Category: Textiles

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!

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

 

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a Norfolk-based doctor, polymath and author. Herman Melville owned several of Browne’s books and admired his work and his whimsical writing style, which influenced Melville’s own style. Browne wrote about sperm whales in his myth busting book Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book of Vulgar Errors, (1646) having seen a sperm whale stranded on the coast of Norfolk. Melville mentions Browne in Moby-Dick and quotes from Browne’s Pseudodoxia in Extracts at the beginning of Moby-Dick.   

What spermacetti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid sit.

*I do not know what it is. Textile.

*I do not know what it is. Textile.

 The Latin phrase ‘nescio quid sit’ means ‘I do not know what it is’ I have used this quote alongside some early depictions of whales in the work of the same name.

In the Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library, Norwich they hold Browne’s own annotated copies of his works. I have used images of these annotated pages as the basis of a handmade book describing his links to Moby-Dick. The cover is an embroidered and beaded quincunx design which Browne mentions in his book the Garden of Cyrus (1658).

A Brief Contemplation on Sir Thomas Browne. Display of hand made artist's books

A Brief Contemplation on Sir Thomas Browne. Hand made artist’s book

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.

Right Whales Historically Regarded

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  The Arctic whalers main target were the right whales, Eubalaena glacialis.  These were the ‘right’ whales to hunt because they had thick oil-rich blubber and had long baleen.  The long baleen plates sieved out small shrimp  and other food from huge mouthfuls of seawater.   Baleen was used in such things as whalebone corsets and umbrellas.  It was mouldable and therefore a very useful material in a time before plastics.  Right whales had another advantage – when they were killed they floated rather than sinking making them easier to tow back to the ship and process.

The Right Whale Historically Regarded

The Right Whale Historically Regarded

Northern Right whales were very nearly hunted to extinction, but they ceased to be hunted in the middle of the last century.  However they are once again on the verge of extinction because of ship strikes and ghost netting, which entangles them.

The skeleton is from a mother and foetus on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  The harpoons are examples from the large selection of harpoons and harpoon guns I’ve seen in museums in Greenland, Norway, UK, Canada, Iceland, and the US.

Jute

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Blubber from the whales was chopped up and placed in barrels on the ship and brought back to the home post to be processed.  The processing involved boiling the blubber to separate the valuable oil, which was stored and sold in barrels.  In Dundee it was discovered that a mix of whale oil and water sprayed on jute fibres softened them sufficiently to aid their processing.  Whale oil became an integral part of jute manufacture in Dundee and the continuing market for the oil ensured that Arctic whaling persisted from Dundee much later than from most other British ports. The skills of making wooden ships that were suitable for the Arctic meant that the port was an obvious choice for building the Discovery.  It also meant that whaling was still being carried out from Dundee as photography was developing, producing  a wonderful photographic archive.

Jute

Jute. Textile panel (80 x 60 cm) from ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’ exhibition at Verdant Works, Dundee, Autumn 2018. Fabric paint and pen, layered sheer fabrics and freehand machine embroidery on cotton and hessian (jute).

The Verdant Works is a jute mill preserved by the Dundee Heritage Trust.  Barrels of whale oil would have arrived at the works, passed over the weighbridge, and been stored in the stone buildings with the iron roof trusses and wall bosses that tied the walls together.

 

 

Beset

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  One of the great perils of Arctic whaling was getting trapped in the ice and either having the ship destroyed by being crushed by the ice, or being trapped in the ice and having to overwinter in the harsh cold and darkness, isolated from any help or rescue.  The ships did not routinely carry enough fuel for heating or food to overwinter (although following a series of incidents ships were supposed to carry enough supplies to last over winter).  There are a number of harrowing accounts of the hardships of being trapped.  Probably the most famous account is by a ship’s surgeon aboard the Diana of Hull.  This ship was trapped in the ice in the Davis Strait in 1866. Surgeon Smith kept a journal, initially of his observations on the trip, notes on conversations with the captain, and general ship life .  Then as the disaster unfolds he describes coping with the cold and damp, the lack of food, the gradual onset of scurvy and deaths amongst the crew, as well as the regular terror of the ship getting hit by icebergs.  After the death of the captain in the middle of winter the surgeon was credited with keeping up the morale of the crew and is remembered in a memorial in Shetland to this day.  His journal was published and is still in print today.

Beset

Beset. Textile panel (60 x 60 cm) from ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’ exhibition at Verdant Works, Dundee, Autumn 2018. Fabric paint and marker pen, layered sheer fabrics and freehand machine embroidery on unbleached and dyed cotton fabric.

The wooden ships that went to the Arctic were specially strengthened to withstand collisions with icebergs and reduce the risks of being ‘nipped’ between the moving bodies of ice.  The image is based on several paintings of ships beset in the ice.  Often the action of the ice lifted the ship out of the water and tilted it at an alarming angle.  But these wooden ships were strengthened and could escape with little damage.

 

 

The Whaling Grounds

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

The Whaling Grounds

The Whaling Grounds

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