No Sign of Canals on Mars: The Illustrated Travel Diaries of Eileen Burke (2018)


From 1960 to 1979, Eileen Burke created twenty-three illustrated travel diaries with her friend Flo Boyde. Based in Woodford, Essex, Eileen and Flo were both schoolteachers and spent long summer holidays touring in their car and cruising the rivers Lee and Stort with their boat, the ‘Lillian Maud’. Apart from their social history value, the diaries are a unique example of leisure as documented by a keen amateur photographer and artist.

Eileen’s diaries are richly textured containing a curious mixture of observational watercolours and souvenirs, linked together by her highly characteristic writing. The hardback diaries were made in a scrapbook style, using thick sticky Sellotape to anchor collected ephemera and towpath finds. Eileen’s instinct for functional ship’s log-style writing creates a briskly paced narrative, which is equally useful for describing stop-offs, lunches and her disappointment in the behaviour of fellow travellers,

“We stopped at Thornton Dale, a delightful village beside the road. Bought a picnic lunch. We ate our pork pies & wished we had bought twice as much! The wind was cool and we enjoyed the fresh air amongst the heather – Found a carcass of a sheep.”

Eileen’s diaries are joyful and entirely self-contained but with little mention of the unfolding changes in the outside world, except for her near-obsessive newspaper clippings of the emerging space race of the early 1960s. Eileen was bitten by the travel bug, especially space travel. On the 13th of August 1962, while Russian Cosmonauts orbited the earth, Eileen notes that she and Flo “had a hurried lunch” and later “had quite a long walk to have a cuppa at a transport café in Bishop’s Stortford.”

No Sign of Canals on Mars is a multi-part publication containing reproductions of Eileen Burke’s watercolours, drawings and excerpts from her diary pages presented as a spiral bound diary with ephemera inserts and tipped in souvenirs. Alongside this is a small wallet of photographs printed from Eileen’s collection of colour slides, giving a rare glimpse of the waterways social scene in the 1970s, (and also being stoned by three joyous, but towpath-limited youths) produced as shaped photographic prints. Some of Eileen’s more humorous diary entries writings have also been typographically interpreted by Nina Esmund and made into a set of five postcards. Housed in a museum style clamshell box, the publication aims to be a kind of distributed archive allowing readers to handle and scrutinise works that would otherwise be inaccessible due to their fragile condition.

Archive clamshell box containing wool, postcards, spiral bound diary printed by laser, litho, RISO
and inkjet
with tipped-in ephemera and shaped c-type photo prints in wallet. 220x160mm

Exhibited as No Sign of Canals on Mars: An Artist’s response to the illustrated travel diaries of Eileen Burke.
At the National Waterways Musuem/ Canal & River Trust, Ellesmere Port. 2018

Edition of 50

Available to buy from