Category: Blog

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

Bressay Lighthouse Residency (1)

It’s always a worry when you’ve been planning something for over a year that it’s not going to live up to that much anticipation. I’m pleased to be able to say that is not going to be the case for my stay at Bressay Lighthouse in Shetland.  Just over a week in to my month’s stay and it has exceeded all my expectations.  The location is fabulous! My accommodation and working space are great with views over Bressay Sound.

View from studio space at Bressay Lighthouse, Shetland 2017

View from studio space at Bressay Lighthouse, Shetland 201

I’m here to research Shetland’s Arctic whaling heritage, and there is a great deal.  The Archive staff at the Shetland Museum and Archive have been so helpful and welcoming, pointing me in directions and at resources I would never have found on my own.   I’m trying to divide my time one third researching, one third travelling round the islands to photograph key whaling related locations and one third in the studio space at the lighthouse working up ideas in fabric.

So far I’ve been looking at Shetland whaler agents Hay & Co account books in the archive.  These beautifully written ledgers are a financial credit and debit record of the transactions Hay & Co had with the whalers.  So it gives details of what they bought, what they were paid, how much oil money they got etc.  Items purchased fro, Hay & Co included food and clothing. Clothing included mitts, gloves, stockings, gravats (scarves) and shirts.  They were also buying tea, coffee, sugar, rum, whiskey, tobacco (and pipes).  Some of the Shetland men arranged for wives and mothers to be able to draw on the company stores for provisions. These details bring the 19th century whale men closer and gives me an insight into their lives. 

Hay and Co 1853 ledger page from Shetland Whaler Laurence Twatt

Hay and Co 1853 ledger page from Shetland Whaler Laurence Twatt

The Shetland Museum holds and displays a range of period clothing and equipment the whalers would have been familiar with.  Drawings of some of these objects and the text from the ledgers are some of the initial imagery I’m working up in my wonderfully spacious studio space.

It’s not all been work.  I saw Martha Wainwright perform at Mareel, Lerwick’s Arts Centre (and my new favourite place for coffee).  And I’ve seen a whale.

Melville at Kings 2017

At the end of June the Eleventh International Melville Conference took place at King’s College in London.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to talk about my work at the British Library as part of this event. A range of artists including writer Philip Hoare, film maker David Shaerf, curator Michael Hall and actor/director Shelley Piasecka talked about and showed how Melville had influenced their work.  

Caroline Hack, 2nd left, on the panel at Looking for Melville at the British Library

Caroline Hack, 2nd left, on the panel at Looking for Melville at the British Library

I focused on my recently completed work Cetology based on Melville’s classification of whales by book sizes. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my work with an audience who would understand the context of my practice and appreciate the nuances without explanation.  But it was also a chance to meet some of my Melville heroes. Kind people who have supported my endeavours and authors of books that have been important sources of inspiration and knowledge.  It was also great to meet newer twitter contacts and put faces to now familiar names as well as getting to see the work of other people for whom Melville has been a significant influence.  

Looking back on what was one of my most memorable afternoons of my creative life I know that the ripples from it will continue spread, contacts made strengthened and new opportunities for collaborations, new works and travel will arise.  

Cetology (II)

Cetology - 12 handmade books based on Herman Melville's whale classification from Moby Dick

Cetology – 12 handmade books based on Herman Melville’s whale classification from Moby Dick

Cetology – A series of handmade books based on Melville’s classification of whales in Moby Dick

I’m unaware of any artist who has tried to tackle Melville’s bookish classification system for whales in this way.  Having finally managed to complete them I’m pretty sure why!

As a printmaker and maker of artists’ books I was drawn to Chapter 32 Cetology in Moby Dick during my first reading of the book in 2001.  But at the time the idea of making art in the format of books about a book didn’t feel right.  Fast forward 15 years and I had a vast array of personal experience of seeing whales, visiting whale and whaling related collections in museums and so had a large resource of my own to draw on.  I was looking for a subject to turn in to a series of artists’ books and this seemed ideal.  Due to the way I work I know that the books will not be the final iteration of the work. This is just the first stage.  The books and content will be scanned, photographed, digitally printed on fabric and other materials. Layered and recombined with other imagery in other scales, formats and materials to take the work further in the future.

Page from Cetology Folio Sperm whale

Page from Cetology Folio Sperm whale

In Cetology Melville classifies whales by book size, Folio for the large whales, Octavo for the mid-sized whales and Duodecimo for the dolphins.  At first this is straightforward, although he uses old names for the species.  For the Folio whales - Sperm, Right, Finback, Humpback and Sulphur bottom (blue) are at least all identifiable.  But he throws in the Razorback, which nowadays is generally accepted to be the same as the fin whale.  I got around this by using it as a way to introduce the Sei whale.  I was lucky enough to see some Sei whales off the Azores on 2015 and was pleased to be able to incorporate some of my personal experience of them.

Cetology The Orca problem

Cetology The Orca problem

Things started getting tricky with the Octavo classifications - Grampus, Blackfish, Narwhale, Thrasher, Killer.  Which are Orca, Pilot, Narwhal, Orca, Orca. Yes, that’s three Orca, which isn’t very useful. And it could have been four because Orca are also called Blackfish, but more traditionally this is used for pilot whales (phew!). Some common species are omitted all together – particularly the Northern Bottlenose whale (which I particularly wanted to include) and the ubiquitous Minke. And then we got to duodecimo. The Huzza Porpoise, the Algerine Porpoise, the Mealy-mouthed Porpoise.  Yep, basically made up dolphins!

I knew when I started that it was going to take a lot of ingenuity and my best Melvillian inventiveness to make the whole thing work as a unified series of books.  When I started the Folio whales I had no idea how I was going to tackle the Orca problem.  And you won’t believe the number of sleepless nights before I fell upon a Duodecimo solution!

The Cetology project has taken up most of my creative time in the last 6 months.  Each of the 6 Folio and 3 Octavo books are about an individual whale species.  There is a consistent framework of content using my experiences of that species whether I’ve seen it in the wild, or as a skeleton in a museum.  I have used my own photos of whales, museum displays and other information to develop the text and drawings as much as I could to make each book a personal response that could not have been produced by anyone else.  For the three Duodecimos however, this approach would not have worked. So eventually I decided to use Melville’s text about them and illustrate them with a range of found and very personal dolphin imagery.  I grew up in Brighton where there are a variety of dolphins on the city crest and architecture (and my high school badge).  So I travelled back to Brighton and photographed as many as I could out and about and in Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.  My drawings of them were then grouped and refined to produce three very different books, but with a coherency.

Page from Cetology Octavo Pilot Whale

Page from Cetology Octavo Pilot Whale

The layouts went though many iterations and versions before I finalised and printed them in black on cream cartridge paper.  I hand coloured the drawings using a different blue or grey for each book.  The paged were cut, sewn together and attached to endpapers decorated with excerpts from Cetology.  These were then glued onto hardback covers backed in a lovely textured mulberry paper in deep blue.  On each cover is the shape of the whale made from cutting out fused Angelina fibres.  There will be an edition of 12 for each book, but I really think of them as full sets of the 12 different books in three sizes because that is how I think of the project – A very personal response to Melville’s wonderful whale classification.

And if you are wondering.  This is the chapter that started it all off!

Scale Lane Bridge

Scale Lane Bridge is a pedestrian bridge across the river Hull on the east side of the city. It can rotate on a single pivot a bit like a pinball flipper to enable boats to navigate up and down the river. It is unique because pedestrians can remain on it when it moves. It is a striking curved shape with a spine running down the middle and a circular retail space at the west side over the pivot point.

Scale Lane Bridge, Hull. Under construction 2012

Scale Lane Bridge, Hull. Under construction, 2012

I am not from Hull and until 2010 I had never visited the city, but the city has become a key point of my practice and the bridge a key component of my regular visits. When staying overnight I have always stayed in the Premier Inn on the other side of the bridge (which opened in 2012), and whenever possible had a room on the 12th floor overlooking the bridge and the city.

For my first few visits the bridge was mostly built but not commissioned and I used the Myton Bridge (awful walk over a high up dual carriage way) into the city. I was therefore very pleased when the bridge was opened and a delightful walk through the old town to have my morning coffee in Queen Victoria Square (home of the Maritime Museum and the Ferens Art Gallery). Actually sometimes in the winter it was a bloody awful walk nearly getting blown off my feet and very wet. The bridge, I should mention has two paths, one flat for cyclists and one with steps with the spine acting as a useful windbreak. It also has a very essential gritty non-slip surface.

Wedding Party on Scale Lane Bridge, Hull

Wedding Party on Scale Lane Bridge

During my residency at Burton Constable Hall near Hull I stayed in the hotel quite a lot and as I didn’t need to be there til 10 I would walk into the city over the bridge, and have a coffee and a ponder, which became a great working routine. In all that time I never got to travel on the bridge when it was moving. I had a good view of it from my room swinging a couple of time though. And one night in the summer a wedding party let off balloons and set off some fireworks from nearby waste ground.

And then in July 2016 I did get to stand on it when it was moving, when I was naked with a few hundred other naked people. That gritty non-slip surface was agony on bare feet.
At the beginning of January 2017 I visited Hull to see the Made In Hull light installations and used the bridge. Strange booming noises turned out to be a man hitting the bridge with a large percussion mallet. I got talking to him (as I do) and it turned out he was Jonathon McDowell on of the architects who designed the bridge, which I told him I loved. You can imagine my delight when he told me that they had been inspired by the skeletal structure of whales when they were designing it. He subsequently sent me some of the design drawings showing the internal structure and I saw its cetacean similarities. And that made me love it all the more.

Scale Lane Bridge, Hull. Pre-commissioning 2013

Scale Lane Bridge, Hull. Pre-commissioning, 2013


After visiting Burton Constable near Hull in spring 2015 I put a project together with the curator to fund a residency for me. Following a successful application for Grants for the Arts funding I spent over 30 days, spread over eight months working in and around the barn with the whale skeleton.  I used my drawing of the skeleton and the decorative elements from the Hall itself to produce a series of prints and textile pieces that formed the final exhibition in the spring of 2016.

 Often I find that ideas take years to move from possible projects to making work.   This is very much the case with my Cetology. I remember when I first read Moby Dick being attracted to the format that Ishmael uses in Chapter 32 Cetology to classify whales. He groups them into books of differing sizes; folio, octavo and duodecimo and divides them into chapters.

 As a wannabe printmaker in 2001 this structure appealed  but I knew that any such response from me would need to be personal and not a simple series of illustrations, so I filed the idea away under “some other time” and moved on. 

 Artists books have always been a small, but important part of my practice.  I love the act of making them in paper and textile when I have content that fits that format.  Recently I have found myself being nudged towards them again and I was reminded of the Cetology chapter.  After over 15 years of making work around Moby Dick, whaling and whales I now feel I have sufficient material to use the framework to hang my own work on.  So I have embarked on the task of making Cetology.   I have seen many of the whale species now, or seen and drawn skeletons of them.  I have seen where they live and in museums and how some were (and to a limited extent are) hunted in the Arctic.  

Layouts for Cetology

Layouts for Cetology

Using drawings from my travel and research and text from various sources I am starting to put the books together.  It’s not a quick project and as with much of my work it will be iterative, each book going through several versions of developing content and layout before they are finished.  In the first instance the completed content is being produced using a mix of black and white digital print with single hand applied colour highlights different for each book, pages sewn simply together and bound in a hard cover.  



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 . 

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.

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-

This is my version of the fin whale flipper

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