Friday, January 21, 2011

Scrimshaw: A Magnificent Art Form

ScrimshawWith the fanfare connected to the fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy’s inauguration this week, there were several stories which discussed his support for music and opera.  Kennedy also had a great interest in a less formal example of art, scrimshaw.  In fact, his Oval Office display of etched ivory brought attention to a tradition practiced by 19th-century seamen. 

Although Eskimos and those in other cultures created designs on ivory, the whaling life was the impetus to the creation of scrimshaw.  Sailors, gone for long periods in search of the enormous mammal, took to scratching designs on pieces of whale’s teeth, walrus tusks or bone.  These images might include ships, women, historic scenes, other naval themes, and odds and ends.  Sometimes the artist would sign his work.

The ultimate novel on whaling, Moby Dick, discusses the sailor as a scrimshander, who had “marvellous patience, and with the same single shark's tooth, of his one poor jack-knife, he will carve you a bit of bone sculpture, not quite as workmanlike, but as close packed in its maziness of design, as the Greek savage, Achilles's shield; and full of barbaric spirit and suggestiveness, as the prints of that fine Dutch savage, Albert Durer.”

Most works were decorative pieces, usually the size of large paperweights.  But some were functional, including walking sticks; boxes; baskets; pie crust wheels; busks, a piece used in corsets; an intricate swift or yarn winder; and others.  The quality of the art ranged from crude to magnificent.

These seamen were part of an industry built largely on a search for whale oil.  With the development of domestic oil, whaling declined and with it the venue for scrimshanders.  Fortunately, their genre has been preserved through museums, modern-day artists and replicas.

Two museums in the capital of whaling, New England, have large holdings of scrimshaw.  Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, has a collection of 1,700 artifacts.  On Massachusetts’ New Bedford Whaling Museum website, more than 2,300 pieces are shown.  This museum is hosting a three-day Scrimshaw Weekend in May; see:

Also noteworthy is the Whaling Museum on the island of Nantucket, a hugely important whaling center.  In fact, Nantucket has a particular niche in modern scrimshaw history with its sale of popular Nantucket baskets and purses with replica scrimshaw plates.

There are some contemporary scrimshanders but their work is somewhat restricted by legislation from the 1970s which prohibits the use of newer ivory.  Their ongoing contribution complements faithful reproductions of classical pieces.  I have a dozen replicas, including a wonderful one with a view of Nantucket harbor in 1853 and another with images of the whaling ships Tamaahmaah and Chinchilla. 

These modern replicas are made from a polymer resin and are usually quite attractive.  They are made for display as well as for use as pencil cups or cribbage boards.  Obviously, this is not the real thing but it is affordable!

Scrimshaw is a wonderful example of American folk art.  Not only is it something to be admired for the artistic quality of amateurs, but it  provides us with an insight into a way of life long gone and often little remembered.

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