Tag Archives: Scrimshaw

Introduction to the Art of the American Whale Hunt

After the swinging blankets of dripping blubber were minced and boiled, and the smashed boats were hoisted back on shipboard, with the jagged tooth of Ball’s Pyramid towering three hundred feet out of the far-off Tasman Sea, or the hump of Massafuero Island sitting on the horizon of the South Pacific like an enormous meatloaf, the American whaleman, an inveterate artist, sat down to draw a picture of what he had experienced on the job that day.

Whaleman George A. Gould drew this sperm whaling scene in the journal that he kept while sailing onboard the ship Columbia of Nantucket between 1841 and 1845. It is an exemplary example of whalemen’s artwork showing that most desirable of events; the successful hunting of these valuable animals as shown by the bloody water and spouts. KWM #213, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Whaleman George A. Gould drew this sperm whaling scene in the journal that he kept while sailing onboard the ship Columbia of Nantucket between 1841 and 1845. It is an exemplary example of whalemen’s artwork showing that most desirable of events; the successful hunting of these valuable animals as shown by the bloody water and spouts. KWM #213, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The Yankee whaleman plied his trade on a richly colored blue-water world of sea foam, often rose-tinted through his own making by the bloody spouts of the mortally injured animals it was his employment to pursue. As the whale’s slate-black beetling flukes flailed briefly and frantically through the air, silhouetted against white clouds, he caught it all permanently in his mind’s eye, and put it all down on paper, or in the case of scrimshaw, ivory, or bone. These same colors,the white of the clouds, the deep blue water and pale blue sky, the red of the blood; these same colors he had conveniently at hand, in his kit of watercolor paints, to color his nation’s flag in the background snapping red, white and blue from the mast of his floating home. The whaleman was often a patriot, proud of carrying his nations’ flag onboard his nations’ shipping to the far-flung beaches, bays and harbors of the world’s insulae. His dramas were far from pacific, albeit so often played out across the whaling grounds of Melville’s “mysterious, divine” Pacific Ocean; “Off Shore,” or “On the Line,” or “On Japan,” with his stabbing iron harpoons and lances on the one hand, and the sperm whale’s snapping, toothy jaw, or the sweeping flukes of the right whale on the other; impressive action, no doubt, and worthy of a picture or two.

“December 16th, 1854. At daylight saw a shoal of sperm whales. Lowered all three boats and struck 4 and killed 3.”The above quotation is from the journal of Perry G. Wing of Westport, Massachusetts. He drew the above picture and recorded the successful whaling event in his journal kept onboard the bark Dunbarton of New Bedford, Mass., in 1854.  ODHS #967, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“December 16th, 1854. At daylight saw a shoal of sperm whales. Lowered all three boats and struck 4 and killed 3.”The above quotation is from the journal of Perry G. Wing of Westport, Massachusetts. He drew the above picture and recorded the successful whaling event in his journal kept onboard the bark Dunbarton of New Bedford, Mass., in 1854. ODHS #967, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Not all whalemen drew pictures of what they had seen but enough did to record, better than words can describe, what it meant to hunt these great marine mammals in the decades between 1820 and 1880 when fleet upon fleet of American ships roamed the oceans of the world killing whales for profit. Whaleman Francis Allyn Olmsted (1819-1844) in the preface to his published whaling narrative Incidents of a Whaling Voyage allowed that: “embellishments of this kind are often as essential in forming a correct idea of a scene, as the printed page itself… for a single glance gives a far more vivid idea… than the most elaborate description.” In their vessel’s logbooks and their own personal journals whalemen drew many pictures and after the hunt, engraved even more on the teeth and skeletal bones won of vanquished sperm whales, and upon the limber baleen plates of the equally hard-fought right and bowhead whales and on the snowy tusks of walruses. He occasionally went so far as to paint in oils or pastels, a more peaceable employment once ashore, and one, Robert Walter Weir, even became a professional magazine illustrator after his time in the whale fishery. Others, including Benjamin Russell of New Bedford went on to continue their careers as painters of whaling scenes for the larger public. Russell became famous as the creator of a traveling whaling panorama, a ship portraitist and a printmaker.

“May Friday 8, ’59. At 8 ½ A.M. Joe Kirby raised a school of sperm whales. Run down to them and hauled aback. 1st and 2nd Mate lowered down. The whales perceived us. The Captain lowered away and struck one. The whale stove him. The Mate got the Captain and killed the whale.” The above descriptive text is taken from Charles P. Dewey’s journal kept onboard the bark John Dawson of New Bedford, 1855-1859. It relates to an event that may also have been witnessed by Robert W. Weir (1836-1905), whaleman and professional magazine illustrator who was sailing in the same waters around Madagascar onboard the bark Clara Bell of Mattapoisett at the time and later drew the picture in Dewey’s journal. ODHS 590, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling

“May Friday 8, ’59. At 8 ½ A.M. Joe Kirby raised a school of sperm whales. Run down to them and hauled aback. 1st and 2nd Mate lowered down. The whales perceived us. The Captain lowered away and struck one. The whale stove him. The Mate got the Captain and killed the whale.” The above descriptive text is taken from Charles P. Dewey’s journal kept onboard the bark John Dawson of New Bedford, 1855-1859. It relates to an event that may also have been witnessed by Robert W. Weir (1836-1905), whaleman and professional magazine illustrator who was sailing in the same waters around Madagascar onboard the bark Clara Bell of Mattapoisett at the time and later drew the picture in Dewey’s journal. ODHS 590, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling

No matter the medium, however, when it comes to his artworks there is more to the picture than meets the eye. There was a real story alive behind every piece of whaleman’s art, but those specific stories have seldom been re-told in words or if they ever were, are lost to time. This is due in part to the nature of the pieces. Scrimshaw whaling scenes, vibrantly alive at the time of their making, found their life through the tales of their creators. They were the relics of his experience, gifts perhaps to his shipmates, family or friends, or worthless things made out of necessity to while away the inevitable tedium endemic to the profession, and kept for their private significance maybe only to their maker. As the creators disappeared, often so did their stories, but these engraved objects, with lost intents remain alluring, mostly disassociated from their makers and whatever it was he was trying to convey, and remarkably evocative.

This detailed whaling scene is engraved on a piece of panbone, that is, the skeletal jawbone of a sperm whale. Like many pieces of scrimshaw it is anonymous and in this particular case is possibly British. It shows successful sperm whaling around Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. NBW #2001.100.1226, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

This detailed whaling scene is engraved on a piece of panbone, that is, the skeletal jawbone of a sperm whale. Like many pieces of scrimshaw it is anonymous and in this particular case is possibly British. It shows successful sperm whaling around Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. NBW #2001.100.1226, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

When the artist drew his pictures in a logbook or journal, however, then those stories have the potential for re-creation. Associated text can sometimes provide clues as to why a particular scene or vessel was permanently recorded. Though the mediums of engraved scrimshaw and paper drawings are radically different, the latter can inform the former, because, for all intents and purposes they are the same – one simply has associated text. Except in rare cases where the stories of the pieces can be glimpsed through sometimes rewarding but almost always extensive and time-consuming research, scrimshaw whaling scenes are mute if powerful testaments to the whaler’s life.

As any hunter will tell you, preparation for the moment of action is vital to the success of the hunt. Hunters get themselves into position and then they wait. Similarly, the whaleman’s business as a hunter upon the high seas of animals that spend much of their time submerged, was of a nature that left him a great deal of excess time. As he cruised the whaling grounds, back and forth, day after day, or while making a passage from hunting ground to hunting ground, he often employed himself in recording in his journal the animals that he encountered, the scenes of the hunt, the picturesque sailing ships in the immediate vicinity and the careful outlining of the silhouettes of the often exotic, faraway islands and landfalls that only a world-faring seaman would encounter. As many of these places had seldom been seen by any Westerners at all his observations served the two-fold purpose of satisfying his own curiosity and creating a reference for future navigation. As a mariner in a culture that took commercial navigation very seriously indeed, he was often trained in and lived with a tradition of manuscript illustration. Manuscript maps and recognition drawings of landfalls, carefully and accurately rendered could literally mean life or death, the success or failure of the voyage, and the enabling of the navigation through the trackless oceans of the world.

John Martin of Wilmington, Delaware drew this recognition drawing showing the silhouette of one of the Samoan Island group in the South Pacific. Such drawings allowed mariners to positively identify landfalls at sea. Martin’s illustrated journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann  of Wilmington, 1841-1844 is one of the great illustrated American whaling journals. KWM #434, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

John Martin of Wilmington, Delaware drew this recognition drawing showing the silhouette of one of the Samoan Island group in the South Pacific. Such drawings allowed mariners to positively identify landfalls at sea. Martin’s illustrated journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, 1841-1844 is one of the great illustrated American whaling journals. KWM #434, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The combination of these variables came to serve as deep wells of creativity. That creativity in turn served as an outlet for his feelings of patriotism, his eye-witness to tragedy, his obvious sense of wonder, his esprit de corps and frequently, the specificities of navigation questions. These are the roots of some of the stories told by the art of the American whaleman but there is more to the stories even than this. These are stories of his personal world exploration; they are of the ships that were his home on the deep and the violence that was his calling, considerable bloodshed and incredible natural phenomena. They are tales of loneliness, industry and, doubtless, more than a little bit of romance. Killing a sixty-foot animal with a twelve-foot spear from a thirty-foot boat with a team of five other guys in the midst of the fabled Galapagos Islands, admittedly, has a certain romance.

Pictures drawn by whalemen come from within a rich context and it is their similarities as well as their differences that speak most powerfully to their documentary nature as historical sources. Much can be learned from the comparative study of these illustrations and it is because that, so many of the these pictures, do, in fact, look alike, that historians, teachers and museum interpreters can ascribe some veracity to that which is being pictured. Sperm whales, for instance are often drawn seemingly exaggerated in size. Obviously this is because they are generally very large animals but what is even more telling is that the very largest animals are often drawn or noted. In one case the whaleman captioned his picture of a whaleboat going onto an enormous sperm whale “One of the whales you read of.” Such a statement implies that very large sperm whales were noteworthy and can give clues to modern researchers as to certain aspects of sperm whale biology from an earlier period of first-hand observation. It could also serve to underscore the whaleman’s very real desire to make as much oil as possible, fill their ship, go home and get paid, and additionally it can serve as evidence of some of the more social aspects of a whaleman’s life. When it comes to the study of maritime affairs, where so much of the action takes place far away the experience of most people, the art of the mariner becomes an indispensable interpretive tool and a joy to the enthusiast of vernacular art forms.

Scrimshaw Weekend features opening scrimshaw exhibit, May 11-13

Scrimshaw experts, collectors and fans from around the world will gather for the 23rd Annual Scrimshaw Weekend at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, May 11-13, which features three days of activities including the opening of a new permanent exhibit on Sunday, May 13 at 2:00 p.m. of the world’s largest scrimshaw collection, titled “Scrimshaw: Shipboard Art of the Whalers.”

Scrimshaw removed from storage prior to placement in new Scrimshaw Gallery

The weekend kicks off on Friday, May 11, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. with the third annual Nautical Antiques Show featuring for sale high quality marine antiques including scrimshaw, nautical instruments and tools, whaling logbooks, ship models, photos, paintings, prints, New Bedford memorabilia, and more in the Jacobs Family Gallery. Entry fee to the Nautical Antiques Show only is $5, or free with museum admission or membership.

On Friday evening from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., a cocktail reception in the Dutch Gallery will include a VIP preview of the new scrimshaw exhibit.

On Saturday, May 12, registration begins at 9:00 a.m. with plenary sessions starting at 10:00 a.m., to include, “William Sizer, Scrimshaw Artist: A Comprehensive Review” with John Miklos (Chicago); “The Latest Scrimshavological Forensic Analysis of the Anonymous and Mysterious Mantelpiece Maker,” with Donald C. Boger, M.D. (Los Angeles); “Remarks on Scrimshaw,” with Captain Thomas Conley (Chicago); buffet luncheon in the Jacobs Family Gallery.

Saturday afternoon sessions include “Scrimshaw: The Artist’s Eye,” with Ryan Cooper, scrimshaw artist (Cape Cod); “Market Report” with Andrew Jacobson (Ipswich, Mass.); “The California Penal Code and the California Crackdown,” with James Vaccarino, J.D., Scrimshaw Forensics® team; a panel discussion on the California Crackdown, with  Hon. Paul E. Vardeman, J.D. (Kansas City), Ken Brown (San Francisco), Rod Cardoza (San Diego), Chuck DeLuca (York, Maine and San Rafael, Calif.), Andrew Jacobson, and Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D. (moderator).

At 5:30 p.m., a cash bar will be followed by a banquet dinner at 7:00 p.m. in the Jacobs Family Gallery. The evening’s keynote, titled “Matchmaking” will be presented by Jack H.T. Chang, M.D. (Denver) at 8:00 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater.

On Sunday, May 13 at 10:30 a.m.: A Salute to Don Ridley: “Scrimshaw Fakes, Dangerous and Not So Dangerous,” with Stuart M. Frank in the Cook Memorial Theater; 11:15 a.m., VIP tour and discussion of “Seven Continents, Seven Seas,” with Stuart Frank, Wattles Family Gallery; lunch is on your own.

On Sunday at 2:00 p.m., a new exhibit, “Scrimshaw: Shipboard Art of the Whalers” opens to the public. The largest permanent exhibit of its kind, it coincides with the launch of a major new book on scrimshaw, titled “Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum.” by Stuart M. Frank. Published by David R. Godine, Boston, this definitive 400-page reference to the world’s largest scrimshaw collection includes more than 700 photographs by Richard Donnelly. Dr. Frank will be available to sign copies of the book. Light refreshments will be served.

Registration fee for Scrimshaw Weekend includes admission to the museum, all open galleries, nautical antiques show, all plenary sessions, Scrimshaw VIP Preview, exhibit opening, book launch, all scheduled meals, and refreshments: $370 (museum members $330). Tickets to Saturday’s banquet only: $75 each.

Admission to the Sunday opening of the scrimshaw exhibit and book launch only: regular admission rates apply. In honor of Mother’s Day, mothers are admitted free when accompanied by at least one member of her family.

For more information or to register, please contact visitor services at (508) 997-0046, ext. 100 or email: frontdesk@whalingmuseum.org. For the full schedule of events and program updates, please visit the museum website, www.whalingmuseum.org.

Special hotel room rates are available for Scrimshaw Weekend attendees. Call for details: Fairfield Inn and Suites New Bedford (Tel. 774.634.2000), and Hampton Inn New Bedford/Fairhaven (Tel. 508.990.8500).

The New Bedford Whaling Museum gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Northeast Auctions, LLC of Portsmouth, NH, and the Maine Antique Digest.

 


Scrimshaw Weekend expands with nautical antiques auction, May 13-15

This English watercolor of the ship Iona in its original frame is one of many consigned and donated nautical antiques in the Scrimshaw Weekend's Benefit Auction on May 14 at 8pm, proceeds to benefit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. None of the items are from the Museum's collections. (Photo by Richard Donnelly)

Scrimshaw experts, collectors and fans from around the world have another reason to look forward to the 22nd Annual Scrimshaw Weekend at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, May 13-15. It features three days of new presentations and activities, including a first-ever public auction of consigned nautical antiques on Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater.

The world’s only forum dedicated to the indigenous shipboard art of whalemen, Scrimshaw Weekend attracts enthusiasts from four continents to share the enjoyment of collecting and researching this remarkable artwork at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw.

The weekend kicks off at noon on Friday, May 13 with a Marine Antiques Show and Swap Meet, expanded by popular demand. On Friday evening, the keynote address titled “‘Built’ Scrimshaw: Types, Tools, and Construction Methods” is presented by James Vaccarino, J.D., and Sanford Moss, Ph.D. at 8:00 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater. A full day of special programs devoted to scrimshaw on Saturday will wrap up with a cocktail reception at 5:00 p.m. and gala banquet at 6:00 p.m. The banquet will be followed by a public auction of consigned and donated nautical antiques at 8:00 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater, with proceeds to benefit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Special exhibitions and an optional fieldtrip on Sunday are also planned.

Marine Antiques Show and Swap Meet

On Friday, May 13, from noon to 5:00 p.m., the second annual Marine Antiques and Swap Meet will feature for sale high quality marine antiques including scrimshaw, nautical instruments and tools, whaling logbooks, ship models, photos, paintings, prints, New Bedford memorabilia, and more in the Jacobs Family Gallery. Entry fee for the Antiques Show and Swap Meet only is $5, or free with museum admission or membership.

Scrimshaw Plenary Sessions

On Saturday, May 14, plenary sessions from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. will include, “Care and Feeding: Taking Care of Your Scrimshaw – Expanded,” with Conservator and Curatorial Intern, D. Jordan Berson, M.A., M.L.S.; Scrimshaw Preservation and Conservation Q&A Session; “Pictorial Sources of Scrimshaw in Institutional and Private Collections” with Jack H. T. Chang, M.D.; “Pictorial Sources of Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum,” with Stuart Frank, Ph.D., Senior Curator, NBWM; “Scrimshaw in the McDowell Collection”; “Pirates and Female Pirates on Scrimshaw,” and more.

Sessions will also include a Scrimshaw Market Report and Q&A with marine antiques dealer, Andrew Jacobson; an update on “A Comprehensive Catalogue of Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum,” with James Russell, Museum president; Richard Donnelly, book photographer, and Sara Eisenman, designer; Nautical Antiques Auction overview with Richard Donnelly, and a Collectors’ Show-and-Tell.

Public Auction of Consigned Nautical Antiques

On Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m., guest auctioneer Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions, LLC, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, will preside over the public auction of a wide array of consigned nautical antiques including scrimshaw and whale craft, marine paintings, engravings and lithographs, log books, charts, antique photos, nautical instruments and more in the Cook Memorial Theater. A featured expert on the popular PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, Ron’s career in the antiques business spans four decades. He established Northeast Auctions in 1987, now ranked among the largest auction houses in the United States.

The public auction will consist of consignment and donated items only, with proceeds to benefit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. No items are from the Museum’s collections.

Approximately 150 lots will include many fine examples of scrimshaw, including whales’ teeth, whale bone busks engraved with various subjects, whale bone fids, a whale ivory pie crimper, fine inlaid sewing box from the Nye family, five canes including lady’s leg and fist examples, cribbage board, carved whale’s tooth amulet, lady’s leg pipe tamper, hand & cuff bodkin, whale bone clothes pin, large whale bone carved spoon and more. Auction listings and photos are online at www.auctionzip.com.

Preview of auction items in the Resource Center begins Friday, May 13 from noon to 5:00 p.m. and on Saturday, May 14 from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The public is invited to attend the preview and auction at no charge. Left bids will be accepted. No phone or online bidding. Payment: cash, check and major credit cards accepted. There is a 15% buyer’s premium and Massachusetts sales tax is applicable to buyers without a valid resale certificate.

The fee for Scrimshaw Weekend, including admission to the Museum, all open galleries, Scrimshaw & Marine Antiques Show, scheduled meals, all plenary sessions and refreshments: $335 (Museum members $295) before May 1. After May 1 the fee is $370 (Museum members $330). Tickets to Saturday’s banquet only: $75 each.

On Sunday, May 15, an optional all-day fieldtrip will head to Nantucket Island and its Whaling Museum for a “behind the scenes” tour of its outstanding scrimshaw collection, including the museum’s off-campus storage facility. A special visit to an extraordinary private whaling collection will include a reception hosted by the owners. The bus will leave at 7:30 a.m. from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, returning by 8:00 p.m. The price is $235 and includes luncheon at the famed Jared Coffin House, all motor coach and ferry transportation.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Northeast Auctions, LLC of Portsmouth, NH, and the Maine Antique Digest, who have helped make Scrimshaw Weekend possible year after year.

To register, contact: Visitor Services, (508) 997-0046, ext. 100, or frontdesk@whalingmuseum.org

Overview of Scrimshaw – The Whalers’ Art

Overview of Scrimshaw –
The Whalers’ Art

Definition and Etymology:
These days, “scrimshaw” is taken to refer to all kinds of carving and engraving on ivory, bone, sea shells, antler, and cow horn. However, in its original context as a traditional shipboard pastime of 19th-century mariners, scrimshaw refers to the indigenous, occupationally-rooted art form of the whalers, the defining characteristic of which is use of the hard byproducts of the whale fishery itself – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen (erroneously called whalebone), and skeletal whale bone, often used often in combination with other “found” materials. The origin and etymology of the term scrimshaw is unknown and has been disputed, but various forms of it – such as scrimsshander, skrimshonting, and skrimshank – began to appear in American whalemen’s parlance in the early 19th century. The term originally referred to the production of sailors’ hand-tools and practical implements, such as seam rubbers, fids, belaying pins, and thole pins, mostly made for the ship during working hours; but it soon came to signify objects made by whalemen–and, to a lesser extent, by tars in the naval and merchant services– primarily for their own recreation and amusement, intended mostly as mementos for folks at home.

Materials:
“Hard byproducts” of whaling were flotsam and jetsam of the fishery – parts of the whale that had little or no commercial value and thus could be given over to the sailors for their own pleasurable diversions. Sperm whale teeth could be polished to a high gloss, then engraved with pictures to which lampblack and colored pigments could be applied. Or they could be carved in relief or in full round, to produce sculptural forms, human and animal figures, finials, handles, tools, inlay, and all manner of ornaments for wooden boxes, canes, and other objects.

Likewise walrus ivory. The walrus hunt had been associated with whaling since medieval times, and even where the whalers did not take walrus themselves (as was typically the case in the 19th century), tusks were obtained by barter with Northern peoples in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, and were often utilized to scrimshaw. Virtually anything that could be made of whale ivory could also be crafted from walrus ivory.

The characteristics of whale and walrus ivory are similar. The advantages of sperm whale teeth are (in especially fine specimens) its milky smoothness, homogeneity of texture, breadth, and rich color. However, a length of 20 cm (or 8 inches) is uncommonly large for a sperm whale tooth; 28 cm (11 inches) is just about the record. Walrus tusks, on the other hand, frequently range up to 70 cm (about 27 inches) or longer: they not only provide a larger surface for pictorial engraving, but can be cut and sliced and combined into larger objects or larger ornaments, including the slats for swifts (yarn-winders), shafts and handles for pie crimpers, even the bars and slats for elaborate birdcages.

Baleen is the keratin plates in the mouths of the odontocete or so-called baleen whales, which includes all of the great whale species except sperm whales. Biologically, these keratin plates are larger manifestations of the same material as human fingernails, animal hoofs, and bovine horn. As applied to scrimshaw, baleen tends to be sinewy, brittle, and in many ways difficult to work; it is also vulnerable to larvae parasites. But it is also reasonably pliable, which is the basis of its commercial viability for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and skirt hoops. Properly handled, it is ideally suited for corset busks (staybusks) or bent-sided round and oval ditty-boxes. A deft artisan can also incise it effectively with pictures.

Through the centuries, each of these products had commercial value from time to time, and so were only intermittently available to whalers for their own hobby work. Baleen had many commercial applications, but a baleen surplus in Holland in the 17th century eroded its commercial value, affording mariners an opportunity to obtain pieces of baleen for their own use. Skeletal whale bone was used for architecture and artisanry by Norse and Basque whaling pioneers in medieval times; but, beginning in the 17th century, pelagic whalers – who were primarily concerned with oil and secondarily with baleen – discarded the bones as worthless deadweight. So eventually bone, too, came into the hands of whaleman-artists.

Whalemen often used the basic materials that define scrimshaw – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and skeletal bone – in combination with other “found” materials, typically bits and pieces of wood, metal, sea shells, tortoise shell, and cloth. Latin American coins, in wide circulation in the Pacific, could be fashioned into finials and fixtures. The characteristic basic black pigment was lampblack, a suspension of carbon in oil, the product of combustion, easily obtained from the shipboard tryworks (oil cookery) or from ubiquitous oil lamps. (The notion that whalemen used tobacco juice as a pigment for scrimshaw is purely fanciful: it isn’t black, it doesn’t work, and not even a single example has been documented.) Colored pigments for polychrome (multi-colored) works included verdigris (a tenacious green deposit naturally forming on copper and brass), various homemade fruit and vegetable dyes, and commercially-produced india or china ink.

Scrimshaw Precursors
Whale ivory, bone, and baleen precursors to whalemen’s scrimshaw appeared almost from the beginning of medieval European whaling: domestic implements carved out of skeletal bone by Vikings in Norway, game pieces and chessmen made at Paris, Cologne, and elsewhere, and an impressive inventory of 11th- and 12-century votive carvings produced in English and Danish monasteries. Walrus tusks from Norway became a cheaper substitute for elephant ivory (which was imported to Europe from Africa by Venetian and Genoese merchants), and found its way into the hands of artisans in Central Europe, England, Turkey, Russia, and Spain. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and German whaling captains occasionally used baleen to make oval boxes, mangles (for folding cloth), and votive objects commemorating a family event or a successful hunt.

The Advent of Whalemen’s Scrimshaw
It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that the meteoric rise of whaling, resulting in longer voyages, larger crews, and over-manned ships, created an atmosphere for scrimshaw to flourish on a large scale. A few bone swifts, straightedges, and hand-tools survive from the 18th century; but the earliest known works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw date from circa 1817-21. Contrary to popular belief in many quarters, which ascribes the origin of pictorial scrimshaw to American hands, the first practitioners to adorn sperm whale teeth were British South Sea whalers, a few of whose pioneering works survive in the Museum collection. The first piece to bear a date is elaborately but anonymously inscribed from the whaleship Adam of London, date 1817. The first known American scrimshaw artist, and one of the best, was Edward Burdett (1805-1833), who began scrimshandering circa 1824. The first American piece to bear a date is a recently-discovered tooth engraved by Edward Burdett aboard the ship Origon of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in 1827. The most famous early scrimshaw artist is Burdett’s fellow-Nantucketer Frederick Myrick (1808-1862), who produced 36 or more so-called “Susan’s Teeth” aboard the Nantucket ship Susan during 1828-29: he was the first ever to sign and date some of his work. These pioneers were the vanguard of a tremendously productive generation of American, British, and Australian scrimshaw artists who followed in the 1830s and ’40s, the Golden Age of scrimshaw.

Pictorial Scrimshaw
From the orthodox ship-portraits and whaling scenes pioneered in the 1820s, the pictorial repertoire expanded dramatically in the 1830s to include virtually every kind of image and theme. Sedate female figures and family groupings were persistent favorites. Patriotic subjects, naval scenes, symbolic figures like Britannia, Columbia, and Hope, and portraits of Great Men and Women – George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Napoleon, Josephine Bonaparte, and Jenny Lind – abounded. The scrimshanders’ eye took in all subjects and themes, Biblical, mythological, and theatrical, zoölogical and botanical, urban, rural, religious, and ecclesiastical, domestic, foreign, exotic, and banal.

Diversity of Scrimshaw
It is the remarkable diversity and intricate ingenuity of shipboard scrimshaw that drew the comments of contemporaneous observers. Reverend Henry Cheever remarked that “skimshander” is a term for “the ways in which whalemen busy themselves when making passages, and in the intervals of taking whales, in working up sperm whales’ jaws and teeth and right whale bone into boxes, swifts, reels, canes, whips, folders, stamps, and all sorts of things, according to their ingenuity” (The Whale and His Captors, 1850). Herman Melville, a veteran whaleman, if not actually a scrimshaw artist himself, describes the genre as “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material in the hours of ocean leisure” (Moby Dick, 1851). There were indeed many types, produced primarily as mementos and souvenirs for the whalemen themselves, and especially as gifts for loved ones at home.

The swift (an elaborate yarn-winder), a distinctively American form, was an early and persistent manifestation. Pie crimpers and kitchen implements proliferated. Corset busks (staybusks) and canes (walking sticks) were epidemic: whaleman John Martin, homeward-bound with a full catch in the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1844, wrote whimsically in his journal , “There are enough canes in this ship to supply all the old men in Wilmington.” Ditty boxes, workboxes, and tabletop chests could be extremely simple or highly ornate, made entirely of baleen or bone, or a combination of materials and inlays, sometimes surmounted with a human or animal figure carved in full round. Aromatic boxes of precious Polynesian sandalwood, often exquisitely inlaid with ivory, abalone, and silver, were constructed by many painstaking seamen. Among the most elaborate creations were “architectural” or “architectonic” forms: pocketwatch stands, usually shaped like miniature “grandfather” clocks (tall clocks), a nighttime resting place for dad’s gold timepiece. Sewing boxes, typically built of wood or bone, often lavishly fitted with drawers, spools for thread, pincushions, and other accessories, were characteristically ornately decorated with inlay, finials, fobs, and fixtures of marine ivory, sea shell, tortoise shell, and silver. A skeletal-bone and or wood-and-bone birdcage could consume countless months of work at sea. Banjos and violins with ivory and bone fittings were also in the inventory of the musically inclined and manually skilled.

In fact, many whalemen were quite skilled – ship’s carpenters and coopers perhaps especially so. Having been trained in the trades, their dexterity and technical competence would have been substantially better honed than average; certainly their per capita scrimshaw productivity was disproportionately high. Nor was scrimshandering limited to the whalers themselves. Wives and children, who sometimes accompanied whaling captains to sea, also produced scrimshaw in significant numbers. Some of the women – like Sallie Smith, wife of Captain Frederick Howland Smith of Dartmouth, Massachusetts – produced work to as high a standard as their male counterparts.

The defining characteristic of scrimshaw is the occupational context of process, materials, and personnel. Its aesthetic, iconographical, and technical characteristics, exhibiting trends and tendencies that mostly followed fashion ashore, place it foursquare within the decorative mainstream. But its vivacious florescence within a single, sequestered occupational group render it unique able to impart insights into the life and times of sea labor in the Age of Sail. The scrimshaw itself was produced in large measure with the artist’s mind fixed on the people back home, not only as the intended recipients of scrimshaw gifts, but also as the beneficiaries of his newly-acquired sailors’ vision of the wide world. The genre, born of the sea, constantly looks homeward to shore.

Join us on Jan. 29th for ‘Scrimshaw 101′ . Tweet this one day course with this hashtag: #scrimshaw101

21st annual Scrimshaw Weekend, a tremendous success

21st annual Scrimshaw Weekend, a tremendous success.

This video posted to Youtube on May 14th by SouthCoastToday.com.

Scrimshaw Weekend Coming Soon

Thanks Antiques and the Arts Online for promoting our upcoming  Scrimshaw Weekend, May 14-16.

Scrimshaw experts, collectors and fans will come together May 14–16 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 21st annual Scrimshaw Weekend, a three-day international event that has something for everyone, from the curious-minded to the serious collector.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the scrimshaw capital of the world, and the annual Scrimshaw Weekend is the world’s only forum dedicated to the indigenous shipboard art of whalemen. Founded in 1989, this event attracts enthusiasts from four continents, all gathering to share the enjoyment of collecting and researching this beautiful artwork.

New this year is a Scrimshaw & Marine Antiques Show, which will include a Swap Meet & Sale with multiple dealers’ booths showing scrimshaw, marine antiques, books and more on Friday, May 14, from noon until 5 pm.

SCRIMSHAW WEEKEND AT NEW BEDFORD WHALING MUSEUM ATTRACTS WORLDWIDE AUDIENCE, MAY 14-16

Scrimshaw experts, collectors and fans will come together May 14-16 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 21st annual Scrimshaw Weekend, a 3-day international event that has something for everyone, from the curious-minded to the serious collector.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the scrimshaw capital of the world, and the annual Scrimshaw Weekend is the world’s only forum dedicated to the indigenous shipboard art of whalemen. Founded in 1989, this event attracts enthusiasts from four continents, all gathering to share the enjoyment of collecting and researching this beautiful artwork.

New this year is a Scrimshaw & Marine Antiques Show, which will include a Swap Meet & Sale with multiple dealers’ booths showing scrimshaw, marine antiques, books and more on Friday, May 14, from noon until 5:00 pm.

The Friday evening lecture, “Scrimshaw…Through the Collectors’ Eyes,” will be presented at 8:00 pm by Nina Hellman, marine antiques dealer and author of “A Mariner’s Fancy, The Whaleman’s Art of Scrimshaw.”

On Saturday, May 15, a full schedule of events and activities will include two informative three-hour sessions. The morning session includes talks on “Distinguishing Characteristics of Scrimshaw by the Ceres Artisans,” “The Life and Adventures of the Ceres Scrimshander,” “The Four Ceres Artists Identified,” and “More about the Ceres Artists.” Respectively, speakers include Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D. (New Bedford Whaling Museum), Kenneth R. Martin, Ph.D. (former Director, Kendall Whaling Museum), Donald E. Ridley, P.E. (Volunteer Assistant Curator Emeritus, Kendall Whaling Museum and New Bedford Whaling Museum), and Judith N. Lund (Advisory Curator, New Bedford Whaling Museum).

whale ivory pie crimper

The afternoon session will include a talk by the dean of scrimshaw collectors, Judge Paul E. Vardeman, titled “Recollections of an old time collector and the recent discovery of new artists.” Other presentations include “The Sam McDowell Scrimshaw Collection,” “Recent Adventures and Discoveries at the Forensics Lab,” and a Collectors Market Report. Speakers include Dr. Frank, Richard Donnelly, and Andrew Jacobson. Mr. Donnelly is a long-time volunteer at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and a collaborator on a forthcoming catalogue of the museum’s scrimshaw collection.

A gala banquet on Saturday evening will conclude with two entertaining and informative programs, “Mystery Man of the Fake Susan’s Teeth” (about art fraud) and “Rugs and Floor Coverings on Scrimshaw,” and an ad hoc “Collectors’ Show-and-Tell.”

On Sunday, May 15, an optional fieldtrip will visit important private scrimshaw collections in Newbury and Lincoln, MA. The bus will leave from Fairhaven at 8:00 am, and from New Bedford at 8:15 am, returning by 6:00 pm. The price is $125 and lunch is included.

The fee for Scrimshaw Weekend, including admission to the museum and the Scrimshaw & Marine Antiques Show, scheduled meals, and all plenary sessions is $315 (Museum members $275) prior to May 1st. After May 1st the fee is $370 (Museum members $330). Saturday banquet and evening program is $65.

For the full schedule of events and program updates, please visit the museum website at http://www.whalingmuseum.org. For logistical information or to register, please contact visitor services at (508) 997-0046, ext 100 or email: frontdesk@whalingmuseum.org

Scrimshaw Weekend is supported in part by Northeast Auctions of Portsmouth, NH, and the Maine Antique Digest, which have generously helped to make this event possible.

For more information, contact:
Arthur Motta
Director, Marketing & Communications
(508) 997-0046, ext. 153
amotta@whalingmuseum.org

The Arts and Crafts of OLYMPIC CHALLENGER: Souvenirs, company gifts, and whaler folk art from the Onassis whaling venture, 1950 – 1956

Klaus Barthelmess, an independent scholar from Cologne, Germany (formerly on the staff of the German Maritime Museum, Bremerhaven, and the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum), is an advisory curator for the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Mr. Barthelmess has written about German whaling history, exhibitions of whales, strandings of whales, scrimshaw and fine art related to whaling. He received the L. Byrne Waterman award in 2006 for outstanding contributions to whaling history.

Mr. Barthelmess organizes a tri-annual whaling history symposium in Cologne, and for the 2009 event, he wrote about and exhibited whaling memorabilia connected with the fleet of Aristotle Onassis. This piece, entitled “The Arts and Crafts of OLYMPIC CHALLENGER: Souvenirs, company gifts, and whaler folk art from the Onassis whaling venture, 1950 – 1956″ describes the exhibit curated by Mr. Barthelmess.

Tooth by the Onassis flag painter: Dedecke Whaling Collection

“The Many Mysteries of Manuel Enos” by Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D.

The Many Mysteries of Manuel Enos

by Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., Senior Curator

This article is reprinted from the recently published Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill, Fall 2009

In any genre of the arts there are always a few individuals whose work and reputations stand out as exceptional, setting a standard by which the achievements of others are measured.  There also tend to be a few whose work has been overlooked or underappreciated and may deserve wider recognition.  When it comes to scrimshaw, the incidence of such Unsung Miltons (to paraphrase the poet Thomas Gray) is disproportionately high, in part because the genre itself is so little known and in part because so much of it is anonymous.  Thus, in addition to such celebrated scrimshaw masters as Edward Burdett (1805-1833), Frederick Myrick (1808-1862), Henry Daggett (1811-1873), and N.S. Finney (1813-1879), we have whalemen-practitioners who are known only by their work and have been given epithetical monikers to distinguish them from the crowd – Albatross Artisan, Banknote Portraitist, Lambeth Busk Engraver, Naval Engagement Engraver, Pagoda Artisan, and so on.  Certainly, the Ship Java Artist – now known by name as Manuel Enos – deserves to be listed among the select few, as one of the outstanding scrimshaw makers and arguably the greatest Azorean whaleman-artist of all time.

A remarkable pair of sperm whale teeth scrimshawed aboard the bark Java of New Bedford in 1862 came into the Kendall Collection many years ago but, despite the elaborate inscriptions on the backs, the artist had not been identified.  They are gloriously engraved.  On the fronts are brilliantly colored female figures.  One is Rebecca at the Well, an Old Testament matriarch in full flower of youth, dressed in sumptuous Middle Eastern garb [Fig. 1]; the other is a patriotic image of Columbia, a classic nude majestically and demurely draped in an American flag [Fig. 2]. The inscriptions specify the whens and wherefores of the voyage and the whale but fail to name the artist: “Captured / Bark Java / of / New Bedford / Capt. E.B. Phinney” and “Jan. 25th / 1862 / Off King Geo[rge] Sound / Western Coast / of / Australia” [Fig. 3].  Only after close scrutiny of the crew lists and comparison with examples of scrimshaw in other collections did it become evident that the perpetrator was Manuel Enos, one of the most colorful, one of the best known, and at the same time one of the most mysterious celebrities in the whaling annals. [1]]

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Scrimshaw Weekend, a great success!

MAY 15, 16, 17 2009

scrimshaw tooth

The Annual Scrimshaw Weekend, founded in 1989 and held at the Whaling Museum each June, is the world’s only regular forum in which collectors, curators, antiques dealers, history buffs, and enthusiasts from all over the country gather to confer about the whalers’ distinctive and evocative .

For more information visit www.whalingmuseum.org/prog/scrimshawWeekend.htm.