Every schoolboy knows the story of 1066 and all that - the battle of Hastings, Harold with an arrow in his eye, William the Conqueror, etc. And then there's the Bayeux Tapestry, a remarkable piece of work which tells, throughout its 230 feet of length, the whole epic tale.

Detail of Panel 30: Absolutely stunning representation of the Battle of Caen, by Wendy Hogg
Back in the 1960s, during a conversation with his good friend Lord Dulverton of Batsford, Gloucestershire, P.E. Tyhurst Lord Steward to the Society of Merchant Venturers, a role which made him pivotal to the large-scale agricultural operations in Britain during World War II suggested that it would be splendid to have a modern version of the Bayeux Tapestry to celebrate the invasion of Europe. Seizing on this idea with enthusiasm, Dulverton worked hard to raise official support for the idea amongst Government ministers, but to no avail.

Panel 3: Dark days between Dunkirk and D-Day: The blitz. On the left, civilians enter a tube station for shelter.
Undeterred, he decided to go it alone with the project, and in 1968 commissioned young artist Sandra Lawrence to produce some virgin artwork. The idea was that Lawrence would initially produce a thumbnail sketch design for each of a series of panels; these would be put in front of an assembled advisory panel of D-Day experts, comprising Admiral Sir Charles Madden, General Sir Charles Jones and Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Evans. Once each sketch had been approved, Sandra would go away and make an 8 x 3ft painting, this constituting a full-size template for each panel.

Panel 14: Ahead of the invasion force, minesweepers were sent to clear safe paths through the channel.
The tapestry itself was to be made by 20 members of staff from the Royal School of Needlework, along with five apprentices. Preparation work for each panel would involve stretching a strong cotton fabric across the embroidery frame, then adding a piece of purple crestweave on top; these two layers would then be stitched together. Next, a tracing of Sandra Lawrences painting was laid on top, and the old Tudor method of pricking and pouncing used to transfer the outline to the fabric. This involved pricking thousands of holes through the tracing paper and fabric to mark lines on the cloth, then forcing powder (or pounce) through each one to make them discernible once the paper had been removed. Next, each trail of dots (holes) could be joined up, leaving the basis of a picture on the crestweave cloth, and definite areas ready to receive pieces of coloured cloth.

Detail of Panel 30: Absolutely stunning representation of the Battle of Caen, by Wendy Hogg
In the event, more than 50 different types of cloth were used. The workforce would carefully select colours and materials, using Sandra Lawrence's painting as a constant guide, before cutting them out and stitching to the panels. Under the guidance of Margaret Bartlett, head of the team, 34 panels were completed between 1968 and 1973 a mammoth task.

Panel 12: A sight to stir the blood - Spitfires. However, those lighter pieces of cloth atop each fuselage and cowl does make them appear rather box-like - it's possible the photograph used as a guide featured the aircraft with sunlight shining on top, and that an attempt at emulating this was made.

The work

Rather than beginning with D-Day itself, the first few panels narrate a brief history of the war starting with post-Dunkirk, 1940, to explain how the events of June 6 1944 became necessary. Perhaps with the efforts of tapestry instigator P.E. Tyhurst in mind, the very first panel pays homage to the massive civilian input both on the land and in factories during those dark days. Attention is also paid to the Battle of Britain and the Atlantic, before moving on to the build up for D-Day itself.
The Embroidery's tone is, naturally, quite patriotic, although some panels do depict Allied casualties in a way which brings home the stark reality of war. It could be argued that certain important events that were not included such as the failed Dieppe Raid, August 1942, in which 1,027 Canadian troops lost their lives in a landing exercise that taught D-Day commanders important lessons should have been, although with space at a premium, the composition is always likely to stimulate debate. However, despite these historical discrepancies, the embroidery certainly provides a useful and entertaining learning tool, especially for the young, and there can be no doubt that it represents an outstanding piece of appliqué needlework. In terms of quality, a remarkable consistency has been achieved, although it should be said that some panels are better than others. Compare, for example, the Spitfires on Panel 12 (the addition of bright pieces of cloth on top of the fuselage and cowl make each one appear rather box-like) with the amazing Panel 30, which brilliantly captures the aftermath of the Battle of Caen. Interestingly, Panel 30 was made as an afterthought; originally, there were only 33 panels, but Lord Dulverton felt the difficult and bloody struggle for the strategically important French town should not be left out.
With the School of Needlework now embroiled in a new commission, it was left to a solitary member of the original team, Wendy Hogg, to use Sandra Lawrence's new painting to make the panel and as you can see, she did a splendid job.
Perhaps the most famous of all the panels is No. 28, which has King George VI, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery and Field Marshal Brooke visiting the Normandy beachhead. The likeness of each character achieved is indeed remarkable, and a great tribute to the efforts of Ruby Essam, who created their faces at the School. For each one, Ruby would work the face on a small frame, using flesh coloured material as a base and further flesh toned cloth to layer features and subtle changes in colour. The end result would also, through the layering, exhibit a three-dimensional effect which brings Panel 28 to life.

Panel 28: King George VI and Churchill visit the landing beaches, with Field Marshall Brooke, Eisenhower, and Montgomery.

Permanent Home

Originally, the plan was to place the Overlord Embroidery on permanent display in the Imperial War Museum. But planning permission for a new gallery to house it was refused and, after a period spent touring the USA and Canada, plus a brief spell in Edinburgh, the Embroidery was put on show in the Whitbread Brewery, London. This was never meant to be a permanent arrangement, and Lord Dulverton continued to search for a long-term home, a quest not to end until 1984. In that year, the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Portsmouth City Council in conjunction with its Museums Service decided to found a new, small but permanent museum commemorating an event which had been such an important part of the town's long naval history. Realising that the Overlord Embroidery needed a home, the council offered to produce a permanent display, and Lord Dulverton gratefully accepted the invitation.
Now, the Embroidery is displayed in 34 individual cases set around a purpose-built, circular gallery. Related exhibits that show how the panels were conceived and made are scattered around the central area, making for a fascinating display.
The fate of Sandra Lawrence's paintings is worth noting. Stored in London until 1991, they were acquired by the David Wills Charitable Trust and subsequently presented, in 1994, to the then US Secretary of State on the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. Now they hang on the walls in the Pentagon.

Inspirational Tribute

Drawing on the Bayeux Tapestry for inspiration, the Overlord Embroidery is a remarkable and modern tribute to the successful efforts of those Allied servicemen and support staff who made the invasion of Europe a success. In many respects it differs from its circa 12th century counterpart; the interfusion of several images to create a representative whole on a number of panels, for example, is quite different, and modern techniques in art and embroidery have made for far greater realism.
However, the original idea of creating a masterpiece that would, like the Bayeux Tapestry, permanently record a great seaborne invasion which changed the face of history has certainly been achieved, and all those involved with its inception and creation can be justly proud of the result.

Panel 34: Final panel sees the symbolic marching of troops towards final victory.
You can see more of the Overlord Embroidery online at the D Day Museum, or visit the actual work at D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea PO5 3NT

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Issue 3 March 2003