I have been to visit The North East Maritime Trust which was set up ten years ago by a group of dedicated enthusiasts to rescue and renovate old wooden boats. Situated on the south bank of the River Tyne at South Shields the Trust owns the only two surviving traditional boatyards on the river. I have been asked to put together an exhibition for the Customs House Gallery which is a short walk away up river, just past the Tyne Ferry landing, and I am proposing to make work about boat building, hopefully in collaboration with Trust volunteers. I will also be working with filmmaker Cat Hardwick on a video piece for the installation. The exhibition is due to open in the summer of 2016.
All of the work at the yard is carried out by a team of volunteers who bring their own skills to the process whilst picking up new knowledge along the way. There is a fantastic ethos of trial and error in the workshop where problems are solved through experimentation and innovation, all adding to an ancient tradition dating back centuries. Many of the techniques used to re-construct the fishing cobles and foy boats by the team are little different to those used by Anglo-Saxon and Norse boat builders who would have worked on this same spot 1500 years ago.
The trusts major project at the moment is the complete overhaul of the old Tynemouth Lifeboat, the Henry Frederick Swan, which was launched in 1917 and remained in service until the late 1940’s. The boat was rescued in a dilapidated condition and has been painstakingly restored with plans to relaunch it in 2017. It fills the workshop with its glorious curves.
It has been a while since I published an update about the project. I’ve been very busy with other work, but over the past couple of months I have been able to make a start on ideas for the exhibition. The gallery is large and beautiful. You enter into a low ceilinged tunnel of a room which quickly opens out into a high and airy space with magnificent views across the river. Any work will be complemented by the regular passage of ships and boats.
My first thought was to make work which in some way reflects this maritime environment and to make more depositional drawings like the pieces I produced as a part of the Leverhulme Residency at Durham University, this time using sea coal as a pigment. Sea coal is still washed up on North Eastern beaches, black pebbles mined by the tides.
Whilst using technical drawing templates and French Curves I came across ‘Copenhagen Ship Curves’ on the internet, wooden templates traditionally used by shipwrights and boat designers to plan the fiendishly difficult curving lines of their vessels. I like the fact that they are ‘Copenhagen’ curves, suggesting North Sea shipping lanes and trade with Scandinavian neighbours.
It would appear that there are well over 100, although I have only been able to track down around 50 different shapes. The patterns must have developed over the centuries as craftsmen experimented with the most effective curves to suit their boats. A German company still manufactures high-tech plastic versions but I have decided to jigsaw my own from mdf and use them to make the drawings.
I have also been looking into the building of submarines and discovered that quite a number were launched on the Tyne during the First and Second World Wars. Subs have always been referred to as ‘boats’ rather than ‘ships’ and their sleek profiles and sinister reputations are strangely appealing. Little wonder that, to this day submarines still fly the Jolly Rodger.
Sub on the Tyne – a WWII submarine launched from the Armstrong-Whitworth yard.
I met with Derek Young who used to work for Vickers Armstrong, now BEA Systems, based in Barrow in Cumbria where they have been building submarines for well over 100 years and where they are now developing the new generation of nuclear strike boats. He told me that in the early 1960’s, when the yard had been given the task of building Britain’s very first nuclear powered submarine, they began by constructing a full scale model in wood – a nuclear wooden boat! In the days before computer modelling this was done to enable the technicians to work out by trial and error where to run pipes and cabling before having to reproduce the machine in hard, unyielding steel.
This has given me the idea of making a 3 dimensional wooden boat template, a boat-like form which will be suspended in the centre of the gallery from a keel or spine. It will be laser cut from 10 sheets of 1200 x 2400 mm of mdf, a series of 60 concentric elliptical flats assembled to suggest the flowing lines of a boat’s hull, or maybe a whale’s ribcage.
I am also planning to show a number of submarine cast pieces, made using sea coal and coal ash bound with gum arabic. 3D watercolours – Substratas.
Work has been progressing with the manufacturing of Hull Template. The designs are now with the company who will be doing the laser cutting and, with the help of Dave from the boatyard, I have worked out the mechanics for hanging the structure from a horizontal spine or keel. I hope it works?
I have been out and about this month, in Gosport at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum on the south coast at Gosport, and visiting the archaeological dig on Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast. Some of the material that I gathered at the submarine museum will feed into Boat Curves and form the basis of a new exhibition for the Old Low Light heritage and cultural centre on North Shields Fish Quay (see Sub-Marine)
The Lindisfarne dig builds upon the exploratory work carried out on the island by Durham University archaeologist Dave Petts who I met whilst on the Leverhulme residency. Although the ruins of the medieval abbey are well known, any trace of the older Anglo-Saxon monastery, home to St. Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels, has remained elusive. Dave’s geophysical survey of the site showed evidence of earlier buildings and unidentified features and this year, Digventures raised the cash through crowd funding to dig three exploratory trenches.
The dig found exciting evidence of Anglo-Saxon occupation, including an inscribed grave stone and a bone comb, and the team intend to return with a follow up project next year. I’m hoping to get involved at some stage.
I took the opportunity to examine the famous boat sheds on the beach at Lindisfarne harbour, a chance to study the beautiful curves of these antique boats which have been turned upside down and made into fishermen’s shelters. Most are covered in layers of roofing felt and bitumen to keep the wet out, peeling fish skins over wooden ribs. In the background of the bottom photograph you can just make out the site of the dig in the shadow of the abby ruins.