Reach for the sky
Four years ago when BHS went into administration and the Hull store – one of the largest in the chain – closed its doors for the last time, Esther Johnson knew she had to act quickly. An artist and filmmaker and professor of film and media arts at Sheffield Hallam University, Hull-born Johnson had long been an admirer of the Alan Boyson Three Ships mural which adorned the front of the building and she feared that it would soon come under threat. So she set up Ships in the Sky, an arts and social history project looking at the important role public art plays in forging a local identity.
It is a project very close to Johnson’s heart. “The Three Ships mosaic was pivotal for me as a kid – it is one of the things that made me want to study art,” she says. “It also acted as a springboard for my dad, who is from a long line of seafarers, to tell me about his experiences of going to sea. We used to sit in Fletchers café, which was just opposite, eating fried egg sandwiches on a Sunday and he would tell me his stories.”
The 66x64 ft concrete curved screen with an inset mosaic mural comprises over a million individual glass tiles and depicts three semi-abstract trawlers with masts spelling ‘Hull’. Unveiled in 1963, fronting a brand new Co-op superstore, it is a powerful, eye-catching artwork evoking civic pride in the city’s fishing fleet and long seafaring history. It certainly responded to the Co-op’s original brief to “unite the community through art” celebrating Hull’s maritime heritage in a uniquely inclusive way, both forward-looking and mindful of the past.
“I am interested in what makes a place and how people connect with the built environment,” says Johnson. “I see the mural as a very optimistic image pointing to the future. For me and a lot of other people in Hull it is also the biggest, most striking and visible thing that connects the city to the sea.”
The building itself was designed by architect E P Andrew, a boyhood friend of Boyson’s who commissioned the artist to create artworks that would connect with the people of Hull. There are actually three of Boyson’s works sited in the building – Three Ships over the entrance, The Fish in a corridor which due to the building’s deterioration is now visible from the street and another in the domed ballroom. This third artwork, a sponge-print tile mural, was re-discovered thanks to the Ships in the Sky project and an interview that Johnson conducted with Andrew. “While we were talking he was showing me all his architectural drawings and plans from that time and found another mural he had forgotten about.”
Johnson has also been involved in the campaign to get the Three Ships heritage listed – the initial bid made in 2016 was rejected but after appeal it was awarded Grade II listing by Historic England last November which will hopefully help save it from demolition. When themural was commissioned, the aim was to delight and inspire. “It certainly inspired me,” says Johnson. “It was there for a long time before I was born and is an enduring image for me of home. I will be heartbroken if it goes.”
For more about the project visit shipsinthesky.weebly.com