing, mending nets and making sails, Craske may also have encountered a less functional, more ‘artistic’ kind of sewing as occupational therapy. After the Second World War embroidery was often prescribed as occupational therapy for brain-damaged patients, and perhaps this may have happened earlier too, after the First World War. Craske could even have been prescribed this therapy or encountered it in the course of his various spells in hospital or the asylum. But however he found the medium, it was perfectly natural to him – his skill with colour and texture design is only equalled by his technical ability. The Norfolk Museums Service has sent a detail of the reverse of the tapestry, showing an abstract vitality to the crossing and weaving of the stitches and colours – a background energy of the behind-scenes making process that underlies the calm of the finished image on the front.


Version 4

Since Craske had the unfinished embroidery with him in hospital when he died, continuing to work on it, we can also speculate that one of the reasons he took up working in this medium is that it’s a clean, dry craft, something one can do in bed, in long boring hours of illness or convalescence, unlike messy painting on chocolate box lids or coal scuttles (some of his preferred grounds). I like to think of him lying in bed, with a view of the Norfolk coast from a small square cottage window, thinking about Dunkirk, and embroidering another painstaking detail into his great panorama – the bullets swarming in the sky like bees, perhaps, or the nurses helping to load a stretcher on to a boat, up to their knees in the wave’s edge. In everything hand-sewn, there is some quality akin to mending, that reminds us of the stitching up of a wound. I think this was Craske’s way of mending a world still torn by war even when he died –  making his contribution to the healing process, in the best way he could.Detail from The Evacuation of Dunkirk by John Craske, by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service

The resonances with my own Thames to Dunkirk are strong. Like Craske, I was not there – born 20 years too late, my obsession with Dunkirk is with the multiplicity of its stories, the individual tesserae that build up the great mosaic. I’m a potter as well as a lettering artist; much of my life’s work has been concerned with the vessel form, and the volume it contains – containment itself, the inside of things, the integration of form and content, the material embodiment of words. How did I start off on this path that led to edge of the land, the war-torn beaches of Dunkirk, the air stricken with the sounds of war, and every story a heartbreaking trauma? Why did I want to make art about this?

I think it was the immediacy of the human stories, the individual lives laid bare alongside each other in these extraordinary circumstances that first intrigued me and then really came to obsess me. Making a book that could contain volumes seemed the only way to express not only these myriad voices and experiences, but also my own contradictory responses, and I think it is no accident that Thames to Dunkirk is double-sided. I like there to be an element of duality in my work – the book that opens out to a painting, but can fold away back down to a book – and I’m always interested in how words can themselves become the image, not printed beside an illustration, but actually forming the image themselves.

I remember waking one morning, with the whole concept of this enormous book fully formed in my mind overnight. A surreally large book to give a window on to a surreally large event, shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Here with Thames to Dunkirk I was faced with some of the same challenges that Craske found, and came up with different solutions. My way of dealing with the simultaneous narrative is to set the four lines of the book intertwined, the texts interrupting and undercutting each other, not confronting, but like a conscious and unconscious commentary on the same event. But the moods of the two sides are very different: the map of the Thames from source to sea imposes a feeling of calm control, with the volunteered little ships’ names lettered all along the river’s length, in paint mixed with Thames water, to bring the material presence of England’s great river into the book. But then, the danger and terrible confusion of the channel crossing is marked by the back cover, all at sea, with its extremely unhelpful Admiralty Instruction – in the actual words that were handed out to volunteer crews on a scrap of paper. (Just go ‘by any route with which you are familiar…’)

And then, when we reach the other side – ‘there‘ – the line of the coastal dunes and beaches either side of Dunkirk town stretches the full length of the book, the watercolour painted from photos taken from RAF reconnaissance planes:

photo taken from RAF reconnaissance plane May 1940

These appalling pictures showed something of what faced the rescue ships and the crews of the little boats – a vision of horror, normality overlaid with overwhelming destruction. I think it is that combination that is so powerful in the photos – and again, the tension between the extremes, that I wanted to catch.

My own making process was quite different from Craske’s. Once I had finished a year’s research reading every account I could lay my hands on, and designed the book in theory, and then made a working model to iron out some of the problems of construction – once all this preliminary groundwork was done, I made it very quickly at a rate of one huge page a day – in just one month, July 2009 – and unlike Craske’s embroidery, none of it was done in bed. Each morning, I took one huge sheet of paper from the pile on our dining table down to our studio, where my work bench had extended across most of Frances’ space as well. I worked quickly: first I folded the sheet in half, to set the middle-line hinge, then opened it out again and engraved the river line across the sheet, scaled up enormously from the map, and then painted it with watercolour and river water. I engraved the river line on the Dunkirk side too, in reverse as though through the paper, so that that line forms the backbone of the composition, here and there, with all the elements following its framework; and on the Dunkirk side pages I then painted the appropriate section of the grisaille watercolour townscape, and the dunes and sea. All this before lunch.

In the afternoon I would come back down to the studio to find this underpainting now dry. The next stage was to letter the top text – the BG Bonallack lines – with a brush, in a type-written font from a 1940’s letter typed by Valentine Ackland. These lines had to be lettered upside-down and backwards because the pages were too big for me to reach across the right way up. I set the letters out in faint pencil first, as you can see in this photo:

lettering the type text by brush

Then I lettered the names of the little ships along the river’s length on the Thames side, or the names of the people in the waiting crowds on the Dunkirk side, with a wooden clothes-peg – one of my all-time favourite lettering tools (with all sorts of significancies for Thames to Dunkirk). And then I lettered the Virginia Woolf text in great flowing letters, with a driftwood stick from the Thames. Then I added the completed page to the growing pile on the dining table, and then I collapsed for the evening. In this way I made the twenty-three double page spreads, plus the front and back covers, one-a-day for twenty-five consecutive days, and then I constructed the book over several days with the aid of a big pot of conservation grade adhesive and a stack of our biggest art books for a press. Then I made the slipcase cover. And then the month was up and it was done.

This speed of construction for such a large work wasn’t just a gimmick. It was necessary, I think, to keep the energy of the work from sagging half-way through. I felt that I wanted to communicate the desperate urgency of the situation as much as the long hours of waiting. And from a practical viewpoint, it meant that I could mix up large batches of colour and river water to keep the continuity from page-to-page, without the colours starting to go off. I had originally thought I could complete the work in nine days, to reflect the nine days of the evacuation, but there are limits to an artist’s endurance. So I set the one-month challenge, and I couldn’t have done it alone: Frances helped – not only by carting stuff about and giving up her work table, but doing everything else – in that month, I had a full time staff – I didn’t make a single cup of tea, cook a single supper, open a single envelope, or answer a single email. (As many a male artist has recognised before me, this kind of intensive work is only possible if you have a partner to look after you – credit where it’s due. And she managed to get her own work done at the same time.)

But when the book was made, I didn’t feel it was over for me. I wanted to make a space where my vision of Dunkirk could be seen alongside those stories – and so The Dunkirk Project came into being, weaving together all the accounts I’d read in that long year of research, and has since become a place where these important memories can be collected, seen in the context of other stories, so that our understanding of this vast event and its implications can be extended by empathy, and a recognition of the differences between us, as well as what we share. I like to think that Craske would be happy for his work, his vision of the story, to be shown in this context.


All images of John Craske’s The Evacuation of Dunkirk tapestry are shown by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service. I’m very grateful for their kind assistance in my research for this page, and would like to send particular thanks to Ruth Battersby Tooke and her colleagues at Norfolk Museums Service.

All images of my own work are copyright Liz Mathews, and the photos of me at work are by Frances Bingham. Please do not use any of these images without further permission from the copyright holders.