Category: Blog

Must be the Weather (III)

In recent years I have been fortunate to see and photograph some of the old Arctic whaler log books held in Hull History Centre and Hull Maritime Museum. I have then used my photos to transcribe the entries.  I’ve been fascinated as the individual voyages unfold, reading of the frustrations of the captain not catching whales when other ships had, the tragedies of losses of sailors and ships, the arctic whaler traditions and initiation ceremonies.  But as the word cloud illustrates, there is one overriding interest – the weather.  And that isn’t really surprising.  Even with our technology arctic weather can be unpredictable, and it can be very dangerous.  An 18th Century whaling captain had to rely on his experience and a thermometer.

Truelove 1860 log book word cloud

Truelove 1860 log book word cloud

Being able to predict the weather in the short term was important, for example to ensure that the sails were configured in the fastest/safest way.  But also combined with the location of the ship these observations of weather and the status and position of the ice lead to a body of knowledge and experience that could make a Captain a better whaler (whales often fed along the edge of the arctic ice cap).  The observations in these log books fascinate me, you get a real feel for the day to day operations and concerns of the whalers.   

The information in whaler log books both in the UK and US are being used to stretch arctic weather and ice records back further than modern records allow.  In this was scientists have a larger data set and time period to observe the patterns of arctic weather.  An example of this work can be found at the Old Weather Project https://whaling.oldweather.org/#/about . 

Whaler Truelove nr Davis Straits

Whaler Truelove nr Davis Straits

The word clouds generated by my log book transcriptions are interesting, but one of my long term aims is to use these resources in some way to draw the historical weather and ice observations and the huge amount of contemporary meteorological and climate data together in some way. Given that I am predominantly a textile artist this will be an interesting challenge…

Must be the Weather (II)

In the autumn of 2014 I booked a last minute fortnight trip from Bristol Avonmouth up the coast of Norway and back. It was a great trip, I saw the northern lights (awesome), the Alta petroglyphs (stunning), the first snow of the season in Honningsvag (magical), the military museum in Narvik (sobering), the receding Svartisen Glavier (sadly receding), stave churches, troll walls, sea eagles, a seemingly endless procession of beautiful scenery and a swan dissection for children in Stavanger Museum.    

Retreating Svartisen Glacier, Norway

Retreating Svartisen Glacier, Norway

A really great trip. 

Then we sailed out of Bergen to head back to Avonmouth.  We knew from the weather forecasts pinned up near reception and from the captains midday updates  that it might be a bit blowy, it turned out to be the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo. 

Battling against high winds and rough seas it soon became obvious we weren’t  going to make it back to Avonmouth on time (I say we, I spent most of that two days in my cabin trying not to be sick with varying degrees of success).  Once in the Irish sea we spent a day sailing up and down the relative calm of the leeward coast of the Isle of Man.  The plan was to land at Liverpool and transfer us back to Avonmouth by coach, but the pilot couldn’t get out to us and it was too rough for the tugs anyway, so we waited it out until we could get into the Mersey. 

Stormy weather aboard the Funchal 2011

Stormy weather aboard the Funchal 2011

 

Some of the passengers moaned (some always do) but there was an air of stoic resignation mostly.  This was something no one had control of, could control.  We just had to wait for the weather to change, which it did eventually.  Even then over a day late the swell was so great that it took several hours and a couple of tugs to manoeuvre us into position.   

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-29700909

Must be the Weather (I)

One of the defining things about being British is our obsession about the weather.  It is a safe topic of conversation and a source of constant interest. But our climate is also generally benign so it’s rarely more than an inconvenience (more of that in another post…)

 For the last few years an important component of my practice has been sea voyages to Arctic whaling destinations. I am the first to admit these were all late booked bargain cruises on smallish ships. But they were sailing from England and back and mostly in summer months.  One thing this does give you is an appreciation of distances – how big the sea is and how it feels to sail for days seeing no land, no other ships, just the sea and the wildlife. In parts of the ocean even wildlife sightings are sporadic.  I have spent hours at the front of these ships sometimes with wildlife enthusiasts and experts (who have almost universally shared their knowledge generously) and sometimes alone seeing nothing but sky and water until the water takes on the illusion of undulating solidity and it feels like you could walk on it.

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

In the summer of 2011 I sailed to Spitsbergen in the high arctic.  This included 10 days of constant daylight. Experiencing the disorientation of no normal day and night cues and the sun in the north was unsettling.  I was quite glad I had a cheap cabin with no window/porthole so at least I could sleep in the dark.  The rigour of the day being divided into watches would have been vital for the early whalers and walrus hunters. 

It was also a good introduction to the weather in the high arctic. Particularly the fog so thick it nearly prevented us from sailing into Magdalena Fjord but lifted in time for me to see my first wild walrus and my first glacier, calving into the sea, and so persistent that it enabled us to sail quite close to Bjornoya Island but fail to see anything except the tell-tail rise in the number of sea birds. 

As it happens 2012 was a record year of low arctic sea ice.  In fact it held the record for a bit. Arctic sea ice and weather in the arctic are important components of global climate and a great deal of measurement and analysis of the climate is now happening in this once forbidding and hostile place.

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

I was fortunate enough to visit Ny Alesund, the research base on Spitsbergen and the northernmost functioning civilian settlement in the world.  I saw the various research centres of the countries working there (and a weather balloon being released).  Huge amounts of data is being collected at places like this and being fed into climate models and analyses.

 

Visiting the Iconic Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Last week I was privileged to get up close to the iconic Cambridge Museum of Zoology Fin Whale skeleton during its rehang.  The museum is currently closed for redevelopment but the Collections Manager Matt Lowe invited me down to see the whale in its final stages of restoration.  The whale’s new position is suspended from the ceiling of a new double height glass-walled building which will form the entry to the museum.  It has been cleaned and conserved and looks great. 

Up close with the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Up close with the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

 I was able to get up close and personal to the skeleton (at a few points I had to be careful not to hit my head on bits of it!).  Nigel Larkin, a freelance conservator and reassembler of such things, kindly pointed out some of the interesting pathology visible on the skeleton particularly the breaks in the ribs which had healed.

Over a cup of tea in the department I was introduced to Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, who last rehung the whale 20 years ago and as I had brought some of my whale textiles with me we all had an impromptu game of guess the species from the whale flipper skeleton! 

I have been fortunate and seen fin whales in various places (Shetland, North Atlantic. Gulf of St Lawrence) and although I appreciated they were large I never really got a sense of their size viewing them in the sea with no reference points for scale.  Standing under the skeleton at a point which would be inside the animal’s huge body I really got a sense of the enormity of the creature.  I can see why train loads of Victorian day trippers came to Norman’s Bay station to view the body when it was washed ashore at Pevensey Bay on the South Coast. 

Inside the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Inside the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

I also reflected that the skeleton only tells part of the story of what the whale would have looked like alive.  Its sleek streamlined body, dark above and pale below, with a great tail not apparent at all in the skeleton.  The tail would be outside the building as it is now positioned, the huge flukes covering the beautiful reclaimed slate of the outer wall.

 There is still time to support the rehang of the skeleton

Raise the whale donation page-

http://www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/

This is my version of the fin whale flipper

http://www.carolinehack.com/five-whales-series

I can’t wait for the museum to reopen next year.

 

Whaler Disko Bay Account Book

An important component of my art practice is research. It informs and nudges my work.  Accuracy in some ways is vital to me, as is the ability to play with imagery, text and other found content.  Quite often I will collect something with no real reason or plan for its use, but am guided by a gut instinct that it may be useful sometime (or it’s just too interesting not to investigate).  And so I found myself at Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn last week hand transcribing a whaling ship account book from 1786.

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

I went there in the spring to see their Poppies display (which was very moving) and got chatting to an archivist about whaling heritage in the North East (as I do). We found an enigmatic entry in the collection database  ‘Account Book of the whale ship Disko’ It was from the ship Disko Bay and from 1786. I was able to view it that day, but unfortunately due to copyright issues unable to photograph the beautifully written copper plate entries.  I made some notes and was determined to come back next time I was passing.  Unfortunately I live 280 miles away.

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

I finally made it back last week sandwiching it in between a visit to Edinburgh and my weekend at Cornucopia Festival. Prepared with a new notebook and lots of sharp pencils I managed to transcribe 14 pages.  Fortunately my experience with whaling log books meant I could read most of the writing with little difficulty and understood most of the terminology.

I’ve listed some of the most noteworthy entries below and added a couple of photos of my handwritten notes

To an anchor of gin £1/6/-

(a Dutch term anker? 38.75 L or 45 bottles)

To plates and dishes  £-/6/6

To an Indenture for John Linney  £-/6/3

(yes the indenture was less than the plates and dishes)

To a pilot out of Stromness £-/12/6

To boys washing £-/7/6

To cleaning the surgeon’s instruments  £-/5/0

To coals for boiling oil £1/1/2

There are also payments to rat-catchers, coopers, painters, carpenters, brewers, butcher, boat builders, braziers and all sorts of other interesting things.  And rather poignantly

To J Beaton’s board & funeral £4/9/2

At the moment I’m not sure what I’ll do with this treasure trove of information, but I’m sure it will be useful one day!

At Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn

At Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn

Woodhorn is a great place and well worth a visit. Not only does it house the Northumberland Archive, but it’s a mining museum at a disused pit head. There are displays about pit life both above and below ground, a display of miners’ banners, a gallery of Pitmen Painters’ art, a good shop and lovely cafe (OK, yes, I really like the place – but it is very good!).

 http://www.experiencewoodhorn.com/

Cornucopia Festival at Burton Constable 2016

Last year, when I was just starting my artist in residency at Burton Constable, I was “in residence” for the weekend of the Cornucopia Festival.  For three days whilst the sun shone and music played I sat in the barn with the sperm whale skeleton and talked to festival goers about my work. I had a fantastic time.  In the evening when the barn was locked up for the night I could wander round the festival, chat to stall holders listen to music, have something good (and reasonably priced) to eat and generally chill out (not a thing I generally do).

Evening at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable 2016

Evening at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable

I finished my residency in April this year with an exhibition, but loved the place (and particularly the staff and volunteers who had all made me so welcome) so looked for a good excuse to return.  And so last weekend I found myself at the Cornucopia Festival, with the work that I’d made as a result of that residency.  This time I was in a stable block with other artists, and yet again the sun shone and yet a again I had a fantastic time.

In the stables at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable 2016

In the stables at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable 2016

I took my sewing machine and in the (very few) quiet times when I was not talking to people I worked on some sample pieces. These were also good conversation starters.  On my table I had my handling collection of stuffed whales and textile pieces that people and particularly children appreciate being able to hold and investigate and ask question about.  I also hung the two touch panels of textile samples showing the techniques I use in my work that were so successful in the April exhibition.  And I took my Moby Dick bunting of course, which was much admired.

Textile Samples made at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable 2016

Textile Samples made at Cornucopia Festival Burton Constable 2016

Burton Constable is an amazing place and truly a hidden gem.  The Sperm Whale skeleton is worth the visit alone.  The beautiful stables, the Capability Brown landscaping and the magnificent Hall itself are all individually reasons to go.  Add to that a great café, shop and brilliantly helpful and knowledgeable volunteers and guides. And I haven’t touched on all the great stuff for kids. Go visit!

http://www.burtonconstable.com/

http://www.cornucopiafestival.co.uk/

The initial residency was part funded through the Arts Council England Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.

Perfect Form, 2016

perfect form

Perfect Form, 2016. Digital Print 4m x 2.6m

Perfect Form was inspired by my time as artist in residence next to the iconic sperm whale skeleton mentioned in Moby Dick at Burton Constable Hall.  During my time talking to visitors, staff and volunteers discussing the skeleton I always seemed to end with how you get no idea of the shape of the animal from the bones and that the tail (containing no bones) would reach half way up the wall. So armed with the figures from the James Alderton’s original dissection report in 1825 I designed a life-sized whale tail to show this. The two quotes on the tail are by Moby Dick author Herman Melville and James Alderson which talk about this very problem. The background is one of my photographs of Atlantic Ocean off the Azores where, in May 2015, I saw my first sperm whale.

#StitchOff and my Mappy Sewing

Twitter is an interesting and remarkably random thing.  As part of my artist in residence project at Burton Constable Hall I had some social media targets and so I had returned to my long dormant Twitter account.  I needed to work out how to use it and specifically to best promote my somewhat niche art practice.  (If you are reading this in isolation I’d better explain.  I make print and textile art inspired by Moby Dick and British Historic Arctic Whaling and informed by my travel and research.  Hence my residency at Burton Constable Hall, near Hull, which has a sperm whale Skelton mentioned in Moby Dick).
IMG_1969

So I started tweeting and liking (though it was favouriting back then), retweeting and following, and being followed.  It’s been hugely useful for plugging in to all sorts of networks and particularly the more traditional textile heritage that I’d not really engaged with before.  And I saw some intriguing tweets about something called #StitchOff with some interesting embroidery patterns from around the time of Jane Austen from The Lady Magazine.  There was a call out for anyone who was interested to use one of the patterns as inspiration with the chance that it would be put on display as part of the Emma at 200 exhibition at Chawton House in the spring.  I had my show opening at Easter, hardly had any pieces made for that so I thought this should interesting I’ll give it a go!

A little knot of people were posting images of their work in progress, all of which looked fabulous and rather intimidating but if mine didn’t work no one need ever know… I chose the waistcoat pattern because none of the samples I’d see seemed to be using that one and it had a linear design which appealed to me.   I made a sample on grey polycotton which I quite liked and learned quite a bit about how the pattern worked. I had decided on a piece of blue and white striped shirt of my husband’s that was ready for recycling when I had one of those ‘slap head, duh’ moments – found maps that I print on fabric are a big part of my practice so off to the Internet to see if I could find a map of the right period area around where the exhibition would be.
And I did.  It was a two part strip map with a road running down either side and a line done the middle which echoed the central line in the waistcoat pattern.  I printed the map out on my inkjet printer onto A4 sized cotton.   Using fabric marker pens I had traced the design onto a scrap of white crystal sheer fabric and had gone round my collection of fabrics testing it against them.  I tried it against the map and liked it.  I tweeted a photo of it and got a surprisingly positive response.

stitchofftest

And then had the dilemma of what piece of sheer to use?  I rifled through my extensive collection looking at two tone pieces but found one changed colour from green to purple down a well defined line which was perfect.  I then chose the threads based on how the samples had worked in  greens, reds and pink/purples.  A rather nice variable thread would make a good backbone to the pattern.
To be honest after the thinking, planning and printing the sewing felt like the quickest bit.  Freehand machine embroidery is a bit like that.  It’s like drawing with thread, except the drawing tool (needle and thread) stays still and you move the fabric around.  I mostly sorted a bit of an issue with puckering (I hate using hoops) by inking in a slightly wider border with a black fabric marker.  I had mounted the map on some medium weight vilene for stability before sewing and I sewed some pale grey felt as backing (which also hid the back!). I ran round the hemmed sheer with a soldering iron to stop it fraying.  This gives the edge an interesting texture and can also be useful for breaking up/hiding any small inconsistencies in the sewing.

stitchoffin

My tweet of a photo of my finished piece is at time of writing it is my most viewed tweet!  I was suitably thrilled to see photos of it in the display with all of the other works and will travel down to see the exhibition and maybe even meet up its some of the other makers (I think we are mostly following each other on Twitter so hopefully may keep in touch).
So from seeing some tweets all sorts of things have cascaded and I suspect will continue to.
And I got the new work for my exhibition all done in time, and it opens Easter Saturday!
You can read about the project (including my piece) here

Stranding

I live in Norfolk (about as far from the coast as you can and still live in Norfolk). There have been a series of sperm whale strandings on the North Norfolk Coast and on the other side of the Wash in Lincolnshire (and on mainland Europe).  I have not gone to see the carcasses (for lots of reasons, not least that I don’t want to be part of the whale selfie crowd and having seen sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean I don’t really want to see one rotting on a beach).  But I have been thinking a lot about them and talking to people about it (I’m known for my interest in things whale related so people have been asking me about them).

I have been quite preoccupied with whale stranding and whale skeletons for a while now. As artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall near Hull I have been confronted with the huge skeleton of a sperm whale that stranded on the Holderness coast in 1825 (whale stranding is not a recent phenomenon).  In preparation for my exhibition there in the spring I have been working on images of their whale skeleton and sperm whales in general.  I have also taken inspiration from some of the furnishing and other decorative elements in the Hall itself.  As quite often happens with me it will be a small fragment or apparently insignificant object or pattern that will attract my attention and this was the case with the small piece of folded blue and white patterned fabric in one of the cupboards on the French Landing.  Now I’m working at home (the Hall being closed until Easter) I’ve been sketching the pattern, teasing out the elements in the four pieces of folded fabric, trying to work out from my photographs how the pattern expands beyond my source images and drawing putative sections.

Having made some drawings I was at a loss as how to use them as they didn’t seem to fit with any of the whale skeleton imagery I had. Working on another piece (based on the red friezes in the Gallery) I came up with a possible composition that might work as a two colour screen print.

Looking at the print I made today I saw the huge body of a whale juxtaposed with a shape that echoed the coastline of East Anglia. And I will call the print “Stranding”.

Stranding. Screen Print

Stranding, Screen print

Arctic Initiation – British Whalers’ traditions

This is a small piece inspired by a particular aspect of arctic whaling that has interested me for a while now. British Arctic Whalers had various superstitions and traditions and the ones that interest me at the moment are those that relate to their material culture – special things that they made. In December I was privileged to be able to read and photograph some original whaling log books at the Hull History Centre in December 2015. One of these mentioned two of the interesting rituals of the whalers.

 Log book of the Whaler Neptune of Hull 1821, off Spitsbergen, Captain Munroe

May 1st  The Crew diverting themselves with their usual shenanigans in fixing a garland made of ribbons on the main top gallant stay and initiating regularly such of the crew as never before been to the arctic region by blacking their faces with a kind of blacken and then shaving off with a hatched iron hoop in the shape of a razor.

Arctic Initiation - image of joke razor on digitally printed whalers logbook

Arctic Initiation – image of joke razor on digitally printed whalers logbook

The ribbons for the garland were given to the sailors by their wives and sweethearts prior to the voyage. Representations of the garlands can be glimpsed in some of the paintings of whaling ships in the Arctic in the Hull Maritime Museum.  They also have an original joke razor, which I used as the basis for the drawing.  I digitally printed out part of my photograph of that page of the log book containing the above text on blue fabric and using free hand machine embroidery and sheer fabric made the quilted outline of the razor.