Category: Textiles

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.

 

Stoved!

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Early, non-industrialised whaling was a dangerous activity.  When lookouts on a whaling ship saw a whale, the whaling boats were lowered and quietly rowed towards the whale. These boats were smaller than the whales they were hunting and whalers had to approach a whale close enough to throw or stab a harpoon into the side of the whale.  This did not kill the whale but enabled the boat to remain attached to the whale, the whalers paying out rope as the whale dived.   The weight of the rope and boat dragged on the whale slowing it down. If the harpoon remained in the whale after what could be many hours of pulling the rope and boat, the whale might tire enough for the harpooneer to stab the whale with a long sharp lance that would pierce the internal organs and kill the whale.  This was the most dangerous time.  The huge tail flukes could easily splinter the wooden boat scattering the whalemen, most of whom could not swim, into the sea.

Stoved!

Stoved!

This image is derived from an image on one of a set of whaling cigarette cards.  I first saw the set in the online catalogue of the McManus Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum.  I was able to find them for sale online, so I now own a set myself.

Cape Farewell

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Whalers were as superstitious as any other sailors and had many rituals which they observed.  They also amended rituals for the circumstances they found themselves in. A good example of this is the crossing the line ceremony. This is traditionally an initiation for sailors crossing the equator for the first time. But in the case of whalers it could be performed when they crossed the Arctic Circle on the way up to the early whaling grounds around Spitsbergen and as locations of whaling changed it could be performed on May Day or when passing Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland on the way to the Davis Straits.

Cape Farewell

Cape Farewell

Neptune and his wife would board the ship (looking suspiciously like members of the crew dressed up) and, using an oversized jagged joke razor, the green-hands (first-timers) would be ‘shaved’ after a mixture of soot and grease was applied to their faces.  This was then followed by music, dancing and the consumption of alcohol. Most captains tolerated the carousing that followed as a relatively controlled way for the sailors to let off steam.

In some places when the ship left port the wives and sweethearts would give ribbons to their sailors as keepsakes.  On May Day these ribbons would be woven round an iron hoop to form a garland, often suspended under a model of a whale ship, and hoisted onto the rigging for luck. This was not brought down until the ship returned to port where boys competed to be first up the rigging to reach the garland.

At Hull Maritime museum there is an original joke razor from a whaleship. I have used my drawing of it here. In several of the museum’s  paintings of Arctic whaleships you can see the garlands hanging between the masts.

My dad  was in the Fleet Air Arm and I have his crossing the line certificate, signed by Neptune.  I used the image of the sailing ship from it for the ship above the garland.  When I first crossed the Arctic Circle, Neptune came aboard and tipped some icy water down my back as my initiation.  Under the beard he looked somewhat like the Assistant to the Cruise Director.  I have used my photo of him as a basis for the illustration here.  The map is based on the one in the Norwegian polar explorer Nansen’s book on his first crossing of Greenland.

Sealing

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  As whaling decreased the populations of whales, the whalers hunted other marine mammals to maintain their profitability.  Seal skins were a valuable commodity and to maximise the economic return, whaling ships could leave earlier from British ports, pick up men from places like St Johns in Newfoundland and head to the nearby sea ice where huge numbers of seals were born each year.  The skin of the young seals was particularly sought after.  The seals were killed and roughly skinned.  The skins were collected together prior to being dragged back by the men to the ship, which was moored to the edge of the ice, often some distance away.  The skins would be dropped off at agents in Newfoundland or brought back to the home port before starting the whaling voyage proper.

Sealing

Textile panel (80 x 60 cm) from ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’ exhibition at Verdant Works, Dundee, Autumn 2018, Fabric marker pens and freehand machine embroidered layered sheer fabrics on unbleached cotton.

It was the innovation of using auxiliary steam power which made this possible.  Ships could approach the edge of the ice more reliably using steam power rather than having to rely on the sails.  The arrival of these first steam-powered whalers from Dundee in St Johns, Newfoundland triggered the development of the auxiliary steam-powered sealing fleet from Newfoundland.

The McManus,  Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum holds a fantastic collection of early photographs of the Dundee whaling trade. I have used three of these as the basis for this triptych.

 

Victualling

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Whaling ships setting off to the Arctic had to be self-sufficient in all they would need for the long summer whaling season. They took everything from harpoons, spare whaling boats and rope to extra clothing and canvas.  They also had to take a  lot of food.  In a time before preservation by canning or refrigeration, fresh food was only available for the very start of the voyage. Salt beef and dried vegetables, potatoes (and a surprising amount of alcohol) were the usual staples.  In later years they also had to have enough food to survive the harsh winter if they became trapped in the ice.

Victualling

Victualling

In the Archives at the University of Dundee there is a collection of whaling account documents with the invoice slips for the items bought for whaling voyages around 1830.  The text is from these accounts and the plan is of Dundee Docks.

 

 

 

Calling At Shetland

This is one of the pieces in the Verdant Works Exhibition ‘The Arctic Whaling Year’, Autumn 2018.  Many whaleships from English and Scottish mainland ports called into Orkney and Shetland to pick up further supplies and additional crew.  The whaling agent Hay and Co in Lerwick, Shetland recruited local men, who were good sailors and cheap to employ, to act as crew for the whaleboats.  Hay and Co also supplied other goods to the ships for use during the voyage.  High-quality Shetland knitted goods and other provisions were bought in bulk to be sold to the sailors from the slop bag or slop chest – a common store of goods the sailors could obtain against their pay whilst on board. The Shetland Museum and Archive at Lerwick has a collection of documents from Hay and Co including accounts for individual Shetland whalemen.

Calling At Shetland

Calling At Shetland

I spent a month in Shetland in 2017 researching their Arctic whaling archives and after about a week the penny dropped.  I realised that the Hay Dock café at the museum was named for Hay and Co and that the museum and archive were actually built at the Hay Dock. Later one of the archivists  told me that the Builders Merchants on my route to the supermarket was still Hay and Co!  I bought some rope and a pair of gloves there and was delighted to see Hay & Co at the top of the printed receipt!  The building shown here (a digital photograph printed on fabric) is in front of the museum in Lerwick, and forms part of the Hay Dock.