Over 200 hundred years ago in 1794, Ralph Beilby, engraver and business partner of Thomas Bewick presented to the Literary & Philosophical Society a letter describing a creature never seen before by science washed ashore off the North East coast. The original letter including a colourful description and an extraordinary watercolour of the fish resides in the Lit. & Phil. archives to this day.

In commemoration of the discovery and in celebration of the spirit of the Lit. & Phil. a life-sized version of the Ribbon Fish was proposed and commissioned for the underside of the 24ft “Long Table”.

The fish portrayed in the artwork lives in the deep, mesopelagic zone of the ocean or so called twilight zone and as such the only time we usually see these fish is when they are washed ashore after some great catastrophe. The fish is etched on to the bones of the Lit and Phil in imitation of zoological illustration such as those found in the Lit and Phil archives and the underside of the table itself mimics the structure of specimen display cases.

The fish under the table can only be seen by physically climbing under the table. Once underneath an individual audience member is in immediate proximity to the artwork at a distance of less than two feet and yet at the same time is unable to view the entire fish from any single position. The fish appears intensely close and at one and the same time retains its mystery in many ways like the real-life Ribbon Fish in its natural habitat. The artwork under the table is in many ways the opposite of a pop art image being neither transient, expendable nor overtly attention grabbing. Instead the artwork is a slow-burning open secret that, like the books in the Lit & Phil itself, rewards engagement in equal measure with the intention of creating a feeling of awe and a sense of discovery.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Felicia-Knox
Photo courtesy of Dawn Felicia-Knox
The original letter to the Society by Ralph Beilby