An Arctic Adventure of Whales and Ice: ‘Scoresby’s Arctic’ at Whitby Museum

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All words by Sophia Nicolov. This post is part of the Charismatic Encounters research project. Header image of a bowhead whale illustrated by Scoresby Junior in ‘An Account of the Arctic Regions’ (1820).

The ‘Scoresby’s Arctic’ exhibition is on at Whitby Museum until Sunday 4th December 2022.

There could be no more apt place to hold an exhibition about William Scoresby Junior (1789–1857) than in Whitby, the old whaling town in North Yorkshire from where the famous whaling captain sailed to the Arctic. The Victorian-era Whitby Museum is hosting Scoresby’s Arctic, an exploration of Scoresby Junior’s whaling and scientific expeditions to the Arctic. It has been co-curated by Fiona Barnard, the Museum’s Scoresby Curator, and Caroline Hack, an artist inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and British Arctic whaling, and the Museum’s artist in residence.

Caroline Hack, The Whaling Grounds

The exhibition brings original Scoresby artefacts and other historical objects from the archive together with contemporary artworks and photographs by Caroline Hack. It explores the whaling captain’s expeditions and scientific discoveries in the Arctic, including climatology, oceanography, zoology and botany. The curators bring out the tension between scientific endeavour and whaling; one was facilitated by the other. Or, as the exhibition puts it, ‘scientific work was paid for by whaling’.

The lucrative trade in whales financed Scoresby Junior’s other work, and the exhibition traces the studies and findings from snowflakes, plankton and whale physiology to water pressure, magnetism and sea temperature. Whaling in the Northern Fishery around Greenland was economically advantageous, funding exploration that was ultimately part of a broader British imperial project in the Arctic.

Caroline Hack traced Scoresby’s illustrations
of snowflakes overlaid onto perspex. On display as part of the exhibition at Whitby Museum.
Scoresby Junior’s study of plankton in An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), p. 610.

Scoresby Junior was the son of another famous whaling captain, William Scoresby Senior, who was employed in Greenland whaling from the closing decades of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century. Scoresby Senior was the most successful of Whitby’s whalers, passing the tradition on to his son.

Yorkshire had a thriving whaling industry between the 1750s and 1850s, with Whitby participating until the 1830s. Whaling ships from Whitby and Hull would venture to Arctic Greenland to hunt bowhead whales or Balaena mysticetus (often referred to as the ‘Greenland right whale’). Scoresby Junior was involved in whaling from a young age, joining as an apprentice on his father’s whaling ships as a young teen and eventually becoming captain of his father’s ship, Resolution. The Scoresbys were at the heart of Whitby’s whaling trade. The younger Scoresby would become a successful whaling captain in his own right, distinguished for his feats of navigation and science.

‘Hydrological Chart of the Arctic Regions’ drawn by Scoresby Junior. Published in An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), p. 581.

The 17 seasons of expeditions to the Arctic culminated in Scoresby Junior’s most well-known work, An Account of the Arctic Regions; with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery (1820). Published in two volumes, it draws together the scientific findings and descriptions of Arctic animals and whaling. Graham Huggan has called it ‘the most comprehensive study of its time’. It is an influential whaling account, coming to shape ideas about nineteenth-century whaling from the past to the present day.

The book is also one of the main prompts for the exhibition, and a first edition copy and the original manuscript of Volume 1 are on display. The exhibition was originally due to be held in 2020, marking the bicentenary of the book’s publication, but it was delayed because of the pandemic, eventually opening in May of this year. Alongside An Account of the Arctic Regions, there are several of Scoresby’s unpublished maps and illustrations on display to the public for the first time, including a watercolour of a bowhead whale eyeball.

‘Baleana mysticetus, or Common Whale’, a bowhead whale (commonly known as the Greenland right whale), illustrated by Scoresby Junior in An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) p. 602.

At the same time, the curators maintain an interplay between the historical and contemporary throughout. For example, Hack’s vivid textile work The Utility of Whales is positioned by a case containing a nineteenth-century harpoon and a corset made from baleen (also known as whalebone), a lucrative product harvested from bowhead whales along with their blubber for oil and wax. Bowhead whales were hunted to near-extinction around Greenland by whalers from Europe, including those from Yorkshire like the Scoresbys.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Scoresby’s drawings of mountains in Spitzbergen (now spelt Spitsbergen) are set against Caroline Hack’s photographs of the same ranges taken on more recent trips. Scoresby described how the region had ‘Numerous examples of the sublime’, with ‘stupendous hills rising by steep acclivities from the very margin of the ocean to an immense height; its surface, contrasting native protruding dark-coloured rocks, with the burden of purest snow and magnificent ices’ (vol 1, p. 94). We can recognise his description in Hack’s photographs, which she has also transformed into a textile piece on display, The Three Crowns, her depiction of the Three Crowns drawn by Scoresby.

Caroline Hack’s photograph of the Three Crowns, Svalbard, 2012.
Scoresby Junior’s illustrations of mountains in Spitzbergen, including the Three Crowns. An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), p. 584.

Caroline Hack’s textile artworks are a lynchpin between past and present in the exhibition. They draw the visitor in from the beginning, with bold imagery, layered references and rich colours in which history is sewn. They are compelling and accessible modes of storytelling, appealing to both the specialist and those encountering Scoresby or whaling for the first time. The Whaling Grounds, the first artwork upon entering, features a traditional navigational map, mountains from Scoresby’s drawings and Hack’s photographs, and evokes nineteenth-century whaling paintings, with a scene lifted from John Ward of Hull’s The Northern Whale Fishery: The ‘Swan’ and ‘Isabella’, (c. 1840).

John Ward of Hull, The Northern Whale Fishery: The ‘Swan’ and ‘Isabella’, c. 1840, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

At the bottom of Hack’s textile panel, underneath the ice, is the figure of a lone bowhead whale. It reminds us of the animal that sat at the heart of this industry and financed scientific voyages, enriched individuals and powered societies in Yorkshire and beyond. But the focus of the exhibition in Whitby is by no means the whales hunted and the violence of the industry, even though, as Graham Huggan has emphasised, Scoresby Junior did acknowledge the beauty of these animals and the human-on-animal violence that took place in the Arctic realm. Instead, it captures the fact that whaling formed just one part of Scoresby Junior’s ambitions and, more widely, that Arctic whaling was the driving part of a whole network of profit and trade, exploration and scientific activities, that went beyond whales and whaling.

Whale figure from Caroline Hack’s The Whaling Grounds.

Further reading

Jack Dykes, Yorkshire’s Whaling Days (Dalesman Publishing Company, 1980)

Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009)

Graham Huggan, Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The cetacean quartet (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018)

Gordon Jackson, The British Whaling Trade (Adam and Charles Black, 1978)

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (1851)

William Scoresby Jr., An Account of the Arctic Regions: With a History and Description of the Northern Whale-fishery (A. Constable & Company, 1820), 2 vols

George Young, A Picture of Whitby and its Environs (Horne and Richardson, 1840)

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