May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
A vast tribute in cloth to the victors of D-day is good art, good history—and surprisingly affecting
In the ancient seafaring town of Portsmouth, England, overlooking the English Channel, stands the D-Day Museum. This June it will be at the center of ceremonies commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Allied troops—many of them embarked from this port—breached Hitler’s Fortress Europe. The museum is full of telling exhibits, but most impressive by far is the Overlord Embroidery, which tells the story of the Normandy landing in glowing fabric.
In the ancient seafaring town of Portsmouth, England, overlooking the English Channel, stands the D-Day Museum. This June it will be at the center of ceremonies commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of the day when Allied troops—many of them embarked from this port—breached Hitler’s Fortress Europe. The museum is full of telling exhibits, but most impressive by far is the Overlord Embroidery, which tells the story of the Normandy landing in glowing fabric. Stretching 272 feet in width, this tapestry is made up of thirty-four individual panels 8 feet wide and 3 feet high. It is the largest work of its kind in the world.
The extraordinary project was conceived by Lord Dulverton in the early sixties. He had decided there should be some lasting tribute to the ordinary men and women of Britain and its allies who turned the tide of Nazi domination in World War II. He envisioned an epic embroidery, a kind of modern-day Bateaux Tapestry. Just as its eleventh-century predecessor told the story in medieval stitchery of the invasion of Britain by the Normans in 1066, Dulverton’s tapestry would document the invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
In 1968 Dulverton, heir to a tobacco fortune and himself a veteran of the Normandy fighting, commissioned the Royal School of Needlework in London to undertake the ambitious project. It was to be called the Overlord Embroidery after the code name chosen for the top-secret D-day operation.
The first step was to find an artist who could design an embroidery that would translate easily into appliqué, or applied embroidery. Fabric cutouts of graphic images would be sewn onto linen panels, and the details filled in with embroidery stitches. A talented young English painter named Sandra Lawrence, who was not even born on D-day but who had learned to draw properly in Florence, got the job.
After a somewhat daunting beginning, when her trial panel of King George VI bidding farewell to the invasion troops was rejected by Dulverton, Lawrence quickly settled down to some serious research. She surrounded herself with contemporary photographs, newspaper clippings, and reference materials, and soon began to capture the mood of the time. For historical advice she drew on the authority of a committee of three distinguished military men, representing all three services, men who had themselves taken part in the invasion. Her preliminary sketches for each panel were vetted for accuracy, corrections were made as required, and the painting of the individual drawings began in earnest. Sandra Lawrence found herself producing one panel every month for four years until the story was finished. As each full-size painting was completed, it was sent to the workrooms of the Royal School of Needlework, where more than fifty different fabrics were used for the appliqué patterns, each carefully matched to the drawing. They ranged from authentic Allied and German uniform materials to gold braid for the king’s uniform and a piece of lace for the robe of a French housewife who, with her hair still in curlers, is seen gazingly incredulously at a dawn sky filled with planes and parachutes.
The fabric shapes were stitched in place and outlined in silk cord for definition, and the details were exquisitely embroidered with traditional English stitches. Faces were cut from silk and worked separately on smaller frames before being transferred to the larger panel. The project took twenty seamstresses five years.
Even after its completion, the project was not without its difficulties. When the artist depicted one soldier wading ashore wearing spectacles, the image was categorically rejected by the army adviser, who scoffed at the idea of a soldier wearing eye-glasses in battle. Lawrence dutifully removed them, but when the story got out it produced a barrage of protest in the press from men who really had worn their specs to war.
A piper appeared in the finished embroidery wearing a helmet as he piped British commandos ashore. When the unit’s brigadier, Lord Lovat, saw the work on exhibit, he exploded, “He wasn’t wearing a tin hat, he was wearing a beret!” The panel was removed from display, the tin hat came off, and on went an authentic green beret. But the piper will forever sport a five o’clock shadow where his chin strap used to be.
Despite such small frustrations, the finished embroidery is an amazement and a delight, a unique picture of the war from the summer of the blitz to the invasion of Europe. The museum is open every day from ten-thirty to fivethirty, and a ninety-minute train ride from London will bring the visitor to a tapestry as impressive as its famous medieval counterpart, which shows the soldiers going the other way.