Category: Current Work

The Shetland Stations

A question I am often asked about my textile work is “How long did that take to make?”. A common answer (depending on the piece) is “between a fortnight and ten years”. The work I was commissioned to make by the Scottish Maritime Museum (SMM) and their exhibition All Mortal Greatness is But Disease is a good example of that.

In 2020 I heard that the SMM Irvine site were looking to have an exhibition on Scottish Whaling in 2021. Although it was planned to be predominantly about Scotland’s interest in South Atlantic Industrial whaling I expressed an interest in getting involved somehow and spent some time thinking about what I could do. My work up to that point had been mostly about British Arctic Whaling (and Moby-Dick, of course) but I reviewed my resources and thought there might be things I could do that would form a natural extension to my practice.

Time passed, lockdowns came and went.

In spring 2021 I arranged to visit the museum on my way back from a meeting at the Scottish Fisheries Museum (see earlier blog) to chat to the curator about some ideas. Sadly, regional lockdowns were in force in parts of Scotland and the curator, living in Glasgow, could not travel down to Irvine to meet me. I visited the museum anyway (remembering the good café) and had a look around, particularly at the exhibition gallery. We had a catch up over zoom and things went quiet.

August 2022, new staff from the museum get in touch. The exhibition opens in November 2022 and am I still interested in doing something? The scope has widened and, since the original contact, I have made a piece about South Atlantic Industrial Whaling for the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge so I am more confident that I can make something good.

I have a brainwave looking through my copy of Shetland’s Whaling Heritage. I see the short chapter about the short-lived land-based whaling stations on Shetland started by the Norwegians in the early 1900s. One of the things I had done whilst on a research residency in Shetland in July 2017 was to drive to the three sites and, without trespassing, get as good photos of the locations as I could. I was sure that the exhibition was not covering that part of Scotland’s whaling story and so I offer to make something around it, and they commission me to do so. In addition, I arrange to loan them and existing work, Right Whales Historically Regarded and the six relevant whaling cigarette cards from my collection.

2022 was a busy year and I had work to make for the Scottish Fisheries Museum for the end of August, so it was going to be a bit tight timewise, but I thrive on deadlines! As with a lot of my work, there are bits that are decided on quite early in the process and other elements that don’t get sorted until the last minute. This piece was one of them. I wanted a map or chart to form the base of the piece and remembered that I had made a drawn outline of Shetland from a navigation chart during the 2017 residency. Several navigation charts I had showed the land in pale yellow against the blue sea. Turning to my trusty dark turquoise fabric (Ikea Lenda blue, 100% cotton, £5.50/ metre, out of stock at that time) I thought about which yellow would look good. I had a vibrant yellow polycotton that I used for one of the pieces I made at Burton Constable and it sang with the blue fabric. Though trimming it would be tricky with the very complicated Shetland coastline. Whilst chatting to one of the Norwich John Lewis haberdashery staff one Sunday I noticed a similar vivid yellow felt (felt is great because it doesn’t fray). She explained that they were empowered to give material away to good causes and I delighted left with enough yellow felt for the piece. Looking at the three locations of the four stations (one each at Collafirth and Olna, two at the end of Ronas Voe) they were all either to the north or northwest and so I didn’t need to include the whole of Shetland. I wanted to include Bressay Island (as that was where I had stayed during my 2017 residency) and that allowed me to include Lerwick, which would usefully orient viewers. Anchoring the land in the bottom right corner gave me a vast area of sea to fill with imagery. Rather than leave it blank, I used the depth markings on the chart to guide the composition and went off to think about what I would put there.

Shetland Stations

The Shetland Stations

I wanted to include and commemorate the whales, to show the precise locations of the stations and illustrate the whaling. The most straightforward way of doing this was to make and sew these images as separate pieces and sew/applique them onto the bigger dark blue background. I found some navigation charts online from 1900-1920s of the waters around the stations on the National Library of Scotland, used some of my existing whaling imagery of catchers and harpoon guns (two from the cigarette cards I was loaning to the exhibition) and developed some drawings of the sites when they were operational from black and white archive photographs. Rather than the simple black lines I used for the whales and whalers I highlighted my drawings with white and dark fabric paint and then machine sewed the outlines. This was a technique I had used earlier that year for the piece Overhaul, and I had thought it worked well. These whaling images would all be presented as circles or semi circles. The whales were whale shape outlines with the common names sewn on them, and they were all made using a light teal cotton (also IKEA) that I’ve used extensively in other works.

After much thought and experimentation the three locations of the sites were indicated with small red pompoms. The stark redness standing out and reminding us of the true nature of the stations.

All Mortal Greatness is But Disease exhibition sho

All Mortal Greatness is But Disease Exhibition at the Scottish Maritime Museum

Overhaul

Overhaul

Overhaul

This work was made for the 2022 exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife.

Whaling in the unpredictable weather of the Arctic could be dangerous. Storms would drive ice against and underneath whale ships. If the hull of a ship was damaged one way to repair it was to haul the ship over on its side on to an ice floe exposing the damaged structure that could be repaired above the waterline. 200-250 men would be needed to haul the ship over and so the crews from several ships would work together to rescue a ship in distress.

Approx 25 x 20cm Screen printing, fabric paint and freehand machine embroidery.

Shift

Shift

Shift

This work was made for the 2022 exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife.

Early whaling was mostly in the Greenland Fisheries, an area around Spitsbergen. Overhunting led to population decline and new whale populations in Baffin Bay and beyond were exploited until those were also depleted.

Approx 25 x 20 cm Hand embroidery

Bounty

Bounty

Bounty

This work was made for the 2022 exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife.

Arctic Whaling was supported and encouraged by a government subsidy known as a bounty. In return for fulfilling a number of requirements the basic cost of a voyage would be covered. The amount of bounty changed over time to reflect domestic and political needs eg balance of payments due to whale oil imports/exports.

Approx 25 x 20 cm Machine and hand embroidery

Success to the Rising Sun of Anstruther

Success to the Rising Sun of Anstruther

Success to the Rising Sun of Anstruther

This work was made for the 2022 exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife.

Early Scottish Arctic Whaling took place around Spitsbergen, an island between Norway and The North Pole. As there was a mistaken belief that Spitsbergen was linked to Greenland this was known as the Greenland Fishery whalemen referred to whales as ‘fish’. In 1757 the Rising Sun of Anstruther set off to the icy north to hunt right and bowhead whales.

Approx 60 x 150 cm, textile, fabric paint, hand and freehand machine embroidery

Baffin Bay

Baffin Bay

Baffin Bay

This work was made for the 2022 exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife.

As the whale populations declined around Spitsbergen Scottish whalers sailed around the southern tip of Greenland up the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada to Baffin Bay and further north in search of whales. In 1830 a huge storm wrecked and damaged many whale ships with others trapped in the ice. The text is from the log book of the William and Ann of Leith which is part of the museums whaling collection.

Approx. 80 x 110 cm layered textiles, fabric paint, freehand machine embroidery

Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling

The Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Fife, is a delightful labyrinth of a place, located in a range of harbourfront buildings. Spending a long ‘Meet the Artist’ Weekend after the opening of my exhibition Arctic Ventures: forgotten stories of Scottish Whaling the most common comment from visitors arriving at the Whaling Gallery where the exhibition was, was ‘It’s much bigger than I expected!’ It took me a good few days to work out the short cut back to the entrance (and the loos) and several times I got a bit lost.

Meet the Artist weekend at the Scottish Fisheries Museum

Meet the Artist weekend at the Scottish Fisheries Museum

I first visited in March 2013, a cold slushy drive from Edinburgh. In what felt a bit like a corridor there was a selection of whaling objects and related items. The objects were mostly about Southern Atlantic whaling, but there were some old photos and a couple of 19th century Arctic whaler logbooks. I also thought I spotted a couple of whale jawbones in the boat shed but wasn’t sure.

Fast forward to 2021. Scrolling through my twitter feed one evening in April I spot something about a whaling project at the Fisheries Museum. I have a look on the web site; they have discovered that one of the buildings that form part of the museum was the location of a whaler agent in the second half of the 18th century. I get in touch with them about it, describing my interests and what I do. They are interested in talking to me about my work and a possible project on their whaling collection. And so, in May 2021, I find myself on another road trip to Fife. This time it feels ridiculously exotic. I’d only left Norfolk, the county I live in, a few of times over the previous year and here I am visiting whole other country!

Baffin Bay

Baffin Bay

I was particularly interested in the two 19th century log books they hold. One was from 1830, the infamous ‘Baffin Fair’ Season. In 1830 bad weather sank 19 whale ships and damaged many more in the Baffin Bay whaling grounds. Few lives were lost, but with around 1000 men camping on the ice with the alcohol supplies rescued from the ships a party atmosphere soon ensued which came to be known as The Baffin Fair.

The log books, along with the new whaling display now located in the old whaling building gave me an opportunity to make some work contrasting the two whaling grounds; the earlier Greenland Fisheries, near Spitsbergen, and the Davis Strait/Baffin Bay Whaling grounds. Over the course of a very hot summer of 2022 two hanging textile pieces slowly developed, full of layered content, some obvious and some only of meaning to me. A chance purchase of a remnant bag containing some grey checked gingham made me think of graphs and I also made two hand embroidered graphs (I was also aware that our grant application to Scotland’s Year of Stories had included the phrase ‘exquisite embroideries’ and I wanted to make sure that there was some decent sewing in the exhibition!).

Overhaul

Overhaul

For various reasons these four pieces were only finished a week or so before the exhibition opened. The weekend before I had to travel up to Scotland to install and attend the opening I was searching for something in my work room and I came across a pile of assorted fabric that I had screen printed with a hand drawn version of a well-known illustration of the Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jnr’s whaleship Esk being hauled over onto the ice by the crew and other sailors to repair the hull. I had meant to do something with this image of ship repair and men camped on the ice to help tell the story of the 1830 season (though the Scoresby image was from an earlier ship repair). The black print on a Wedgewood blue fabric caught my eye and I wondered if I had time to make something of it. And I did, just. White and black fabric paint brought out the snow and shadows, some black freehand machine embroidery strengthened some of the printed lines and it was finished.

I had a bit of a last-minute panic about how big the space I had to fill and how much work I had for the exhibition. As I was pulling out an existing framed textile work for delivery for another exhibition on my way back from Fife I picked three works that had been made for The Arctic Whaling Year exhibition in Dundee in 2018-19. Victualling (featuring the Dundee Docks), Calling At Shetland and Sealing. I am very glad I did. We found a great place to hang them (and thanks to the volunteers at the museum who did an excellent job of hanging the work in a very challenging building). They added to the stories we were telling, based very much in Scotland and the museums and archives that hold the documents and objects linked to this period of Scotland’s history.

ReCover, Commemorative Harpoon Cover

I don’t drink, so I can’t blame this project on a drunk DM, just a moment of madness!

Hi, I hope all is as good as can be expected with you at the moment.  I have a possibly daft question for you.  What would your reaction be to a suggestion that I want to make a big, embroidered cover for the big harpoon gun and use it to commemorate/ remember the south Atlantic whales and whalers, possibly installed to coincide with other related events?  It’s just a germ of an idea at the moment, but I keep seeing images of mounted harpoon guns covered to protect them from the weather.  If you don’t think it’s bonkers, I’ll have a longer thought and email you something a bit more considered.

Detail of sewing text panel for ReCover

Detail of sewing text panel for ReCover

That was in July 2021.

Charlotte Connelly, the Curator of the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge replied favourably, and almost a year later I’ve just finished making the commemorative tarpaulin (now titled ReCover) to the Museum. It ended up being a 2 x 3m dark green tarpaulin, pleasingly I was able to source one that was the right size commercially (from a chain of DIY superstores).  I added some brass eyelets to the black plastic ones already on it and sewed 12 panels of light grey tarpaulin with images of South Atlantic whales and whaling.

ReCover, commemorative harpoon cover at Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge. Front

ReCover, commemorative harpoon cover at Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge. Front

The panels are

  • The outline of the island of South Georgia, the base for South Atlantic Whaling
  • Four species of hunted whale; Blue, Sei, Fin, Humpback (I have been fortunate enough to have seen all four species in the wild).  The images of the whales are ones I have used in previous works, most notably Cetology, 2017.
  • Three images of whaling; two whale catchers and a harpooner at his gun. One of the catcher images and the harpooner are inspired by two 1927 Ogden cigarette cards from a set on whaling which I own.
  • 4 small panels depicting groups of krill.  The main source of food for the whales.

    ReCover, commemorative harpoon cover at Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, back

    ReCover, commemorative harpoon cover at Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, back

And the rope which gathers and secures the tarpaulin around the harpoon, that has a story too.  In July 2017 I was fortunate enough to have a research residency at Bressay Lighthouse on Bressay Island, Shetland.  I wanted to explore the Arctic Whaling archive at the Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick.  I was particularly interested because they had some amazing accounts from Hay and Co, a whaler agent based in Lerwick.  It took a couple of days before the penny dropped and I realised that the Hay Dock where the museum was situated was the same Hay.  One of the archivists told me that the BuildBase builders’ merchants on the short cut between the museum and the Coop where I did my food shopping was a descendant of that whaler agent.  I bought a pair of workman’s gloves and some sisal rope there, reflecting on the supplies that the old whaler agent had sold to the whalers.  It felt like a direct link to the Arctic Whaling I had been researching.  The receipt even had Hay and Co on it.  That is the rope I used to secure the cover.

Detail of sewing panels onto tarpaulin for ReCover

Detail of sewing panels onto tarpaulin for ReCover

The Utility of Whales

It feels a little strange writing this. In my work plan for Scoresby’s Arctic (long before the exhibition even had that title) high on my to do list for just before the exhibition was due to open in May 2020 was the task of writing a blog about the one large textile panel that I was making specially for the exhibition. Whilst its creation (which had been a challenge) was still fresh in my mind I would describe how I came to be making a reproduction of a mid-nineteenth century Victorian poster in textile, fabric paint and hand embroidery.

It is Spring 2022 as I write this. The Covid delayed Scoresby’s Arctic opened at Whitby Museum in October 2020, for a week, before it had to close due to new Covid restrictions. Thankfully the Museum decided to restage it in the second half of 2022. And so I am now writing this just before the exhibition is going to open at the end of May 2022. The making of this work now feels like a distant memory from another time. It was completing it during the first lockdown and I was very glad at the time that I had work to do that kept me busy at home.

In the exhibition this is the second framed piece of mine that you come across in the Scoresby’s Arctic exhibition. It’s above a display cabinet that contains a corset with whalebone stays some baleen and a harpoon. The original Victorian poster has the title Graphic Illustrations of Animals, Shewing their Utility to Man, In their services during life and uses after death. The Whale. My piece’s title is The Utility of Whales, but I think of it as Utility for short.

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

Utility of Whales. Fabric paint and embroidery

When I first visited Whitby Museum, particularly the Scoresby Gallery, I was delighted to find so many artefacts associated with the Whitby Whaler I had learned about through the pages of Herman Melville’s whaling classic Moby-Dick. One disappointment was the reproduction of a poster about why we hunted whales. It was an A3 laser printed copy that had been laminated so the colour was bleeding, but the subject matter was fascinating and told a lot of the story of whaling in a concise and visually attractive way.

Sampling and making the Utility For Food Panel

Sampling and making the Utility For Food Panel

A series of images illustrated the uses of the products from whales; baleen in umbrellas (the Victorian sensibilities didn’t allow for an illustration of corsets!), candles and lighthouses for the oil used in lighting, a somewhat uncomfortable image of representations of indigenous arctic dwellers cooking whale meat.

The two central images showed whale hunting and one of the smaller imaged was of a dead whale being processed next to a whale ship. So I decided I’d make a textile version of it (and secretly hope that the Museum might buy it to display in the gallery).

For Whalebone - Umbrellas (and Corsets)

For Whalebone – Umbrellas (and Corsets)

The work was made in a series of panels, one for each image and the title across the top (I changed the layout slightly to put all of the original text at the top). This would make assembly easier, as I was not confident of my sewing-things-together-neatly skills. After making a number of testers and samples I transferred line drawings of each of the panels writing the accompanying text in lightfast ink (too small to sew) directly on to the unbleached calico I was using and worked systematically through them, starting with fabric paint. The decision to do them separately paid off when the lid of a jar of paint I was shaking came off and flew across one of the drawn panels. Luckily I only had to redraw it (and clean up the mess, and buy a new pot of fabric paint).

Sewing Utility's title

Sewing Utility’s title

To add some interest and texture to the painted panels I added hand embroidery to each panel. The panel showing waste products being used as manure being shovelled off a cart was fun to do and I had to expand my collection of embroidery threads buy buying all sorts of brown colours that I had not needed previously.  For the large title I somewhat foolishly decided to use satin stitch (tight parallel stiches) which was a real test for my still quite basic hand embroidery skills. It took ages, but the effect when it was finished was worth the effort.

When all of the panels were finished I sewed them together in sections and assembled the whole thing. It took a few goes of unpicking repining and resewing to get it (mostly) right. My framer did a fantastic job and the final piece looked great, and it was a really useful addition to the exhibition as being a beautiful thing in its own right.

And my plan worked, Whitby Museum did buy it!

The completed Utility panels sewn together showing the embroidered details

The completed Utility panels sewn together showing the embroidered details

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!