‘Ships in the Sky’ – an oral history, film and exhibition project


Project summary

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”                 

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden    

‘Ships in the Sky’ is an oral history, film and exhibition project that celebrates the social history of Hull’s former central flagship Co-Operative Society store built after its predecessor was bombed in 1941. The store later became BHS and now lies abandoned in the city centre.

The project also looks at the ‘Three Ships’ mural – a curved concrete 66 x 64 ft screen depicting three stylised trawlers that spell ‘HULL’ in the masts and bears the motto ‘prosper through industry’. Commissioned by the Co-op in 1963 to adorn the front of the building, it comprises 4,224 foot square slabs set with Italian glass tesserae; the spectacular result is a mosaic encompassing 1,061,775 individual cubes that is regarded as the largest mosaic in the UK. The Co-Op’s public art brief was to “unite the community through art” and to “celebrate Hull’s maritime heritage” both statements being at the heart of the ‘Ships in the Sky’ project.

“Growing up in Hull, this unmissable piece of public art was formative in my love of modernism and wanting to study art. My Dad comes from a long line of trawler-men, and during our weekly trip for fried egg sandwiches to Fletchers opposite, he’d tell me tales of his first trawler trip at the age of 12 to Murmansk and beyond the Arctic Circle. Aside from an avid fondness for Boyson’s graphic modernist aesthetic, I associate the Three Ships with stories of fantastical voyages that began in Hull, and as a metaphor for where life might lead me; its destruction would break my heart.” – Esther Johnson (artist/filmmaker)

Oral histories are being collected to record the memories of Co-Op and BHS store shoppers and employees; architects and designers; local and national opinions on the building; memories of club-going in the various incarnations of the nightclub at the top of the building. Central themes include a look at the Hull fishing and maritime heritage connection and whether people believe the mural is important in terms of geographical and historical local identity. There will also be attention to the effects of this remarkable piece of public art on peoples’ navigation and memories of the unique public realm of Hull City Centre.

https://threeshipsmural.weebly.com         @shipsinthesky63

Project Support

The first phase of this project is funded by James Reckitt Library Trust with the support of Hull Culture and Leisure, Hull Central Libraries; Hull Trinity Old Boys’ Association and the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.

Artist Biography

Esther Johnson (MA Royal College of Art) is an artist and filmmaker working at the intersection of artist moving image and documentary. Project themes include social histories, heritage, regeneration, and exploration of architectural vernaculars and the inhabited environment. Johnson is Professor of Film and Media Arts in the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. http://blanchepictures.com

Project duration 24 months


Have co-authored (with Leigh Bird) an article for The Modernist magazine:                                                                      



Other outputs: https://shipsinthesky.weebly.com

The project has just started but the following is planned:

– series of oral history interviews that will be added to ‘Untold Hull’ collection – travelling exhibition around Hull Libraries and other community venues – an artist film – a Hull Modernist Architecture tour – a Hull Modernist Architecture app – Final project exhibition – Symposium – Printed summary of project.

Contact details

Esther Johnson, Professor of Film and Media Arts

Sheffield Hallam University, Harmer 2418b, Sheffield, S1 1WB

Telephone:07866 586 248

Email: esther.johnson@blanchepictures.com