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La fabrique de l’Histoire : témoignages et représentations de la Seconde Guerre ‎mondiale ‎

Staring Contests in the Overlord Embroidery

Jeux de regards dans la Tapisserie du Débarquement
Nicole Terrien
p. 168-177


Appelée broderie en anglais, la Tapisserie du Débarquement offre une représentation originale de la Seconde Guerre mondiale susceptible d’attirer un public plus large que celui qui s’intéresse aux peintures traditionnelles ou aux récits de guerre. Inspirée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, officiellement considérée comme un manuscrit, cette broderie peut et doit être lue comme un texte. Si nous la soumettons au même type d’explication de texte qu’un récit en mots, nous constatons que l’impression d’ensemble repose sur une série de détails qui confèrent une grande humanité à la représentation globale. En nous focalisant sur la représentation des yeux, nous pouvons retracer une évolution qui dépasse la simple évolution chronologique. Dès que les yeux deviennent visibles, les personnages gagnent une individualité. Les ennemis deviennent humains, partagent les mêmes émotions que les héros qui se battent pour la liberté. La mort se lit dans les regards vacants des corps gisant sur les plages ou le long des routes. Croisant le regard des personnages brodés, le spectateur est invité à balayer la tapisserie du regard, suivant des lignes moins évidentes que celles de la lecture horizontale. Le spectateur se trouve alors au cœur de l’action, partageant des émotions complexes. La nécessité constante de reconstruire le schéma transforme ce qui aurait pu être un outil de propagande en véritable œuvre d’art originale.

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1The Bayeux Tapestry, which served as a model for the Overlord Embroidery, is officially considered as a manuscript and the curator in charge of its conservation is a librarian. This certainly is an invitation to read the Embroidery as one would read a text, to consider the story it tells, its overall effect but also its style, its attention to detail, playing on the reception of the viewer. Such an approach allows us to see more than the official work of art that the few books published on the topic so far have chosen. But at a time when States have become well aware of the necessity to keep carefully organised archives, the specificity of such a project as a record must be considered from a different angle: we have photographs, films and documents stored away for the future generations, used for that matter as sources of information in the making of the Embroidery, and one may wonder what additional value an embroidery may bring to our knowledge, or rather our perception, of Operation Overlord. It is probably useful here to sum up the argument of the Embroidery as it does not enjoy the reputation it deserves.

2The booklet issued by the Trustees in 1978 to present the Embroidery to the public, as it was then displayed at Whitbread’s Brewery in Chriswell Street in the City of London, gives the necessary information: “The Overlord Embroidery was commissioned in 1968 by Lord Dulverton as a tribute to, a permanent memorial and record of the effort made by the Allies to liberate Europe during the 1939-45 war. […] Panels 1-11 deal with how Britain, recovering from Dunkirk, continued to counter the threat of conquest, and together with the Allies planned to return to Europe. The formidable crossing of the Channel and the D-Day landings are covered by panels 12-25, while panels 26-34 complete the story and show how the German armies were defeated in France.” (2)

3If the summary of the argument is short, the purpose is clearly a political one and, within the context of the time, it may not be surprising that the Embroidery should never have been displayed in France so far, although it travelled to Canada and the United States, where the cartoons are still exhibited at the Pentagon.

  • 1 I am deeply indebted to Madame Lemagnen, curator of the Bayeux Tapestry, for the enlightening infor (...)

4“The Embroidery consists of 34 panels, each 8 feet long and 3 feet high; measures 272 feet in length and is the largest work of its kind in the world. It is 41 feet longer than the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, of which it is a modern counterpart.” (2) Precise measurements are part of the information traditionally provided by a museum, but here the tone suggests an attitude of challenge, almost of revenge. The propagandist tone is to be expected but it may well have been detrimental to the Embroidery. “The Embroidery was designed by Miss Sandra Lawrence under the direction of a specially formed Advisory committee, comprising 3 senior officers of the Armed forces — the late Air Chief Marshal Sir Donald Evans, Admiral Sir Charles Madden and General Sir Charles Jones. The advice of Service Historians of the Ministry of Defence was also sought.” (3) The artist’s name is almost drowned beneath the flow of estimable authorities, supported by a whole service in charge of the historical exactitude of representation. This is poor recommendation for a work of art as such and it echoes practices of another age when official art was mainly the point of view of the State conveyed to the public. “The Embroidery, a modern work of art, took 20 ladies of the Royal School of Needlework 5 years to finish and was completed in 1973.” (3) We run the risk of forgetting the real achievement if we only focus on the circumstances of production – which is not to say that they are not important. Nobody remembers who created the Bayeux Tapestry and yet its value as a work of art is acknowledged as well as its worth as a testimony of the past; its highly humorous and sometimes diplomatic choices of representation are now as much valued as the information it contains. We may even choose to read it as a work of reconciliation1 and I think it is wise to start questioning the Overlord Embroidery as a work of art rather than consider it as just an illustration of victory.

5Visitors to the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth are invited on a journey back in time, the dim lights demanded for preservation purposes contribute to an almost magical effect as you walk along the panels, penetrating deeper and deeper into the atmosphere of the war. The Embroidery itself appears as a journey into the creative mind of an artist under various influences.

Eyes as signifying details

6The first few panels are naïve appliqué quilts characterized by striking contrasts in colour between a bright background and human figures deprived of individual features. Although people are reduced to shapes they are easily recognisable not only as man, woman or child but also as postman, industrial worker, fireman or nurse, soldier or home-guard... Apart from a very few characters wearing goggles to do their jobs, each face is only composed of a brownish patch, with some variation on shades but no eyes.

7It is interesting to note that eyes are gradually introduced as the atmosphere of the quilt changes when it actually focuses on the military, as if to redeem from anonymity those who are so often only referred to as members of the armed forces. In the later panels, this humanity will also be conferred on the German soldiers (26 or 29) or the French population (17) whose emotions will appear in piercing looks expressing fear, hope or loss.

  • 2 Sandra Lawrence answered questions at the International Conference on “Text, Texture, Textile” held (...)

8Sandra Lawrence2 explains that she was growing more and more confident with the medium of embroidery which she had never worked with before as well as with her own ability to deal with the topic of war. The genetic explanation confirms the impression of the viewer who feels more and more involved in the mental struggles provoked by the military action.

Guiding the viewer’s eyes

  • 3 In this central patch, one can see the photograph of the war room now sold to visitors at the Imper (...)

9However one should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of these first panels: the inner organisation of each panel challenges the straightforward reading of the story-line. As a trained painter, the artist plays on the representation of space so as to guide the eye into a more complex perception of the world represented. Thus, for instance, Panel 1 is composed of two halves connected, as well as partitioned, by a brown band of cloth that links the workshop where planes are being crafted to the workshop where ships are being welded. In panel 2, a trapezoidal patch representing the war room is inserted so as to overlap the two halves thus linking civilian activity with military action as planned by the headquarters.3 In a simple way reminding us of the traditional art of the stained-glass in our churches, or evocative of the modern comic strip, the various moments of the story make sense as a whole.

  • 4 I am thankful to Professor Susan Finding for pointing out that the scene is modelled on the war pai (...)

10Just as important is the complexity of each half in that first panel: right from the beginning the spectator is asked to combine several levels of perception. Indeed the first scene depicts the delivery of the call-up papers while the family is sitting round the table having lunch. Walking down the red steps is the grieving couple: the slouching shoulders, the bent knees give an impression of sadness reinforced by the blue handkerchief held by the wife, suggesting she is in tears. The child is already at the bright blue door now opened onto an indistinct grey patch. The oblique line of the staircase leading to the two-fold rectangle of the open door shows the way into the darkish subterranean workshop where men and women are busy assembling training-aircraft. There the woman bending over her machine seems crushed by the bright orange carpeting of the other scene depicted above, that of women loading a cart with goods from a railway carriage. The orange pavement turns into a sort of waft spun by the wooden frame of the aircraft as a piece of material would be spun on a huge loom. With subtlety but efficacy the very medium of representation plays a part in the construction of meaning.4

11Indoor and outdoor scenes, taking place simultaneously are perceived by the viewer in no strictly predetermined order if one reads from left to right, top to bottom rather than follow the family. After the first global impression, the eye is made to travel from patch to patch before it can actually decipher the story. The first impression is thereby deconstructed by the viewer himself who is invited to take part in the construction of meaning. The second half of the panel combines two moments in the production of warships with the emphasis first on the men at work, wearing goggles while welding metal pieces, and then on the ships at sea, announcing the theme of naval invasion.

Lines, colours and texture

12The texture of the embroidery plays an important part in the perception by the viewer.  “The panels were made by stitching pieces of cloth to a linen base stretched over a wooden frame. Having traced and perforated the outline design from the cartoons onto the linen base to form the ‘background’ of the panel, pieces of material were sewn down and then finally edged with cord and embroidery thread.” (3) The sewing of the patches is not only visible but underlined, setting off the silhouettes more effectively while the careful attention to the buttons on the coats, or later to the badges on uniforms for instance, shows that approximation is a matter of choice not a mark of weakness. The edging also accentuates the relief and allows the precise rendering of the frame of the aircraft, of the machinery or the cables thereby drawing the attention to the period details identifying the scene as part of the war effort.

13The multiplication of edgings also causes the creases of the material which make the texture so apparent and this texture, combined with the elaborate design, saves the Embroidery from the flatness of less artistic appliqué quilts. In some panels this thickness of the material becomes part of the evocation of land or sea and the relief adds to the pathos of the scenes by suggesting harsh physical discomfort and dreadful difficulties (22; 29). In panel 3 picturing the blitz, the embroidery stitches give life to the flames and magnify the outburst of lines in opposing directions, making chaos more palpable.

Although similar colours to those of panel 1 are used, the overall effect is even more sombre as the touches of brightness no longer characterise home life or work but destruction. An effect of displacement is thus achieved, and it is reinforced by the broken representation of levels: people going down to the shelters find themselves on the same level as the anti-aircraft guns which themselves point in the direction of the buildings in flames while the spray of the fire-hose crosses the trajectory of the evacuation of the wounded.

14In this first section only a tiny patch of varying blue maintains the presence of an open sky as when the population leaves the shelter the next morning in the right hand corner of panel 3. Presenting night and day in the same panel induces a feeling of duration that enhances the suffering endured and plays on the traditional association of war with a long night. A similar effect is achieved when the multiplication of waves in the panels dedicated to the crossing of the English Channel evokes sea-sickness and anxiety. (18; 20) The juxtaposition of panels manages to emphasise the time line while breaking it. Indeed each scene is remembered as connected to the others if only through the dominant use of the colour brown. In spite of the energetic and fruitful building up of new forces conveyed by the representation of movement – in each panel there is either a train, a car, an aircraft or a ship – and the applied attention of workers or soldiers to their tasks, the notion of war effort predominates as implying a great amount of suffering. The retrospective outlook of the artistic project is constantly balanced by the prospective development of the story itself that remains dark.

The spectator involved in action

15The viewer does not just face the scenes, he finds himself watched by some of the characters featured in the fresco. In panel 4 a soldier actually walks towards the spectator, eyes wide open. The detail is all the more striking since eyes had not been pictured so far.

16The effect is duplicated in panel 8 where a merchant seaman watches us while being himself watched by navy sailors. The effect remains uncanny because some of the sailors’ faces are only shades of light brown with eyes or eyebrows irregularly depicted whereas all the red-berets of the middle scene on this panel do have well delineated eyes paying attention to the instructions their commanding officer is pointing at on a map. The converging movement of the eyes of the sailors in the first scene and the eyes of the red berets in the second one give the oversized merchant marine officer a prominent role: his bulwark figure even half hides a red beret officer and part of the board the map is shown on. The merging of the scenes that we have already witnessed in panel 1 remains a trademark of the representation chosen by the artist. The preparation of the invasion itself is made visible in the background where a profusion of warships are aligned, prow towards the spectator while planes are ready to take off and fly over them. The tanks progressing towards the spectators in the right hand corner reinforce the convergence while the movement of the foot soldiers towards the tents in the background suggests that departure is imminent. The families present in shades in the right hand bottom corner, waving, unseen, to the soldiers, are the last British civilians depicted in the Embroidery, suggesting the burden of loss to come.

17From then on the attention is solely on the military action performed by the troops with the exception of panel 17 featuring a French couple and the final panel depicting a group of three civilians mourning their dead on the side of the road. The presence of the French man and woman in panel 17 seems almost incongruous at first and therefore strikes the imagination of the viewer. They stand for the whole French population trapped under the bombs of their liberators. The only straight lines in this panel trace the window frame of their home otherwise eaten up by the blackness of the night. As it is noteworthy that black is hardly ever used, since shades of navy blue, dark brown or grey are usually enough to suggest the darkness, the colour black here is endowed with increased symbolism and links the fate of the two passive civilians framed at home to the fate of the soldiers sitting in the cylinder of the plane, ready to jump, eyes staring blankly as in a last moment of introspection or prayer, men huddled together before their parachutes turn into a constellation in the second half of the panel.

18Again the picture of the two civilians is an insertion, an appliqué patch, over the fresco of action although the overlapping wings of the plane make it part of the background. This technical detail underlines the ambiguity of perception, whether to favour the glory of the military action or the pathos of occupation by the enemy. The woman wearing curlers shows that she has been woken up by the bombers. Her hairnet works as a visual echo of the net on the paratroopers’ or the bagpipers’ helmets. The collar of her nightgown is made of genuine period lace just as many of the uniforms are of genuine material, as are the parachutes. The detail gives the figure of the woman enough power to stand for the whole population and it strikes the viewer as an almost incongruous piece of luxury in such an extent of devastation. Once more the artist is playing on paradox to guide the perception of her work. The movement of the woman’s face lifted towards the sky expresses hope: half left in the shadow of the night it remains hard to decipher but the one visible eye conveys an idea of sadness rather than of fear. The husband’s prominent face, leaning out of the window, suggests bewilderment. Behind his glasses he could be crying: the fine lines on the lenses make them hard to read while the crease of the material on his forehead gives his puzzlement a very human touch. The convergence of his gaze with the movement of the landed bagpipers underlines the idea of liberation on its way.

19But the Embroidery is not just intended as a hymn to victory, it is also a commemoration of the sacrifice implied in the process. Therefore when civilians appear again in panel 34, they are pictured grieving the dead. Eyes downcast, devoid of hope, focused on private grief, evoke the feeling of loss that accompanies any victory. The soldiers marching on the main road towards an uncertain horizon turn their heads in respect for this loss, for the casualties of the French Resistance movement which helped with Operation Overlord. The long road ahead represents the future months of battle and death awaiting the heroes of D-Day as they progress East on the continent. The meaning of the last panel is easy enough to read because it relies on the same naïve codes of representation favoured at the beginning of the work. The peaceful atmosphere and the clear-cut lines contrast with the intertwining of lines in the previous panel and for the first time the whole horizon is blue but we cannot forget the open-eyed corpse that has become one with the land, colours and lines melding in the foreground of panel 33.

20In spite of this simplicity, self-satisfaction has been erased from the representation enhancing the meaning of Operation Overlord rather than diminishing it. Art has transcended the educative purpose stated in Lord Dulverton’s wishes. Significantly, perspective has become a key element in the final panel.

The eyes of the enemy

21Our choice to focus on the opening panels and then on the last one would be misleading if we did not now turn, albeit briefly, to the representation of the land battle and the depiction of the enemy. The attention to detail in the phase dedicated to the planning of the landing operation in the mid-section of the Embroidery is underlined by the depiction of eyes carefully watching maps, focusing on watches being set, reading guidebooks about France. Generals and leaders are pictured watching the troops and the public. But nowhere are eyes so prominent as in the scenes of close combat.

22Panel 26 presents a German officer under arrest, facing us as the merchant navy captain of panel 8 does. His features express anger and disappointment but his eyes convey a more subtle impression of fear or sadness, rather than defiance. He is facing the public without shame, makes no attempt to lower his gaze or his face; he belongs to the troops responsible for pockets of resistance that had to be taken one after the other. Behind him soldiers are less clearly featured, with whiter ghost-like faces deprived of individual lines; thus the archetype of the Aryan chief stands in contrast with his dark army of followers and his surrender strikes us as a real victory.

  • 5 Anecdote told by Andrew Whitmarsh curator of the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth.

23Panel 29 offers a new example of the depiction of German soldiers in action. This panel has been the object of commentary because it is based on a war photograph recognised by one the American soldiers who took part in the action.5 The American troops, here pictured courageously attacking oversized enemies, were in fact evacuating from an attacked convoy and seeking shelter in the ditches. The anecdote illustrates how the artist can remain faithful to the details in historical sources while inverting the very significance of the action depicted. Writing history is always a work of interpretation and manipulation; working on a new medium, including various media, offers the opportunity to challenge the notion of truth. Only the testimony of survivors can question what is then to become the official truth. This is why a work of art cannot be read as a step by step documentary on the military operation. Its purpose is to include realistic details in order to transcend the exact depiction of scenes so as to convey an impression to the viewer: only the truth of that impression matters.

24The tortuous lines of the hedgerows, underlined by the embroidery stitches particularly visible here, turn a realistic element into a nightmarish representation of a fairy tale landscape. The two gigantic figures are trapped between hedges reminiscent of a thorn forest, the embroidery stitches underlining the sharpness of the thorns. While chaos is pictured all around them in the multiplication of explosions, of shadows jumping in all directions, the central characters appear as particularly human in spite of their fierceness. Because we only see the soldiers’ profiles, their eyes cannot threaten us: their whiteness expresses fear and watchfulness as much as savageness. Paradoxically the two huge soldiers seem afraid of the tiny figures crouching on the other side of the edge. In fact the panel is composed of three different scenes but because the soldiers’ eyes are so carefully depicted as trying to see beyond the bush, the viewer forgets that the thorny bushes are meant to serve as partitions. Once more the medium of the embroidered quilt offers new possibilities for interpretation based on impression rather than exactitude of representation.

25As far as impressions are concerned, the use of colours further helps thread together the various patches of the fresco. The dominance of brown links together the land and the soldiers, all the more so as the cloth used is the genuine material uniforms are made of. What is striking when visiting the museum is that the texture of the materials used adds an important dimension to the truth of the overall effect, partly because it is very moving but also because it adds a third dimension that transforms the traditional popular appliqué quilt into a modern painting playing on texture as well as design. The simple stitches ensure that the attention is never drawn away from the scene itself; it helps combine the emphasis on the hand drawing and the emphasis on the filling in of space in the way Gombrich describes the difference between drawing and painting.  

26So if the architecture of the Overlord Embroidery does remind us of the Bayeux Tapestry in its use of the stitch to narrate a story, its choices of design, and especially the saturation of space with colour, make it a modern work of art while its use of genuine materials ensures it is a prominent monument to the human sacrifice involved in the Overlord operation, inserting material pieces of reality into the narrative. Never has the choice of textile as a medium been so appropriate.

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Gombrich E.H., L’Art et l’illusion, psychologie de la représentation picturale, Paris: NRF Gallimard, [1960] 1987.

Jewell Brian, Conquest and Overlord, Tunbridge Wells: Midas Books, 1981.

Whitbread and Co Ltd by arrangement with the Trustees of the Overlord Embroidery, The Overlord Embroidery, The Story of the Normandy Landings, D-Day 6th June 1944, London: Capel and Co., 1978.

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1 I am deeply indebted to Madame Lemagnen, curator of the Bayeux Tapestry, for the enlightening information she gave us during a guided tour which served as the closing presentation in the International Conference on “Text, Texture, Textile” dedicated to “Embroidery and Storytelling”, held at the University of Rouen in December 2009.

2 Sandra Lawrence answered questions at the International Conference on “Text, Texture, Textile” held at the University of Rouen in December 2009.

3 In this central patch, one can see the photograph of the war room now sold to visitors at the Imperial War Museum.

4 I am thankful to Professor Susan Finding for pointing out that the scene is modelled on the war painting by Laura Knight Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (1943).

5 Anecdote told by Andrew Whitmarsh curator of the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth.

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Référence papier

Nicole Terrien, « Staring Contests in the Overlord Embroidery »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. X – n° 1 | -1, 168-177.

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Nicole Terrien, « Staring Contests in the Overlord Embroidery »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. X – n° 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 12 mars 2012, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicole Terrien

Nicole Terrien, an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure at Fontenay aux Roses, holds a PhD from the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She specialises in contemporary literature in English and has published several papers on the notion of heritage and rewriting. She has initiated a series of international conferences on “Text, Texture, Textile”. In 2009 the second conference she organized with her research group CORPUS at the University of Rouen was dedicated to “Embroidery and Storytelling”. She is currently a Professor of English Literature at Rennes 2 University where she directs the research group ACE.

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