The Holderness Whale: Exhibition at Burton Constable

BCBT01-300x203I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.

Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.

The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.

See more of Caroline’s work at

Talks on Scrimshaw and Herman Melville in Liverpool

Talks on Scrimshaw and Herman Melville in Liverpool

Free talks on scrimshaw and on Herman Melville’s time in Liverpool are featured on the Moby Dick on the Mersey website. These are part of the marathon reading weekend May 4th-6th.

White Whales and Wooden Ships

Gregory Peck bites off more than he can chew

There is a great story over at Wired about the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale somewhere in the Pacific. This is the story that partly inspired Melville to write Moby Dick a book everyone should read at least once. Melville of course was a seaman on several whale ships and stories like this would have circulated among his fellow crewmembers. One of the best things about Moby Dick is the way Melville blends the mechanics and science of whaling and whales with their mythic power. The real story of the Essex is fantastical in itself, but Melville’s novel turns the whale into a force beyond nature. From the article:

The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.

As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.

The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.

Here’s the link to the story, which comes with an excellent slideshow entitled ‘The Creatures That Ate Hollywood’.

Here’s my take on Melville’s novel.

Whale Night

The BBC magazine has a piece by Philip Hoare about Moby Dick and the modern plight of whales. Moby Dick is probably my favourite novel, a cross between encyclopedia and adventure story. Like the whale its size is intimidating and its meaning elusive, but it is also funny, self-deprecating, and in the end, extremely gripping. The BBC article is really a trail for an Arena documentary about Melville’s novel, to air in the UK on September 20th, and for the wonderfully titled ‘Whale Night’ on the 21st:

Meville’s sprawling, idiosyncratic novel, published in 1851, was extraordinarily forward-looking. The book used the whaling industry as an allegory of imperial power. Melville configured the crazed Captain Ahab – who goes in pursuit of the eerie White Whale which scythed off his leg, determined to wreak his revenge – as a symbol of obsessive evil.

Only a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, “Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time.”

Such madness is seen as one which endangers the hunter more than it does his prey. After all, as anyone who had made it to the end of Melville’s long and digressive novel knows, it is the whale that wins.

And 150 years ago, Melville addressed the immortality of the whale in a chapter entitled Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?

I can’t help but agree with what Hoare says about the novel. My own take on it is here, while a rather lovely and beautifully-designed annotated edition of the book is available online here.