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Audio Description of Whaling by Clare Leighton
This circular ceramic plate measures ten and a half inches in diameter. A one-inch white lip defines the edge of the plate and runs along it’s full circumference. The slightly concave center of the plate contains a photolithograph depicting the whaling trade. Because the photolithograph is based on a woodcut engraving, the image appears in stark black and white with detail emerging from crosshatching and shading. However, as light catches the plate, portions of the photolithograph reflect an opalescent sheen when viewed directly.

At the center of the plate, six figures sit on a sailboat laboring with backs arched. This single-sailed catboat occupies the focal point of the plate with its hull resting three inches from the bottom edge of the plate and its mast extending to the top of the photolithograph. A deep black ink forms a pool that casts the interior of the boat in shadows. Crisp thin lines outline the bow and starboard side of the vessel. Horizonal shading arcs across the exterior of the sail-boat leaving the viewer with the impression that the harsh waves surrounding the boat crash against a wooden frame.

The six figures residing on the boat sit in a line with the last figure standing at the bow of the ship, oar facing downward to the water below. Each of these figures casts their head down, the heavy ink obscuring any features save for the faint outlines of thick coats, bucket hats, and oars in hand. Unfurled west, the sail of the boat catches wind depicted with shading of the cloth’s gradual curvature.

Framed by the steep curve of the sail, the flukes of a whale’s tail erupt out of the sea in the plate’s top left region. Resembling the tumultuous seafoam waves accosting the boat, fine linework details the waves that envelope and obscure the rest of the whale’s body. At the top right region of the plate, a different ship is depicted receding into the horizon with two square rigged masts. Slightly below this ship resembling a brig, a thick horizontal black line contrasts with the lighter shading of the water to give the form of a whale’s head. An arc of waterspouts from the tip of the whale’s head, the rest of it’s body hidden beneath the waves of the ocean.
Resting along the curvature of the bottom of the plate, a menagerie of sailing equipment cradles the scene. From the left a thick anchor shines with the gleam of metal as thin harpoons lay across its surface. Next an entangled mass of rope and tackle snakes across the bottom of the plate with the thick knots of rope looping around systems of pulleys, buoys and rigging. Finally, at the right, two smaller black anchors bookend the design.

On the back of the plate a descriptive statement about the whaling trade resides in the center. It States: WHALING: The great whaling days of the past, with the fleets of whaling vessels pulling into Nantucket, Salem and New Bedford, form one of the most important aspects of New England’s growth. As early as 1712 Nantucket had embarked upon the whaling trade. By 1846 sperm-whaling had reached its zenith, with many hundreds of ships bringing a rich cargo into the New England ports from Maine and Connecticut.

Below this paragraph in large Block font it reads: NEW ENGLAND INDUSTRIES from WOOD ENGRAVIGNS BY CLARE LEIGHTON with the signature of the artist.

I taste a salt dash from this savory dish. I see an oval platter depicting a ship and two boats in pursuit of a pod of three sperm whales.

The wind in the mainsail of the central boat has driven it upon the back of a whale without the help of the oars of the slouching five sailors aboard. The alert harpooner is preparing to plunge his lance into the whale’s vitals.

The plate is transected by a greater artistic arrow that guides the eye to move with the ship from the steering oar aft, arcing around the gunwales, to point at the aiming hand of this killer à implicating the viewer in the murder.

In contrast to the surging swirls of this sea-scene is the still life at the foot of the plate – a static assemblage of ship tackle and harpoons. But serve the plate the wrong way and they may fall headlong into the swelling surf where no anchor could take hold!

I wonder what other New England dishes are being served at the repast of Clare Leighton’s Wedgwood “dinner party”?

“Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked – though the hell-fire in which the whole book is boiled might not unreasonable have cooked it all ere this.” Herman Melville on Moby-Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

Timothy Marr is professor of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and serves as Director of the Faculty Fellows Program at UNC-Chapel Hill Institute for Arts and Humanities.

Clare Leighton, American, born in England, 1898-1989, Whaling, c. 1949-50, photolithograph on ceramic, 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (26.7 x 26.7 cm). Bequest of Charles and Isabel Eaton, 2009.31.92, © 1989 David R. Leighton.

Acquired in 2009, this work has been a part of almost my entire professional tenure at the Ackland, and whenever I look at it, I see a study in contradictions, a reflection of the sorts of thorny issues that make viewing art again and again so endlessly fascinating. These ambiguities and ambivalences came especially to the fore as we chose to feature this plate in a Close Looks year crafted around considering Humans and the Environment.

First and foremost, I see the force of change that time can impart on a viewer’s reception of an artwork. Originally crafted as the first in a series celebrating “New England’s Basic Industries, Harvests of Land and Sea,” Leighton’s plate designs celebrate the labor of rural communities as foundational to regional history and character. The scene on the plate itself shows the might of the sea’s waves crashing against the efforts of a small boat of whalers, all of whom are located behind the foreground of sharply menacing nautical instruments. To me, it seems the emphasis is entirely on the danger to humankind in the endeavor; it features none of the critique of commercial whaling’s animal and environmental impacts to which I am so accustomed and that now dominates much of twenty-first century discourse.

I also see an object that has been dismissed as a relatively minor work within the Ackland’s ceramics collection, due to its associations with being mass-produced by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, Inc. In fact, for Close Looks, there was a strong desire to prioritize only a hand-worked ceramic within the collection, as it

seemed more authentically made, albeit from the same basic processes that draw from the earth. Because mechanized processes can seem to replace the “hands of the artist,” we have a temptation to view them as being overly easy creative echoes, a stark contrast to the two full years of her career that Leighton devoted to researching and creating this project. The ease of access afforded by a wide commercial release can also be elided into an assumption that the produced objects were “easy” to make, thus obscuring the sheer degree of technological achievements that Wedgwood and others had to develop through the centuries to successfully establish a procedure that could permanently transfer the delicate design of a wood engraving print to the surface of a sturdy creamware coupe. Ironically, to create a series of plates intended to depict timeless labors, it required the industrialized age.

And lastly, I see an object that tries to portray itself as stubbornly regional despite a number of geographical influences. Leighton, herself a transplant from England, was actually approached by Wedgwood to create a series of plates while she was still living in Chapel Hill and working at Duke University. And one of the first places to display the New England Industries in exhibition after they premiered in late 1952, despite her newfound northeast residence? The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lauren Turner is the Associate Curator for Contemporary Art and Special Projects at the Ackland Art Museum

  • Look closely at the images on the plate. How has the artist used the elements of line, shape, space, and texture in this scene?
  • Consider the different roles that nature and humans have in this work of art. How are the figures interacting with the weather, water, and animal life in this scene? What are the ways nature impacts human activity?
  • Many coastal area communities depend on water as a source of income. What types of industries might this include? What are the benefits and challenges of each industry and how might they impact the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems?
  • Imagine that you are one of the figures in the whaling boat. What might it feel like in the open ocean? What sights and sounds do you notice around you? What does it smell like or even taste like?
  • Reflect on an experience that you may have had in a canoe, boat, or ship. Was the water calm or rough? What was it like to be surrounded by water? What types of preparations did you have to make for your journey?
  • This plate is part of a series of twelve depicting traditional New England industries. Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, a manufacturer of fine china and porcelain, commissioned Leighton to create the engravings to be printed on a limited edition set of plates. Learn more about Wedgwood pottery.
  • Leighton’s woodcut engravings were added to the porcelain plates using a transfer printing process. Learn more about the transfer printing process and watch a demonstration.
  • Learn more about the artist Clare Leighton.
  • Whaling is illegal in most countries, however Iceland, Norway, and Japan still engage in whaling. Read about whaling in current news from the The Guardian and CNN.
  • Experience an Ackland F.A.M. about “Fishes and Dishes, Plates and Plants” inspired by Clare Leighton’s Whaling plate on Sunday, April 24 from 1-5 p.m.