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Peter, Tim and other fishermen on the Stade 1975-77 - Laetitia Yhap.

A fishy tale

Laetitia Yhap is very well known among Hastings townsfolk as a chronicler in pictures of Hastings fisherfolk, but anyone who has ever sung in a choir here is likely to know her for her predilection to sing. Her latest project to sing with the Herring Girls choir in a drama with music called Get Up And Tie Your Fingers is another way to chronicle the lives of fisherfolk and has caused her to reflect on the part sea fishing has played in her life.

© Laetitia Yhap - The Boat 1987, in Hastings Museum and Art Gallery collection.

Get Up And Tie Your Fingers is a slightly unwieldy title, but it is the call which went out to the Scottish ‘lassies’ to hurry them to their work gutting, packing and salting the massive herring catches of the nineteenth century from Scotland along the East Coast to Great Yarmouth. In this moving telling of the major role women played in the industry, 19 of us comprise the choir Herring Girls. We have been working with Carol Prior since February.

Paul Carrying Robin Huss Accompanied by His Dog Saxon 1979/80 in the Towner collection © Laetitia Yhap.

“I had a London childhood but I remember seeing the sea for the first time at Margate when I was about five. Later on, I remember a geography lesson during which some diagrams were shown to us, maybe even drawn in chalk on a blackboard. For some reason they made an impression on me; they depicted the different techniques of drift and trawl netting. It would have been the early fifties so this kind of fishing was by then beginning to decline.

“From 1963 until 1967 I lived for some of the time in Lowestoft and was made aware of the fact that the town still had a fishing industry. The lads who had come ashore for 48 hours after being on the trawlers for 10 days wore specially made suits in bright colours with very flared trousers.

Michael Balling Up Old Net 1984 © Laetitia Yhap in the Tate collection

“I came to live in Hastings in 1967. The fishing fleet here was then in its heyday, having recovered from the depredations of the war, and from the early 70’s I witnessed and painted it as the scene altered and adapted, but also sadly diminished before me.

“Most recently I have visited Great Yarmouth, which by the 19th century was the major fishing port on the East Coast, in order to see a performance of Get Up And Tie Your Fingers. The town has two museums in what were the old smokehouses, where the pungent smell still lingers in the air. They contain a remarkable archive of photos and objects which tell the history of what was once a major industry.

“Hastings has some historic connections with Great Yarmouth, and our fishermen evidently still have rights to a drying ground there on the beach. In earlier times the fish were followed up the East coast from Hastings and a few fishermen married into the community.Their surnames can still be found there.”

Laetitia is very pleased to tell us that one of her most iconic paintings of fishermen has now found what is likely to be a permanent place of honour in the foyer of the Stade Hall. She shares a few thoughts with us about this work (see image at top) which has a special place in her heart.

Peter, Tim and other fishermen on the Stade 1975-77 used to hang in the Fishermen’s Museum where it could barely be seen. This is its correct title. It belongs to Hastings Borough and was originally hung in Summerfields when the building was new…

“This painting began life as a squared-up large drawing composed from many drawings and sketches. It represents a turning point for me as an artist. At that time everything here was new to me and to understand what was going on, I came here daily to make drawings on the spot, while things were going on around me. I did not use a camera.

Paul Helping His Brother Doug, and Scoby, Will.and Saxon 1980/81 © Laetitia Yhap in the Brighton and Hove Art Galleries collection

“After about 18 months I had accumulated a mass of material and since I had seen the seasons out, I was feeling the need to try and make a more definitive statement. Originally the work was much wider, to be experienced in a way as a scroll or the Bayeux tapestry; In fact I used to roll it up and take it to London to work on while I was there, however, as it developed over time I had to cut off about four feet and this became a separate work.

“I had been using oil pastels to draw with and this medium could be thinned with turpentine to become paint. From the beginning I had decided to work in monochrome as I did not want the distraction of colour. Many artists and photographers have been attracted to the fishing scene here on the Stade but for me its aesthetic value was not the driving force.

“Very early on I grasped that here was a remarkable self organised community of people, voluntarily working and living with patterns determined by nature in the largest sense; every day a fresh challenge to be met with resilience and optimism. The possibility of this life was inherited generation after generation but always has to be chosen in the full knowledge of what it entails. It is a truly heroic life and long may it remain a possibility for those who have the strength of purpose to live it.”

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers (aka Follow the Herring) – Written by Ann Coburn : Vocal Score by Karen Wimhurst, sung by the Herring Girls, led by Carol PriorTwo FREE performances on The Stade, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3FJ  at 7.30pm, Thursday 31 July and Friday 1 August. This is a 2-hour performance so you will need chairs, blankets and something in a flask!

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Posted 19:31 Monday, Jul 21, 2014 In: Performance

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