Fish + Ships x Culture ÷ Northern Grit = HULL

 readings of Philip Larkin’s, ‘The North Ship’
Readings of Philip Larkin’s, ‘The North Ship’.

Hull-born artist, Esther Johnson, has designed two T-shirts and a bag to celebrate the city’s entwined maritime and cultural legacy whilst raising money for foodbank organisations across the UK. Reece Shearsmith and five other Hull writers are supporting the ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ T-shirt fundraising endeavour, which has the slogan:

Fish + Ships x Culture ÷ Northern Grit = HULL

Film maker, Esther Johnson, edited lockdown readings of Philip Larkin’s ‘The North Ship’ from Vicky Foster, John Godber OBE, Jennifer Hodgson, Reece Shearsmith, Matthew Sweet and Dean Wilson into a short film. The film celebrates Alan Boyson’s iconic image and highlights ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ project’s charity collaboration with ‘1 of 100’ (known for partnerships with musicians, artists and DJ’s).

Reece Shearsmith said: “No one should face poverty and hunger alone. Trussell Trust and FareShare help make a massive difference to people who, for whatever reason, now need help from their local food bank. In a fair world we wouldn’t need food banks, but they provide an invaluable and dignified life line and we should all do what we can to help support them.”

Johnson’s evolving arts and social history project, ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ is garnering an increasing local and national reputation, and centres around Hull’s empty former Co-op/BHS building featuring Alan Boyson’s ‘Three Ships’ mural – the UK’s largest mosaic with over a million tesserae, commissioned by the Co-op in 1963 – as it’s emblem, and now the design for her T-shirt.

Hull-born author and broadcaster, Matthew Sweet, said of the mural: “The Three Ships have been moored in Hull all my life. They’re a symbol of the city, and a symbol of modernity. But it’s not a simple, sunny image – if you’re from Hull you know that those ships suggest the possibility of danger and risk as well as prosperity.”

Ships in the Sky Tees and Tote
The T-shirt comes in two designs, Boyson’s Blue (on a white or grey tee), inspired by the mural itself and
Alan Boyson’s original artwork. The Nightclub Neon (on a black tee) is based on the neon sign outside
the building’s last nightclub, Romeo’s and Juliet’s. Both T-shirts have Esther Johnson’s favourite Boyson
Fish, from the Fish mural on the back.

Esther gifted her drawings of the ‘Three Ships’, and her favourite fish from Boyson’s ‘Fish’ mural – also in the building – to adorn two designs of an organic cotton, climate neutral T-shirt and a tote bag. ‘1 of 100’ are donating 30% of their profits to two national foodbank organisations.

Esther explained: “When Richie asked me to collaborate, it provided a brilliant opportunity to help folks in Hull and across the UK”.

The Trussell Trust have three branches in Hull – one close to the ‘Three Ships’ on neighbouring Waltham Street, and FareShare have a Hull and Humber branch, which in turn supports other charities like Lucy Beaumont’s brilliant Backpack Buddies.

Esther continued: “The film and T-shirt imagery celebrates our city’s rich culture and history, and Larkin’s adventuring, and hopeful poem, The North Ship, is one of my favourite poems of his and so fitting for our current times. Our six writers each put their individual stamp on reciting and filming the poem. I hope it does a really good job of spreading the word.”

Richie Hume of ‘1 of 100’ continued: “I’ve been following Esther’s arts project and also the mural preservation campaign, and I’ve been itching to collaborate – the Three Ships is such a strong, proud, resonant image. The men of Hull were still risking life and limb to put food on the nation’s tables when the mosaic was finished in 1963. Esther’s two designs take inspiration from the mural and original artwork by Boyson and also the neon sign from the last nightclub in the building, Romeo’s & Juliet’s.”

May is an important month for the ‘under threat’ mosaic; the original Co-op on the site was bombed in the May 1941 Hull Blitz. The Grade II Listing appeal for the ‘Three Ships’ was made in May 2016 and finally granted in November 2019. The protracted campaign involved an open letter, put together in just under 48 hours, signed by 238 prominent local and national arts professionals.

Following listing, Hull City Council are conducting further tests to address presumptions about asbestos contamination in the mural, and also have the offer of free advice from three independent experts.

The Philip Larkin Society, who are are featuring the film in an upcoming podcast and newsletter, commented: “Our tweets about Larkin’s early poem, The North Ship, often make the connection between the content of the poem and the remarkable ‘Three Ships’ mural. Although Larkin’s poem was written well before he arrived in Hull, there is a striking connection between the two. The Philip Larkin Society is thrilled that ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ have chosen this poem to underpin their project and have found such wonderful writers to record an original reading. One of the ‘The North Ship’s’ themes is about taking the difficult path in life, and the HULL HERITAGE ACTION GROUP campaign to preserve this piece of public art has been an enormous challenge. The Philip Larkin Society is very proud to be able to support all involved.”

Alan Boyson’s son, Matt, said: “It’s difficult to know what Alan would have thought about the current reaction to his work in Hull because he neither spoke much about his work nor his feelings towards it. However, he did have very clear ideas about art and these he readily expressed and I think he would have to admit that one thing that art can do is create a sense of community belonging. This is what the Three Ships in Hull seems to have done and what better way to pay tribute to him, the mural, and the community than to let his artwork play a part in helping others through donations to the Trussell Trust and FareShare, from sales of T-shirts featuring his work.”

Esther concluded: “It’s a sad testament of our times that food banks are necessary. I’ve volunteered and donated to food banks and seen the direct difference that food donations can make. There are folk up and down the country working hard to help others in more need than themselves and I hope the film and charity ‘SHIPS in the SKY’ T-shirt and tote are able to help too.”

Find out more about the T-shirts, tote, film and project at: or

[Leigh Bird – Ships in the Sky project]

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