The Whaling Grounds

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  British Arctic Whaling started around the 1600s after sailors sailing up into the Arctic north of Norway for walrus discovered large numbers of whales in the bays around Spitsbergen.  At the time it was thought that Spitsbergen was connected to, and part of, Greenland and so the whaling grounds around Spitsbergen were referred to as the Greenland Fisheries (whalemen referred to whales as fish).  As whales became scarce through over-hunting the whaling grounds were extended from the bays out into open water, around Jan Mayen Island and down the east coast of Greenland. As whale populations were discovered in the Davis Straits west of Greenland, the whaling grounds extended further and further as the whalers searched for the ever-decreasing populations of whales.

The Whaling Grounds

The Whaling Grounds

The map is from an account of a whaling voyage by John Laing, a surgeon who sailed with the famous whaling captain William Scoresby of Whitby in 1806. The whaling scene and right whale are based on illustrations from Scoresby’s 1820 book An Account of the Arctic Regions . In the whaling scene I have added some icebergs based on sketches I made in Greenland in 2014 and the coastline is from one of the bays in Spitsbergen I visited in 2011.

 

Stoved!

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Early, non-industrialised whaling was a dangerous activity.  When lookouts on a whaling ship saw a whale, the whaling boats were lowered and quietly rowed towards the whale. These boats were smaller than the whales they were hunting and whalers had to approach a whale close enough to throw or stab a harpoon into the side of the whale.  This did not kill the whale but enabled the boat to remain attached to the whale, the whalers paying out rope as the whale dived.   The weight of the rope and boat dragged on the whale slowing it down. If the harpoon remained in the whale after what could be many hours of pulling the rope and boat, the whale might tire enough for the harpooneer to stab the whale with a long sharp lance that would pierce the internal organs and kill the whale.  This was the most dangerous time.  The huge tail flukes could easily splinter the wooden boat scattering the whalemen, most of whom could not swim, into the sea.

Stoved!

Stoved!

This image is derived from an image on one of a set of whaling cigarette cards.  I first saw the set in the online catalogue of the McManus Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum.  I was able to find them for sale online, so I now own a set myself.

Cape Farewell

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Whalers were as superstitious as any other sailors and had many rituals which they observed.  They also amended rituals for the circumstances they found themselves in. A good example of this is the crossing the line ceremony. This is traditionally an initiation for sailors crossing the equator for the first time. But in the case of whalers it could be performed when they crossed the Arctic Circle on the way up to the early whaling grounds around Spitsbergen and as locations of whaling changed it could be performed on May Day or when passing Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland on the way to the Davis Straits.

Cape Farewell

Cape Farewell

Neptune and his wife would board the ship (looking suspiciously like members of the crew dressed up) and, using an oversized jagged joke razor, the green-hands (first-timers) would be ‘shaved’ after a mixture of soot and grease was applied to their faces.  This was then followed by music, dancing and the consumption of alcohol. Most captains tolerated the carousing that followed as a relatively controlled way for the sailors to let off steam.

In some places when the ship left port the wives and sweethearts would give ribbons to their sailors as keepsakes.  On May Day these ribbons would be woven round an iron hoop to form a garland, often suspended under a model of a whale ship, and hoisted onto the rigging for luck. This was not brought down until the ship returned to port where boys competed to be first up the rigging to reach the garland.

At Hull Maritime museum there is an original joke razor from a whaleship. I have used my drawing of it here. In several of the museum’s  paintings of Arctic whaleships you can see the garlands hanging between the masts.

My dad  was in the Fleet Air Arm and I have his crossing the line certificate, signed by Neptune.  I used the image of the sailing ship from it for the ship above the garland.  When I first crossed the Arctic Circle, Neptune came aboard and tipped some icy water down my back as my initiation.  Under the beard he looked somewhat like the Assistant to the Cruise Director.  I have used my photo of him as a basis for the illustration here.  The map is based on the one in the Norwegian polar explorer Nansen’s book on his first crossing of Greenland.

Sealing

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  As whaling decreased the populations of whales, the whalers hunted other marine mammals to maintain their profitability.  Seal skins were a valuable commodity and to maximise the economic return, whaling ships could leave earlier from British ports, pick up men from places like St Johns in Newfoundland and head to the nearby sea ice where huge numbers of seals were born each year.  The skin of the young seals was particularly sought after.  The seals were killed and roughly skinned.  The skins were collected together prior to being dragged back by the men to the ship, which was moored to the edge of the ice, often some distance away.  The skins would be dropped off at agents in Newfoundland or brought back to the home port before starting the whaling voyage proper.

Sealing

Textile panel (80 x 60 cm) from ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’ exhibition at Verdant Works, Dundee, Autumn 2018, Fabric marker pens and freehand machine embroidered layered sheer fabrics on unbleached cotton.

It was the innovation of using auxiliary steam power which made this possible.  Ships could approach the edge of the ice more reliably using steam power rather than having to rely on the sails.  The arrival of these first steam-powered whalers from Dundee in St Johns, Newfoundland triggered the development of the auxiliary steam-powered sealing fleet from Newfoundland.

The McManus,  Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum holds a fantastic collection of early photographs of the Dundee whaling trade. I have used three of these as the basis for this triptych.

 

Victualling

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Whaling ships setting off to the Arctic had to be self-sufficient in all they would need for the long summer whaling season. They took everything from harpoons, spare whaling boats and rope to extra clothing and canvas.  They also had to take a  lot of food.  In a time before preservation by canning or refrigeration, fresh food was only available for the very start of the voyage. Salt beef and dried vegetables, potatoes (and a surprising amount of alcohol) were the usual staples.  In later years they also had to have enough food to survive the harsh winter if they became trapped in the ice.

Victualling

Victualling

In the Archives at the University of Dundee there is a collection of whaling account documents with the invoice slips for the items bought for whaling voyages around 1830.  The text is from these accounts and the plan is of Dundee Docks.

 

 

 

Calling At Shetland

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Many whaleships from English and Scottish mainland ports called into Orkney and Shetland to pick up further supplies and additional crew.  The whaling agent Hay and Co in Lerwick, Shetland recruited local men, who were good sailors and cheap to employ, to act as crew for the whaleboats.  Hay and Co also supplied other goods to the ships for use during the voyage.  High-quality Shetland knitted goods and other provisions were bought in bulk to be sold to the sailors from the slop bag or slop chest – a common store of goods the sailors could obtain against their pay whilst on board. The Shetland Museum and Archive at Lerwick has a collection of documents from Hay and Co including accounts for individual Shetland whalemen.

Calling At Shetland

Calling At Shetland

I spent a month in Shetland in 2017 researching their Arctic whaling archives and after about a week the penny dropped.  I realised that the Hay Dock café at the museum was named for Hay and Co and that the museum and archive were actually built at the Hay Dock. Later one of the archivists  told me that the Builders Merchants on my route to the supermarket was still Hay and Co!  I bought some rope and a pair of gloves there and was delighted to see Hay & Co at the top of the printed receipt!  The building shown here (a digital photograph printed on fabric) is in front of the museum in Lerwick, and forms part of the Hay Dock.

 

 

Commission for Whalebone pub

My artist statement currently states that “I make work inspired by Moby Dick and British Arctic Whaling, inspired by my travel and research. I am aware that this is quite a niche practice, but I carry on regardless, and for once this approach has paid off!

The White Hart in Downham Market, Norfolk has been returned to its original name of the Whalebone by its new owners Wetherspoons (a UK chain of pubs) and as part of their redevelopment of the pub they were looking to commission some related art. Their designer found my web site and thought I might be just what they were looking for. Because of my research I knew enough about whaling and Norfolk Whaling heritage to be able put the Whalebone in context. So, I set myself the interesting challenge of making something that explained Arctic whaling around the 1800s (when the pub had last been called the Whalebone) but understood that this was a pub and restaurant so couldn’t make it too explicit and gory. The added complication was that I only had a couple of months for some focussed research and then to design and make the piece, which turned out to be the largest textile piece I’d made to date.

I was already working on related imagery for another exhibition and in a short space of time I’d looked at a range of sources. I was aware of the illustrations in William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic from 1820 and a wonderful circular map of the known arctic from a journal written by his surgeon on one of his earlier voyages. I had also been looking at and thinking about arctic panoramas.

Whaling Grounds Whalebone textile commission

Whaling Grounds Whalebone textile commission

A composition soon emerged of the semi-circular map showing the whaling grounds at the top and the arctic species of whale hunted at the bottom would sandwich a panoramic image of whale ships. The panoramic image would include whaling ships, arctic landscapes, icebergs, and some scenes of whaling. To make this a more personal design I used my drawings of the Spitsbergen coastline (early arctic whaling grounds) from my trip there in 2011, and some of the icebergs were inspired the ones I saw off Greenland in 2014. Two roundels containing images of the products of the whaling, a whalebone corset (from one I saw at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter in 2014) and a whalebone arch suggesting the one at the original whalebone pub based on one still visible in Kings Lynn.

Once the design was finalised it was transferred to the three main pieces of fabric and the making begun. I used several techniques, fabric painting, freehand machine embroidery, quilting and layering coloured sheer fabrics to give blocks of colour. Once the components were sewn together it measured 48 x 36 in (122 x 91 cm).

I was invited to the soft opening of the pub in March 2018 and enjoyed a delicious meal with a great view of the work!

Having a drink overlooking my work

Having a drink overlooking my work

The 22nd Moby Dick Marathon at New Bedford Whaling Museum

Arriving at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

Arriving at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

The Moby Dick Marathon at New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts is a (near) continuous read of the novel over 24 hours Saturday to Sunday of the first weekend of the year by a range of Melville enthusiasts, and is in it’s 22nd year.  For the last couple of years I have followed the event via social media and the live webcast, and this year I was lucky enough to be selected to read.  You are notified less than a month before the event, and so I had a late December flurry of booking flights, hotels, busses etc.  I stayed in New Bedford for a week giving myself a couple of days to go around the museum itself.

Over the years the event has grown and there are a range of events and activities around the actual reading of the book.  Several of these (Stump the Scholars, Chat with the Scholars, Extracts) involve a group of people labelled Melville Scholars who are the committee of the Melville Society Cultural Project (Bob K. Wallace, Timothy Marr, Wyn Kelley, Mary K. Bercaw Edward, Jennifer Baker and Christopher Sten).  I had met Bob and Wyn at the International Melville Conference in London in June 2017 where I presented some of my Moby Dick inspired art including my work “Cetology” (which the Cultural Project  subsequently purchased for their collection).

Pre Marathon Dinner at the New Bedford Whaling Museum 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

Pre Marathon Dinner at the New Bedford Whaling Museum 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

At the Friday night Pre-Marathon Dinner, Movie and Discussion I was fortunate enough to sit on a table with some of the Melville Scholars and the film maker and his family.  Although jet lag was kicking in I had some great conversations over dinner and my whale inevitably made an appearance.  An unexpected treat was that some of the books that formed my Cetology series had been put out in a display cabinet and were mentioned by Bob Wallace in his speech before the film (I was made to do the stand up and wave thing).  I was particularly keen to go to this event as the film being shown was David Shaerf’s Call Us Ishmael.  A documentary about peoples’ relationship with the book.  I had seen some of the film previewed at the Melville Conference and had found it funny and moving.  The full film did not disappoint.  Coming from a country where few people have read Moby Dick and fewer are enthusiasts, it really spoke to me about its effect on people, particularly visual artists.

I had booked a taxi* from the hotel and offered places to two other participants I met at the hotel (Allie reading at 8.55pm Saturday and Greg reading at 3.10am Sunday).  This turned out to be a great move on my part as the promised return taxi didn’t turn up and Greg ubered us back!

Arriving in good time to the museum on Saturday Morning I registered as a reader and got my blue wrist band and badge. I had chatted with the Melville Scholars who were staying at the same hotel as me, and they expected me to have come up with a tricky question for Stump the Scholars where, divided into two teams, they compete answering questions from the audience.  I had suggested that I might be thinking about particularly English bits of the book (the Burton Constable Whale and the Enderbys), but in the end I asked them a more light hearted and speculative question.

Stump the Scholars at the New Bedford Whaling Museum 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

Stump the Scholars at the New Bedford Whaling Museum 22nd Moby Dick Marathon

At the same that Stump the Scholars this was going on there was a children’s mini marathon, where children of all ages read an abridged version of the book.  A family staying at my hotel had a couple of children who were reading in this.

After Stump the Scholars we progressed to the huge gallery containing the half scale model of the whaleship Lagoda where the Melville Scholars read Extracts before the Marathon Proper kicked off with Loomings.  And yes, as soon as I heard those opening lines “Call me Ishmael” I may have shed a tear or two!

At the appropriate time the reading decamped across the road to the Seamen’s Bethel for Father Mapple’s Sermon etc and hymn singing. I watched this via the live web cam in the Museum’s theatre (space in the Bethel is limited and I hadn’t entered in the lottery to get a seat).

I attended both of the Chat with the Scholar Sessions (on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning).  As someone who has never formally studied Moby Dick I found these sessions fascinating, and thought provoking including questions regarding Melville/Moby Dick and Narcissism, the Moby Dick Opera, significance of orphans, Islam and sailors pidgin English. I took notes!

Tia Maria's opposite the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Tia Maria’s opposite the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Two events on Saturday Afternoon I missed were the Portuguese language mini Marathon and the Artist Demonstration by Jacob Mark who designed the poster for this year’s Marathon.  I did visit the pop up Cousin Hosea’s Chowder House and the Decanter Taproom where beer, chowder and Portuguese kale soup were on offer from local restaurants and breweries.  The lovely kale soup was from Tia Maria’s opposite the museum. This was the only other place I managed to visit apart from the museum the week I was in New Bedford (blizzard, snow, icy) sidewalks) where I enjoyed the Portuguese sausage, home fries and rodelas (and lattes).

Oh yes, and at approximately 6.25 on Saturday evening I got to read 5 minutes of Moby Dick.  A little after that we moved to the Museum Theatre again to watch Culture*Park’s performance of Midnight on the Fo’c’sle (chapter 40).  A great way to break things up a bit and tackle this multi-voice chapter.  I didn’t stay up all night (and never intended to).  I got a lift* back to my hotel with Allie who read at 8.55pm.  And me and my jet lag had an early night.

I didn’t make a particularly early start to Sunday and so missed the 8am malassadas, provided by Inner Bay Café, but very gratefully got a lift from Wyn Kelley*. After the second Chat with the Scholars we gathered in the Harbour View room with fabulous views of the Acushnet river and New Bedford Harbour for the final chapters.  As I took a seat the book was being read in German (a feature of the reading is that readings in several different languages were interspersed thought the marathon). And then we rushed towards the climax with Mike Dyer reading the epilogue (Yes, I blubbed), and then Bob Rocha giving out the thanks to all those who had supported the event and reading the honour roll of those hardy souls who had stayed up for the entire evening.  And then all the goodbyes to the people I’d met and chatted too over the weekend.  Wyn had offered to give me a lift back to the hotel before heading back to Boston so I had lunch with Bob Wallace and Wyn (at Tia Maria’s) before she dropped me off.  I was amazingly tired and was glad to be able to rest for the remainder of the day (and watch the Sunday wild card weekend NFL games).

It was an incredible experience, my third Moby Dick Marathon (having read in two in the UK) but a very special one.  Everyone I met involved with the event and at the museum before and after seemed to share my passion for the book and the whaling heritage on display at the museum and I left with new friends and a wealth of new inspiration.

*In case you are wondering why, having stayed in a very nearby hotel I spent the weekend getting lifts and taxis.  On the Thursday a blizzard dumped a load of snow and this was followed by very cold temperatures.  The sidewalks were very icy and whilst walking back the to the hotel on Friday I slipped on the ice and hurt my knee so didn’t want to risk any other injury and minimise usage of the bruised joint.

Arctic whaling and the Shetlanders

There are many places nearer to my home in Norfolk than Shetland that have material about Britain’s Arctic Whaling Heritage so why spend a month Shetland researching it?  Well, I got to be artist in residence at Bressay Lighthouse for the whole month of July with a huge studio space to start to develop work in response to my research (thanks to Shetland Heritage Trust). I travelled round the islands visiting and photographing key whaling related sites and spent a lot of time in Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick, which I knew from previous visits was a great place.  So I think the reasons are understandable! It was a very long drive though. 

What was Shetland’s role in Arctic Whaling?  From the late 1700s ships from places like Hull and Peterhead picked up crew from Shetland (and Orkney) in the spring and returned them in the autumn. The Shetlandmen were generally excellent mariners and crewed the small boats that went after the whales in the seas around Greenland and Spitsbergen.  They were also cheaper to employ.  

Agents in Shetland hired the men and dealt with all the financial arrangements.  These included the basic daily pay and the bonuses of oil money.  It also included selling things to the Shetland men that they would need for the voyage.  Items such as tea, sugar, clothing and other kit they might need. This was supplied against the expected wages.  In some cases family members (e.g. wives or mothers) were also able to acquire items such as tea and sugar during the period the ship was away. These accounts were written in annual ledgers and for one Shetland company Hay & Co a number of these still exist.

Working on whaling documents in Shetland Archives

Working on whaling documents in Shetland Archives

 

The Shetland Museum and Archive hold a collection of documents – letters, lists and ledgers from Hay & Co and they let me look at them and photograph them.  These documents, particularly the ledgers bring this industry alive for me.  Although the ledgers are formal business records they allow glimpses into the lives of these men through what they purchased (or didn’t eg tobacco and spirits).  Occasional written notes – a date of a death and who outstanding wages was to be paid to, or my favourite – a cryptic note against one Hercules Ridland  “Mark this chap that he does not go again” (I checked the following year’s ledger and he did go again, on the same ship!). 

Hay & Co 1865 Accounts for Arthur Yell of Walls

Hay & Co 1865 Accounts for Arthur Yell of Walls

I’ve been interested in the Hull Whaler Diana for some years. I have blogged about its nightmare voyage in the arctic in 1866, forced to overwinter in the arctic leading to crew death due to scurvy with a higher proportion of the Shetlandmen affected. Hay & Co did not act for the Diana, but I wondered whether I could find any of the Shetlandmen on earlier voyages and I found a few in the years before.  Of particular in interest was Arthur Yell of Walls who sailed on the Polar Star the year before in 1865.  Examining the lists of things he had purchased prior to that voyage – things like Boots, So’ Wester etc I suspect that might have been his first voyage and so it would seem he died on his second whaling voyage.

Shetland Hay And Co Receipt

Shetland Hay And Co Receipt

 

And what of Hay & Co?  I will admit it took me a few days before the penny dropped.  The Museum’s café is called Hay’s Dock, the Museum and Archive is a new build surrounded by an old Quay and dock buildings – Hay’s old location! But then I discovered that the Buildbase Builders Merchants adjacent to the Museum site and spread across a range of buildings old and new is the current incarnation of Hay & Co.  I had a look round the shop and even made some appropriate purchases – some sisal rope and a pair of workman’s gloves.  You cannot imagine my joy when I saw the receipt still had Hay & Co on the top. 

Shetland and its Whaling Heritage

My practice, built around British Whaling and Moby Dick is rather niche. Generally I have to explain the whys and wherefore of the British whaling trade to people when I discuss my work.  It’s been very different during my month in Shetland. The most common response to my describing my work to the locals has been ‘oh yes, my grandfather went to the whaling’ followed by an anecdote or the disclosure that there is a bag of whale teeth in their attic.

Museums in Lerwick and Scalloway have excellent whaling displays. The Shetland Archive has lots of whaling related material across the various phases of Shetland whaling related activity.  There are accounts and ship lists for the Shetlandmen crewing Arctic whalers from Hull and Peterhead and other British whaling ports.  There are descriptions and photographs of the hunting of pilot whales by driving them onto beaches carried out until the early 20th century.  Newspaper reports and other information about Shetland based Norwegian whaling stations from the early 20th century bring the conflicts of interest and protests alive, and archives including oral history recordings and photos of the Antarctic whaling in the mid-20th century.  There are also some of the most patient, and helpful archivists I have ever come across.

A significant number of Shetlandmen went to the Southern Hemisphere whaling based in the Falklands or South Georgia on ships that hunted whales in Antarctic waters up until 1963.  These young men went for the money and the adventure.  A few seasons in the harsh and unforgiving but beautiful South Atlantic could generate enough money for a man to build a house or commission a new fishing boat when they returned to Shetland.  This injection of money into Shetland was an important economic driver in the 1930-60s.

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial, Lerwick

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial, Lerwick

There is an understated and quietly moving memorial in Lerwick harbour to the Southern, Antarctic Whaling.  As it says on the memorial

Erected by the Shetland ex-whalers Association in tribute to all the Shetlanders who, from 1905 to 1963, worked in the Antarctic with the whaling fleets of Chr. Salvesen & Co. Leith.

Through the 1930s depression and post war austerity, money earned at the Antarctic Whaling sustained many families and helped stem the flow of emigration from the islands till the fishing industry improved in the 1960s and the oil industry arrived in the 1970s.

“They did business in great waters and saw the wonders of the deep”

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial Plaque

Shetland South Atlantic Whaler Memorial Plaque