Category: Blog

Scoresby’s Arctic. It’s all about the whale!

My co-curator Fiona turned to me and said, ‘This isn’t an exhibition about Moby-Dick you know’.  I had bought a copy of the book for possible display in the exhibition, one of my 50 odd versions, the one that laid open flat best.  ‘But it is for me’, I replied. ‘I found William Scoresby through Moby-Dick.’

This is all about Moby-Dick for me. I discovered Scoresby because of it.  This is why I’ve been so obsessed about his snowflakes – Scoresby is Captain Sleet, and Melville makes fun of him for it, though he respects Scoresby’s whaling knowledge and experience.  The more you look (and read around the subject) the more he appears in the book. And Scoresby is our whaling history, not the American three-year sperm whale voyages. British East Coast ports, ships sailing each spring up to the harsh but exotic arctic in the Nineteenth Century to hunt the Right and Bowhead whales, and seals, walrus, polar bear, narwhal, near mythical creatures, hunted, divided up into the commercially valuable or disposable waste.

In 1820 Whitby whaler and scientist William Scoresby Jnr published ‘An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery’. A two-volume work that brought together current knowledge of the Arctic with Scoresby’s experiments and observations from his years as a whaler. He sailed from Whitby every spring to go whaling but also using his learning from his scientific studies at Edinburgh University. Our exhibition at Whitby Museum is celebrating 200 years since the book’s publication (a fact difficult to capture in a snappy title).

1820 edition of An Account of the Arctic Regions

1820 Edition of An Account of the Arctic Regions

When I first read Moby-Dick in 2001 I noted that Scoresby was mentioned several times and on researching him I found a finding a fascinating story. I eventually visited Whitby and the museum that houses a display of his scientific instruments and other objects connected with him in 2010. I knew that I wanted to make work about him, his connection to Moby-Dick and his place in British Arctic Whaling, but I knew timing was everything and the time never seemed right.

In October 2018 my husband was working in Yorkshire and we visited Whitby one weekend when I was visiting him. I thought that, with a couple of good exhibitions under my belt and a busy 2019, now might be the time to make an advance to the museum. I emailed the museum explained who I was and what I did and enquired about seeing some of the Scoresby Archive. Got a date, organised another visit to my husband and off I went.

I met Fiona Barnard, the Scoresby Curator, and I looked through and photographed log books and journals, hand written crew lists on scraps of paper. And then there were the drawings! The originals of the illustrations I’d seen in ‘An Account’! I think that one of the reasons that Fiona and I got on so well was the obvious delight and enthusiasm I showed for the work as well as my knowledge of the subject. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Spitsbergen and some of the places there that Scoresby mapped and illustrated. We shared a table at lunch and as my mind was on literary anniversaries (with Herman Melville’s 200th birthday in 2019 very much the focus of much of my work then) we discussed the possibility of an exhibition on 2020 celebrating 200 years since the publication of Scoresby’s extraordinary book. At Fiona’s suggestion I put together a proposal and two years later here we are!

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

It is early October 2020. I’m writing this sat in the Caffè Nero in Victoria square in Hull, it’s the place I have coffee when I’m in Hull. This is my first trip away since COVID lockdown. Since February I have not been out of my home county of Norfolk.  Yesterday I loaded my car up with four large framed textile works and 12 fabric snowflakes in embroidery hoops and delivered them to Whitby museum. At the end of the month our exhibition ‘Scoresby’s Arctic’ opens. It’s not an idea title for an exhibition that covers so much, but I’m still extremely grateful that it’s happening at all (it was a close-run thing). I am co-curating it with Fiona at the museum (a woman whom I have since discovered has infinite patience). It’s been two years in the planning (for the museum at least, it’s been a much longer-term thing for me).  It’s the first time I’ve jointly curated and it’s been a great experience.  We are both ‘Scoresby enthusiasts’ and that has enabled us to work together very effectively to produce an exhibition celebrating 200 years since Scoresby published his ‘An Account of the Arctic Regions’.  It’s a long drive from Norfolk to Whitby, and I chose to break the journey in Hull on my way back. I’ve not been to Hull this year and it feels like a weird second home. The café is next to the currently closed Maritime Museum. The Museum might be shut, but the building itself is gorgeous object in its own right. Being here makes me feel great joy.

I have one more work to produce before the exhibition opens, a simple installation that will consist of a photograph of all 96 of Scoresby’s drawings of snowflakes on tracing paper in 16 pages of 6, layered on a light box and then photographed, printed onto A0 sized Perspex.  It’s a bit of a leap in the dark and I am quite anxious about it. I hope it looks good!

Whaler Cloak

I belong to the Artist’s Programme run by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. The group, run by the wonderful education department, encourages artists through a programme of workshops and regular meetings to consider issues around a range of practice related topics. Although I love the built environment of the displays there are not many objects that relate to my particular subjects of interest (Moby-Dick and British Arctic Whaling).

Over the last year I have been thinking about the context of the collections and made an experimental piece of work that deviates from my normal practice. It is a double-sided semi-circular cloak, rather like a Bishop’s Cope. The imagery on it is inspired by the whaling, maritime and Inuit collections I’ve seen on my travels.

Whaler cloak European side

Whaler cloak European side

One side is about European Arctic Whaling – a large chart of the region from the 1800s with parts blank where they had not yet been explored and a border of quadrant and compass – the tools that enabled navigation and mapping of the area.

Whaler cloak Arctic side

Whaler cloak Arctic side

On the other side are Arctic images of the Northern lights (from the city crest of Murmansk), an Icebound sea, species of whale that were hunted and a representations of the little whale figures that Inuit attached to spears and buckets (from the museum at Nanortalik, Southern Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat). There are also images based on designs from a ‘19th C Alaskan souvenir whalebone mug’ in the reserve collection at the Sainsbury Centre. It is fastened using a reindeer antler toggle (bought from a Saami stallholder in Tromso).

 

Whaler cloak Arctic side folded

Whaler cloak Arctic side folded

Whaler cloak European side folded

Whaler cloak European side folded

It has taken a while to complete, or rather, I think it has taken the amount of time it needed. The design – the border and fastening have evolved as the garment was made and I have been surprised at how much presence it has and how I feel when I wear it. If I wore it at the seashore, I wouldn’t be surprised if I could charm the whales to come to me!

Spitsbergen 2019

The waters around Spitsbergen are where British Arctic Whaling began. I first visited Spitsbergen (one of the islands in the Svalbard Archipelago north of Norway  in 2012 and despite a busy summer schedule I managed to visit again in the summer of 2019. I sailed from Dover, up the North Sea with a couple of stops in Norway on the way up (Andalsnes and Honningsvag) and on the way down (Tromso and Stavanger) The last three of these stops also gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with maritime/polar collections in the local excellent museums.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, 2019

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, 2019

The first stop in Spitsbergen was at the main town of Longyearbyen with the wonderful Svalbard Museum. This has some outstanding early whaling displays.

Svalbard Museum, 2019

Svalbard Museum, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sketchbook page, Svalbard Museum, 2019

Sketchbook page, Svalbard Museum, 2019

Then on to the Russian ex Mining settlement of Pyramiden, a bizarre, mostly deserted town with decaying wooden buildings and an adjacent breath-taking glacier.

Pyramiden, Svalbard, 2019

Pyramiden, Svalbard, 2019

Although there were few stops on this two week voyage, the ship was relatively small and so we were able to do a great deal of coastal cruising, around all of the breath-taking scenery of the south half of Ice Fjord and along the south west coast of Spitsbergen. I saw my first blue whale and some of the early whaling sites at Green Harbour. I was also able to see the coastline around Horn Sound that Scoresby drew, and engraving of which can be found in his 1820 book ‘An Account of the Arctic Regions’.

Engraving of Horn Sound from Scoresby's An Account of the Arctic Regions

Horn Sound from Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions

Horn Sound, Spitsbergen, 2019

Horn Sound, Spitsbergen, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a time when I am focussed on Arctic Whaling it was a great opportunity to sail those seas, experience the constant daylight, sent a lot of time on deck looking for (and seeing) whales.

Melville’s 200th Birthday at Burton Constable

 

August 1st 2019 was Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. I celebrated it at Burton Constable Hall, near Hull which was probably one of the most ‘Moby-Dick’ places in the UK at that time. Not only is there a sperm whale skeleton mentioned in Moby-Dick there, but there was also my exhibition of British influences in Moby-Dick.

Cutting the cake for Melville's 200th Birthday at Burton Constable Hall

Cutting the cake for Melville’s 200th Birthday at Burton Constable Hall

 

It was great – we had cake! It was also Yorkshire Day so there was lots of activity on site and after a great talk by the Dave Nassau the Groundskeeper we jointly cut the cake shared it with the audience and visitors to the exhibition. Dave has done much to preserve the whale skeleton, and has been a huge help and support to me in my various artistic endeavours at Burton Constable Hall.

Whale and Cake for Melville's 200th Birthday

Whale and Cake for Melville’s 200th Birthday

 

The Leviathanic Museum (Hull)

In Chapter 102 of Moby-Dick Ishmael discusses the size of sperm whales and he uses one fictional and one real example (the sperm whale skeleton at Burton Constable) for his measurements. He also explains that ‘there are skeleton authorities you can refer to’ in order to test his accuracy.

There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales.

It is not clear how Melville heard of the Museum at Hull as it is unlikely he ever visited. It may have been via descriptions of whale skeletons in Gray’s account of whale species in The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Erebus and Terror or in the report of the stranded sperm whale at Burton Constable, a summary of which was in Beale’s A Natural History of the Sperm Whale, which Melville is known to have owned.

The Leviathanic Museum mentioned by Melville was that of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society. This society, founded in 1822, had several early locations before it found a permanent home in Albion Street, Hull. A copy of the beautiful 1860 guidebook for the museum and collections exists and can be viewed (by appointment) at the Hull History Centre. It contains a wealth of information about the wide range of specimens (not just whale skeletons) on display.  The plan of the museum and book cover have some wonderful decorative lettering. Early photographs of the Albion Street Museum also exist, and I have taken inspiration from these images, particularly the suspended blue whale and the entrance hall, along with the decorative lettering to produce two textile pieces for the Leviathanic Museum as imagined by Melville. I have also produced a small illustrated hand-made book telling this story.

The Leviathanic Museum (Hull), Textile

The Leviathanic Museum (Hull), Textile

The Grand Plan, Textile

The Grand Plan, Textile

 

Pulling the British Threads in Moby-Dick

Prints, artists books and textile work inspired by the British sources Melville used in Moby-Dick

When the curator at Burton Constable suggested I return to the Carriage House Gallery with an exhibition to celebrate Herman Melville’s 200th Birthday I knew I had to do something that would appeal to non-readers of Moby-Dick, but would be for me an interesting and well-researched exploration on some aspect of the novel.  I already had a body of work inspired by the Burton Constable whale skeleton mentioned in Moby-Dick, could I build on that to produce something special, unique and very much something only I could do?

Exhibition at Carriage House Gallery, Burton Constable Hall 2019

Exhibition at Carriage House Gallery, Burton Constable Hall 2019

After much reading and thinking the idea of looking at the British influences in Moby-Dick became more and more attractive.  Melville read widely using many sources as well as his own experiences aboard a whaling ship to produce the story and digressions.  Although Moby-Dick is an American story there are significant and interesting British influences and content. There are three main British-authored books that Melville uses; Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), Fredrick Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe (1840) and William Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820). I also wanted to include some more local/personal mentions – the Norfolk based polymath Sir Thomas Browne (b, 1605), the ‘Leviathanic Museum’ in Hull and, of course, the Burton Constable Whale.

Over a year I made a body of work that, along with a few existing pieces, is my part of the celebration of Melville and Moby-Dick. I read the three source books, visited archives and research libraries looking for ideas I could turn into visual, textile pieces.  The resulting exhibition of 17 works contains 11 new textile pieces, four works from my 2015-16 residency at Burton Constable Hall, and two from my ‘Arctic Whaling Year’ Exhibition in Dundee last winter. There are navigation charts, ships, icebergs, mountains and whales in all shapes and sizes!  I’m looking forward to spending time in the exhibition with my sewing machine space over the summer, talking to visitors about my work, my inspirations and whales.

Exhibition at Carriage House Gallery, Burton Constable Hall 2019

Exhibition at Carriage House Gallery, Burton Constable Hall 2019

 

The Arctic Whaling Year

I’m just back from an amazing trip to Dundee for the installation and opening of my exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’ at the Verdant Works.  The exhibition has been over a year in the making, but much, much longer in gestation.   As I have been researching British Arctic Whaling I have pondered the idea of doing a series of work linked to the development of the British Whaling trade.  When Dundee Heritage Trust offered me the opportunity to have an exhibition in their Verdant Works Gallery with a lead-in time sufficient (just!) to make a new body of work for that space I took the opportunity to produce a cycle of works, stand-alone pieces that would also tell a story together.  Each work is inspired by a particular aspect of whaling, but is informed by my travel and research, so I can incorporate personal content.

British Arctic Whaling was a seasonal industry with ships leaving British Ports in the spring to head to northern arctic waters to catch whales, returning in the late summer before the ice retuned.  The cycle of work starts with ‘Victualling’, the process of getting the supplies needed for the voyage, using details of accounts from the University of Dundee Archive.  Then Calling At Shetland where the whale ships picked up more supplies and extra men. My Shetland Residency in July 2017 researching at Shetland Museum and Archive provided the text and my photograph of one of the museum buildings.

The development, through both economic necessity and innovation, of early spring sealing trips along with the fantastic collection of early photographs at the Dundee Art Galleries and Museums the inspired the triptych Sealing’ showing the ships and sailors on the ice.  Some of the rituals and superstitions of the whalers are used as the basis for the Cape Farewell including Neptune coming aboard to initiate the new sailors with a joke razor (from the one on display at Hull Maritime Museum).  The hazards and locations of arctic whaling are depicted in ‘Stoved!’, ‘The Whaling Grounds’ and BesetJute is inspired by the architectural features and story of the location of the exhibition – the Verdant Works jute mill in Dundee, where whale oil and water were used to soften the jute fibres prior to processing.  The final piece ‘Right Whales Historically Regarded’ uses the heart-breaking image of an unborn right whale foetus hanging under its mother, itself hanging over a range of the harpoons and other implements we have used to decimate Right Whale populations, including ship strikes and ghost tackle, causes that are currently driving the Northern Right whale towards extinction.

Verdant Works Exhibition Display case and works

Verdant Works Exhibition Display case and works

In addition to the 9 works, there is a display case containing a harpoon, kindly loaned by Dundee Collections Unit, whale baleen, from the Dundee Heritage Trust Collection, a set of 1927 Whaling Cigarette cards from my collection and two of my whaling related artists books (in concertina format so the books can be read in their entirety).  Some of the sample pieces I made in preparation for this exhibition have been collected onto two panels with labels describing some of the techniques used, available for visitors to touch and examine.

Verdant Works Exhibition Touch Panels

Verdant Works Exhibition Touch Panels

I think the exhibition achieves what I set out to do, to tell a story of British Arctic Whaling through a cycle of artworks, supported by information panels describing the aspects of the industry that inspired each panel and with real artefacts of the industry.  Although the exhibition was made for the space at the Verdant Works with new location specific works could enable the exhibition to travel to other venues to tell their stories of Historic British Arctic Whaling.

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.