Map of North America by Herman Moll, circa 1712 (DUF292:2/2)
One of the really special things about working in a historical museum, like NMM, is the way that collections can focus your attention in different ways. We have so many items and objects on display here that I am yet to look at in great depth. This is in spite of the fact that I have walked through the galleries almost every day for the last three years. This week my attention was drawn to this map. It is something that I have never stopped at before – even though it is on one of my regular routes through the museum.
Our next exhibition, as part of the ‘New Visions’ programme of contemporary art, will be with the artist Renée Green, opening in January next year. Renée is currently developing a newly commissioned artwork that will explore ideas of islands, focusing in particular on the islands of Manhattan, Majorca and California. Yes, California. Today we understand this location as a state, but for many years westerners viewed this area of land as an island. Renée is based in New York and San Francisco and this week she visited London to start working on the installation of her new exhibition. On Friday, while we were wandering around the galleries, she espied a map on display in our ‘Atlantic Worlds’ exhibition that clearly describes California as an island. This map of North America was published around 1712 by the Dutch map publisher and engraver Herman Moll (1654-1732). Moll moved to London in 1678, where he became one of the most prominent map publishers in the country.
The myth of California being an island is difficult to trace, especially as earlier maps than this show it as a peninsula. For around one hundred years it became an island – perhaps the characteristic fog of San Francisco created the idea. However, in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict that put a stop to this idea, declaring California as part of the mainland, and soon after it became firmly documented as a part of the larger continent. In Moll’s map here, the strait described as ‘Gulf of California or Red Sea’ separates California from the mainland – a place where New Mexico is bordered by the mysterious ‘Parts Unknown’.
Maps are inherently metaphorical as they cannot accurately represent or duplicate any place – they are fictions requiring interpretation. These maps in our collection, which we now know to be erroneous, are endlessly fascinating as they reveal belief systems from another time. These uncertainties are always interesting, indeed Lawrence Weiner, an artist who worked with us in 2007, has described the artist as a voyager who explores uncertainty and then tells others about it. This map makes me wonder how I might understand California – the Sunshine State that has filled so many fictions, films and pop songs – in a different way were it to be freed from its surrounding land.
Disappearance at Sea by Tacita Dean
NMM has been commissioning contemporary art since 1999. Our New Visions programme was initiated to celebrate the launch of Neptune Court, a major architectural project crowned by the Upper Deck, a mezzanine gallery covered by an impressive glass roof. Running around the edge of this space is a handrail and, if you look carefully, the trace of one of our earliest artist commissions can be seen and felt. Carved into the wooden rail are the words ‘it is the mercy’ – a statement forming part of Tacita Dean’s series of artworks Disappearance at Sea.
A number of references weave their way through Dean’s project as she explores the ways in which we develop fictions to fill spaces when objects, reference points and even people disappear. ‘It is the mercy’ directly refers to the story of Donald Crowhurst. An amateur sailor, Crowhurst attempted to solo circumnavigate the globe in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe around the world yacht race in the 41-foot trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. At the time the vessel was untested for such a journey and Crowhurst planned to develop innovative additional safety equipment. As he rushed to leave from Teignmouth in Devon on the last permissible day for the race, his inventions were still incomplete and he intended to finish them on the journey. A businessman, Crowhurst had everything to lose by entering the race – not only were all of his funds invested in the project, but he also hoped that his safety innovations would bring his future success.
Right from the start his radio reports of his position were ambiguous. Over the next few months his readings placed him at the front of the race. In July 1969 he broke off radio contact and disappeared. Two weeks later his boat was found. His log books showed complex fictions of his own journey that eventually reached the point where Crowhurst himself could not untangle his own fiction from fact. Alongside these entries were ruminations on the fate of man, with his final entry stating: ‘It is the mercy’.
This ambiguous statement refers not only to the poignant tale of Crowhurst, but also to the power of the sea itself. Methods of predicting the sea’s unpredictability have fuelled the development of navigational aides, from the invention of longitude to GPS systems, while the failures to tame the sea fill literature. The incredible power of this simple evocation by Dean lies in its call for us to engage with the sea as a space that stretches far beyond our control, knowledge and imagination.
‘Limehouse, 1859′ by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (PAF5482)
On hot August days as I cycle home from the National Maritime Museum there is a secret ‘beach’ along the river in Limehouse where I sometimes stop off. Of course it is not a beach in the same sense as the locations that we will see in NMM’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Beside the Seaside’, but somehow it still works. You can watch the boats moving up and down the Thames, see the waves lapping at the shore and, at low tide, comb the edges for all kinds of things that have been washed up.
In the Museum we have a really wonderful etching of Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). American born, French trained and British based, the painter’s legacy can be seen throughout the history of art, making this a very special part of our collections. This etching is one of five currently on show in the ‘Art and the Sea’ display and is from a series of 16 etchings that were published in 1871, 12 years after the artist made the plate.
Whistler moved to Wapping in 1859 and created a number of paintings and etchings of working class maritime London. Then the area was characterised by the incredible smell that emanated from the Thames. Victorian society associated such smells as symptoms of a perceived lack of morals of the area. Whistler, however, had a more detached view as he sought to capture a sense of modern life, for him encapsulated by the working river Thames in London. From his base in Wapping, the artist captured a fast disappearing way of life as the river embankment was developed.
In the background of this etching two buildings can be seen – one marked with the name ‘Frederick Vin and Co, Rope and Sailmakers’ and the other ‘Smith and Son, Hermitage Coal Wharf.’ The viewpoint is at standing eye level, which draws you right into the scene. In the foreground a man is depicted on a boat carrying cargo, looking back to tall masts fading off to the horizon. There is a real sense of immediacy in Whistler’s Thames prints, making them quite different from his better-known paintings of the area. Although the activities of Limehouse that I will cycle past later today are very different from those Whistler reveals, the beach where I pause for thought is unmistakeably the same place.
Celestial table globe (GLB0095)
On the Upper Deck there is one object that never ceases to catch my eye. Look for item no. 50 – a celestial globe (GLB0095) displayed a little higher than the other objects in one of the long showcases.
Made of copper, the surface of the globe has stars punched through its surface. If you look closely, the sphere is engraved with figures from the zodiac. It consists of two hemispheres connected through the first points of Gemini and Sagittarius, while the equator and ecliptic are graduated. The cartography is Latin. The tropics are labelled but not drawn. This sphere was intended to sit on a table. A candle was placed inside, which projected light out from the centre of the globe, creating a miniature planetarium that charted the skies above. Although far humbler than our planetarium here in Greenwich, the effect would still be capable of taking your breath away. However, since becoming an object in a museum, the globe operates in the very opposite way. The stars no longer project outwards – instead the light shines inwards through the star perforations, drawing our attention into the object.
One of the many fascinating things about mapping the stars is the ways that human beings have attempted to make sense of what goes beyond the limits of our understanding. Celestial spheres encapsulate belief systems. In this example, predicated on the systems of the universe described by Ptolemy, mythical beasts create a network for stars. This sphere is not an original; it is an early copy made after Caspar Vopel (1511-1561) and is thought to have been made some time after 1546. Vopel was a German mathematics teacher, scholar and master craftsman, making his objects ideal for the amateur to copy. Although the names and styles of the depicted constellations are identical to the original, this is a rougher version with some misspellings and incorrect labelling.
I am endlessly intrigued by the way that this object puts the notion of accuracy second place to craft. These failings draw attention to the ways that, as our knowledge of the universe increases, notions of ‘truth’ can become superseded by new understandings of the world – a process that privileges matters of concern over matters of fact. This study of material cultures is the very way in which the collections of the National Maritime Museum challenge and ask questions of the assumptions that we use to understand our place in the world.
Each month, the NMM will be showcasing an object from the collection of the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This month’s object is a fascinating broadsheet from the Museum’s collection of prints and drawings which comprises more than 60,000 items.
‘Perfect representation and description of an engagement between de Ruyter and Albemarle during the Four Days’ Battle, 1-4 June 1666′ by Cornelis Grave [engraver] (PAH7599)
In June, ‘Turmoil and Tranquillity’ opens in the Queen’s House. The exhibition will explore the sea through the eyes of Dutch and Flemish masters 1550-1700. There is, though, another work on display at NMM from this period that constantly fascinates me.
On display in the ‘Art and the Sea’ galleries you will find a broadsheet from 1666 which is attributed to an anonymous Dutch engraver and is boastfully titled ‘Perfect representation and description of an engagement between de Ruyter and Albemarle during the Four Days’ Battle, 1-4 June 1666′. Just like contemporary newspapers, the broadsheet has a headline, an image and a story which sets out to communicate information to those with a stake and interest in commerce, politics and power. Whilst, the image predates photography as we understand it today – that came some two centuries later – here we have a representation of an actual event in progress. Ships in full sail stretch back to the horizon, rescue boats make their escape, some vessels can be seen sinking beneath the waves, and plumes of smoke are interwoven into a sky punctuated by clouds. It is as if we, as viewers, are sitting right in the centre of the battle.
The title of this etching makes great claims – can it really be a ‘perfect representation’ of the event? Whilst this print uses the grammar that we associate with photography, it is an artist’s impression of the event rather than an image showing the reality of it. When photography was first developed it was described as the pencil of nature and regarded as capable of capturing a ‘truth’. Nowadays, we are wise to such claims of a perfect description – just like this etching, all representations and descriptions are partial and constructed. Today, this work has so much relevance in spite of its technology and depiction of another time. Like so many items in the National Maritime Museum’s collection, it communicates not just a representation of the world around us but, also, asks questions of how we construct and understand our place in it – a concern that constantly sits in the present.