We Three Go South

Artist May Trubuhovich’s new work We Three Go South was inspired by the story of three sisters and their journey around Aotearoa’s Subantarctic Islands on SS Hinemoa in 1890. One sister—Ethel Richardson—kept a diary of their antics. During the making process, museum intern Emily Nicholson talked with the artist.

By Emily Nicholson | 13 October 2021

In 1890, the Richardson sisters, Fannie (23), Ethel (21), and Lillie (19), embarked on a six-week-long journey on the government steamship Hinemoa. Their father, George Richardson (1837-1909), was Minister of Lands at the time. During the voyage, Hinemoa, with a primary purpose of servicing lighthouses and looking for castaways, visited the Subantarctic Islands. Ethel sketched and wrote about their adventures, many real and some imagined. She also collected specimens and keepsakes along the way. In 2014, Ethel’s great-niece, Cynthia Cass published We Three Go South: The 1890 Diary of Ethel Richardson's Trip to the Sub-Antarctic. After Ian Arbuthnott lent Ethel’s diary and sketchbook to the museum, Auckland artist, May Trubuhovich, was commissioned to create an artwork inspired by Ethel’s story.

May’s intricate textile works are created by combining hand embroidery and painterly elements.  Differing from her previous work, this project tells another person’s story, set in a very different time.

‘I wanted to capture the free-spiritedness of [Ethel’s] tiny ink sketches and paintings, which are so full of wonderfully detailed observations and humorous editorial notes,” she says. 

After selecting key subjects from Ethel’s diary and researching geography, flora, and fauna to ensure accuracy, May began working on her cotton table runner. A highlight, she says, was studying images of animals, particularly the albatross chicks.

‘I took several of the original sketches as a starting point for my drawings, incorporating my online research into the flora and fauna of the islands the sisters visited. I pinned my drawings onto the fabric to finalise the layout, and then worked on one section of the design at a time, transferring my drawings using a water-erasable pen. When I had embroidered all of the main elements in black thread, I added colour with acrylic ink, and then finalised the details with more embroidery.’

At various points in the making process, May used Photoshop to help visualise the entire piece in colour, using the programme to test the light and dark balance before directly applying ink. This was a risky stage of the making process as ink cannot be erased. May gradually applied layers of ink to achieve the desired depth of colour. She selected a deep cyan blue as the shade contains limited red/magenta, the resulting blacky-greeny notes evoke the cold that Ethel describes in her diary.

In her 1890’s sketchbook, Ethel uses few fast but precisely placed lines to create clear representations of wildlife, scenery, herself and sisters, adding life and humour to her illustrations. May notes that while Ethel’s sketches translate well into needlework, it’s difficult in a large-scale piece, such as a table runner, to create a loose feel. ‘Stitching a big line that looks like it has been done quickly actually takes a long time. To achieve the sketchy look you need to be true to the scribbles; this is hard to replicate if you are trying too hard.’

Visitors to the New Zealand Maritime Museum can see the artwork We Three Go South, and the diary of Ethel Richardson on display from November 2021.

A Postscript: After her voyage to the cold, Ethel worked as a draftswoman for the Department of Lands and Survey, illustrated books, and, in later life made a living selling her watercolour and oil paintings through the Hermitage Hotel, Aoraki Mount Cook.

 

References:

Cass, Cynthia. We Three Go South, The 1890 Diary of Ethel Richardson's trip to the Sub-Antarctic. Phantom House Books, 2014

National Library. Hinemoa (Ship : 1876-1944). Retrieved from: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22353176 

National Library. Richardson, Ethel, 1869-1946. Retrieved from: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22467198

National Library. Richardson, George Frederick, 1837-1909. Retrieved from: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22352900

‘Obituary. The Hon. G. F. Richardson.’ Evening post, Volume LXXXVIII, Issue 99, 23 October 1909, Page 5.