As an artist who makes work about British Arctic Whaling, Hull Maritime Museum is an important source of ideas and inspiration. For many years when you entered the whaling gallery at Hull Maritime Museums it triggered a recording of whaler songs by the Hull folk group The Spare Hands.
On purchasing the CD from the gift shop I discovered a wonderful treasure trove of songs. One particular song, The Greenland Whale Fishery, inspired me to make some handmade fabric books. Earlier this year I was invited to be part of an event at Hull involving a screening of a documentary Travelling for a Living about the Hull Folk group the Watersons this felt like a good time to revisit the song and make something more dynamic.
In my previous work I had made more transfer-dyed panels than got used in the pieces I made. Two of these square panels were the starting point for this new piece as they loosely illustrated activity described in the song. I set about designing other panels, drawing on my existing collection of arctic whaling imagery, favouring things from the collections at the Maritime Museum.
My work often includes maps and I wanted to include one showing where the whaling activity happened. Amongst my photos I found images of an 1865 arctic map which I could use as the basis for a hand drawn version.
At this time big bits of Greenland were not properly mapped, the North Pole was still an uncharted mystery and, as the map came down as far as England, I could easily show Hull on it. I also wanted to include the verses of the song.
It’s a fairly famous folk song and so it exists in a variety of forms. The one I knew best was the Spare Hands version, but a quick internet search produced half a dozen more (including the Watersons’ version). They varied in length from six to twelve verses. As I was going to hand-embroider the words I thought I’d use a six verse one as my base but ensure that I included the events in the song that went with the images I was using. The six verses took about 40 hours to hand-embroider. If I had realised how long it would have taken I’m not sure I would have started!
The design went through various stage from a cube to the final collapsible rectangular box. I used a large piece of felt as a base/inner core. I bought the felt from Boyes on my trip to Hull to install the pop-up exhibition that was also part of the event. In addition to the felt I used stiff interfacing under the fabric panels to ensure it would stand up.
Apart from the two transfer-dyed panels; one showing whale boats being lowered and the other a whale capsizing one of these boats, I used fabric paint, textile marker pens, hand and machine embroidery to complete the designs of the panels.
I was pleased that I was able to incorporate some of my favourite images from the Whaling Gallery at the Maritime Museum; the Hull whaling ship the Truelove from a commemorative ceramic dish, the whaleboats and davits from a ship model, borders inspired by scrimshaw patterns and reports on whaling activity, and whales inspired by the illustrations in Whitby Whaler William Scoresby’s 1820 book An Account of the Arctic Regions.
The Ditty Box (well, what else could I call it!) was made as an experiment in 3d construction and as I’ve not made anything this complicated before I am quite pleased with how it turned out.
I am very grateful to the staff of Hull Maritime and the Charismatic Encounters project at Leeds University for inviting me to be part of Whale Week, which included my talk and Q&A at the Fishing for a Whale event at the Ferens Art Gallery.