Leading illustrator captures Hartlepool’s folklore as you’ve never seen it before

Published Wednesday, 14th June 2023

A nationally-renowned illustrator’s take on aspects of historic Hartlepool folklore will be displayed in a unique exhibition to coincide with the town hosting the Tall Ships Races this summer.

Jonny Hannah boasts a portfolio that includes work for various clients such as Penguin books, the New York Times and a collection of Royal Mail stamps.

Now the 52-year-old from Dunfermline, living in Southampton, has produced some extraordinary paintings and prints having discovered some of Hartlepool’s strangest and quirkiest stories as part of the Shipbuilders and Fisherfolk exhibition.

His findings from chatting with locals for the last year will be on show from June 24 right through until November at the Museum of Hartlepool and Hartlepool Art Gallery, having been commissioned to highlight Hartlepool’s maritime history. Expect the unexpected.

“When I set foot in Hartlepool for the first time last June I knew nothing other than the hanging the monkey story,” said Jonny. “I thought ‘there’s lots to explore’.

“What else can I do? I have this thing about urban folk, hearing about little incidents, little urban myths, that may or may not be true. Folklore doesn’t haven’t to be true – that’s the beauty of it.

“Every community, every city, every town, even if it’s just a few houses, have got their own sense of identity, their own stories. I thought ‘how can I explore Hartlepool?’”

Jonny handed out booklets during festivals held in the town last year including the Wintertide Festival, organised by BloominArt. He handed over free prints of his work in exchange for stories that might help his research into the area.

He has stayed in Seaton Carew, central Hartlepool and the Headland, drinking and mixing with locals in places such as the Smallcrafts, the Cosmopolitan and the Athenaeum, and heard fantastic tales – many of which will be reflected in his work.  

Like Captain Cutless, a teddy boy leader of the Turquoise Gang, who went to London to meet up with the Krays. Or did they? Another tale is that they got turned back by police at Kings Cross.

Or the intriguing Fish Annie (Simpson) - the woman who sold fish from her pram at the Headland who passed away in the 70s – who Jonny heard all about from local painter, and author, Ian Lightfoot.

Jonny Hannah

Jonny Hannah working on the Shipbuilders and Fisherfolk exhibition in his Hartlepool studio. Picture: Chris Booth

Jonny said: “The monkey is clearly an interesting one too of course. There seems to be a general feeling it might never have happened. Was the monkey a powder monkey? A young boy that was hanged instead? That gets quite dark. It was fun to explore.

“There are some incredible stories. When I hear of a character, I tend not to try to paint them, so rather than drawing Cutless’s face, I will draw his beetle crusher footwear, I am a big fan of clothes.

“The same goes for Fish Annie. Rather than attempt her, my work is simply a pram stuffed full of fish, its bonkers really. My job is to symbolise them in a very symbolic manner.

“I am trying not to be patronising, I try to be sympathetic to the subject. I am Scotsman working in the north and living in the south; I am conscious of going into a different community and people thinking I know everything, I don’t.”

When Jonny has been told interesting tales, he makes a “quick scribble” before then figuring out how he can make it part of an exhibition. To have his work on show for a five-month period that takes in the Tall Ships Races is an honour.

He said: “It is nice to know people will come from all over the place, not just from Teesside, to the Tall Ships, so hopefully my work will attract a wider audience too.

“I have always joked I wanted to be a sailor but I wouldn’t last two minutes because I can’t tie knots very well! The fantasy is there though so as an illustrator it is nice to be part of the prestigious four-day event.”

Jonny is planning to be at the Tall Ships Races for the first two days on July 6 and July 7. He will also be back in Hartlepool on September 15 with his band, The Postmen, when they play at the Smallcrafts.

And during a visit to the Fisherman’s Arms, he has created three labels for the local Crafty Monkey Brewing Company in exchange for beer – one of those is the aptly named Shipbuilders and Fisherfolk Amber Ale.

To celebrate the Shipbuilders and Fisherfolk exhibition, launching from June 24 at the Museum of Hartlepool and Hartlepool Art Gallery, Jonny is running quizzes on his Twitter and Instagram channels @youarethefolk.

Entry to the exhibitions is FREE. Hartlepool Art Gallery, in Church Square, is open Tuesdays to Saturdays 10am – 5pm and the Museum of Hartlepool is open 10am – 5pm daily.

* For regular updates about the Tall Ships Races Hartlepool from July 6–9 check out www.tallshipshartlepool2023.co.uk