a social history arts project by Esther Johnson

Years: 2018–2020

Further information on the SHIPS in the SKY project, contributor call-out, timelines, galleries and campaign can be found here:





This project is funded by James Reckitt Library Trust with the support of: Hull Culture and Leisure,  Untold Hull at Hull Libraries; Hull Trinity Old Boys’ Association: and the Art and Design Research Centre Sheffield Hallam University

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 a film, oral history, and exhibition project.

This research looks at the social history of the Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store in Hull City Centre, and the exterior Three Ships mosaic mural designed by Alan Boyson for the store in 1963 – at 66 ft. x 64 ft. one of the largest pieces of public art in the UK. In 1961 Boyson made a smaller interior Fish Mural placed in a corridor near the fourth floor Skyline Ballroom and an abstract sponge printed tile mural in the Skyline bar, which was discovered by Christopher Marsden after his involvement in this project.

The life of this building has moved from the Co-operative Society, 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 how buildings and public art can be crucial for civic place and memory-making. For instance, the Three Ships mural has an explicit connection to Hull’s fishing and maritime heritage. The project looks at the effects of the Co-op building and the Three Ships on geographical and historical local identity and peoples’ navigation of the unique public realm of Hull City Centre – from memories of Co-Op and BHS store shoppers and employees, to construction workers, and recollections of gigs in the buildings Skyline Ballroom, later Bailey’s nightclub and then Romeo’s & Juliet’s.



SHIPS in the SKY Oral History Masterclass for Absolutely Cultured Volunteers, Hull Central Library, Albion Street Hull HU1 3TF, 14.06.19 14:00

SHIPS in the SKY progress event Hull Central Library, Albion Street Hull HU1 3TF, 27.02.19 18:00 booking here

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


Johnson, E. (2019) ‘Hull’s Ships in the Sky’, in Tribune May, 2019

Johnson, E., Bird, L. (2018) ‘Building Ships in the Sky’, in The Modernist issue 27, high, summer 2018, pp.54–57


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