a film and oral history project by Esther Johnson

Year: 2018

Further information on the Ships in the Sky project, contributor call-out, campaign, and a building timeline can be found here:




This project is supported by the Art and Design Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, Hull Trinity Old Boy’s Association, and Hull Culture and Leisure

Work in Progress

“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 artist moving image project that looks at the social history of one of the UKs largest pieces of public art, Three Ships designed by Alan Boyson in 1963 for the Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store in Hull City Centre. The life of the locally listed Three Ships has moved from a Co-op store, to a British Home Stores, to the building canopy acting as shelter for the homeless, to now being empty and awaiting redevelopment with hoardings that proclaim, ‘A Prime Opportunity in the Heart of the City’.

“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 seafaring folk, and during our weekly trip for fried egg sandwiches from Fletchers [a local deli] opposite the mural, 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

The central theme of Ships in the Sky looks at the explicit mural connection to Hull’s fishing and maritime heritage and whether people believe the mural is important in terms of geographical and historical local identity. The work looks at the effects of this remarkable piece of public art on peoples’ navigation and memories of the unique public realm of Hull City Centre – from memories of Co-Op and BHS store shoppers and employees, to recollections of gigs in the buildings fourth floor Skyline Ballroom (e.g. Cosey Fanni Tutti has recounted her memory of seeing Jimi Hendrix there).


Modernist Society Leeds launch event at Colours May Vary Leeds, 24.10.18 18:00 booking here


Johnson, E., Bird, L. (2018) ‘Building Ships in the Sky’, in The Modernist issue 27, high, summer 2018, pp.tbc in press


Save Two, Get One Free by Neil Mudd, Culture Vulture, 20.09.18
A third forgotten mural… by Angus Young , Hull Daily Mail, 19.09.18
I Saw Three Ships… by Neil Mudd, Culture Vulture, 04.09.18
New documentary to tell story of Hull’s iconic co-operative heritage mural by Anca Voinea, Coop News 11.08.18