Category: Current Work

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!

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.


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