‘Bayeux tapestry for Britain’ lets children see the art of history

Liz Pichon working on the interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, featuring key historic moments from the last 950 years, as voted for by children across the country.

She has sold more than four million books and become a publishing phenomenon. Not bad for someone who works out of a shed in her garden in Brighton.

Liz Pichon's stories about the schoolboy Tom Gates, viewed through his doodlings in his school exercise book, have won the children's author and illustrator admirers and awards around the world.

Now English Heritage, the body charged with promoting England's history, is hoping Pichon can get children as excited about the country's past as Tom is about his favourite band, Dude3, or annoying his sister, Delia.

As part of its commemorations of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, English Heritage will on Monday unveil an artwork at Battle Abbey in East Sussex which it describes as a 21st century "kids-sourced Bayeux tapestry".

The artwork, measuring one metre by eight, will be made up of 10 panels, drawn by Pichon, depicting some of the most important events in British history.

The events, which were selected by schoolchildren around the country, start with the Norman invasion of 1066 and end with Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of the worldwide web in 1989. Along the way they take in the signing of the Magna Carta, the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, the birth of Shakespeare, the Gunpowder Plot, the Battle of Waterloo, the reign of Queen Victoria and VE Day in Europe.

As with the Tom Gates series, children will be encouraged to interact with the artwork by helping to complete the design of the final panel at a series of workshops run by the author. Pichon said she was hoping the work, which took around three weeks to complete and will tour key English Heritage sites, will have a powerful impact on audiences. "I thought about how the whole thing would look all together, so that when people walk into the room they'll get this real feast of colour with lots of things going on, and so they'll be drawn into it," she said.

One of the panels froms the kids' tapestry created by Liz Pichon

Pichon, who is dyslexic, believes that art can be a powerful way of drawing children into stories.

"I get lots of reluctant readers who come to my books because they are very visual. Being able to see the panels in situ makes it all about the stories. When I was doing the research [for the project], it reminded me just how much history had left my brain when I walked out of school. Straight facts and figures, forget it – I can't remember anything – but this jogs your memory. Visual things are a fantastic way of remembering history."

Readers of Pichon's books will recognise elements of Tom Gates in the new work. Along with the familiar vivid colours and black and white doodlings, there is a similar lightness of tone.

"I tried to look at the serious history side and imagine what the extra bits of humour might be," she said.

But there was a challenge in balancing humour with tragedy. "The Bayeux tapestry is filled with death and destruction; there are loads of people being stabbed and arrowed and lots of dead people all over the place. I thought that in such an iconic piece you want an element of that but I didn't want dead bodies strewn around everywhere.

"I didn't want it to be that gruesome, so I've done it in a kind of Tom and Jerry way, where you only see people's feet. There's William in the middle being victorious, and there are lots of people's feet and arms in different positions."

But even in the darkest moments in history, Pichon finds the sort of humour that has won her millions of fans. "Underneath the battlefields I imagined there would be creatures such as bunnies wondering what was going on so I've added those as well."

Distilling momentous events into a single panel was a difficult brief. Pichon believes her work as a former art director at Jive Records helped her to focus. "Having a background in graphic design means that, whenever you're doing any job, you look at the brief you're given and the space you've got to do it in and you try to find a way to convey as much information about the topic you've been given as possible."

Fans of Tom Gates will be able to spot several of the series' best-loved characters in the panels. Pichon also managed to squeeze in a cameo of her father, a second world war RAF pilot, in the panel depicting the VE Day celebrations.

The commission from English Heritage is another accolade for an author who has won numerous awards, including the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and a Waterstones Children's Book Prize for fiction for ages five-12. But it was only really five years ago that, Pichon says, she achieved a mainstream breakthrough, something that she hopes will help draw people to her new work.

"As I already have an audience hopefully that will encourage even more children to come in and take part."

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