If you’ve ever wondered what the folks used to do in a few minutes of downtime before everybody had a smart phone to fiddle with – it was a spot of scrimshaw. Well, it was if you were a whaler in the 18th or 19th century.
Scrimshaw is the carving of images onto the leftover bleached bones or ivory from the carcasses of hunted marine mammals. Most commonly, the bones and teeth of sperm whales and the ivory tusks of walruses were used. Nowadays when you see these types of examples in museums, which in some cases so obviously look like the original whale tooth or tusk, it’s quite disconcerting. We know that the 19th-century industrialised hunting of sperm whales has taken the species to near extinction and knowing that coloured my response to the whalers’ handiwork. Of course, they were unaware of the extent of the damage being done, for them being a whaler was simply a hard and dangerous way to earn a living. I suppose the best that can be said is that whilst living this harsh life they still wished to be productive and creative, and their finished pieces were tradable and are now viewed as folk art.
Interestingly and unusually, at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, along with the carved sperm whale teeth there were a couple scrimshaw ostrich eggs. Still, I would definitely prefer a dark chocolate Easter Egg instead!
7 thoughts on “Scrimshaw with a difference”
It’s interesting the variety of subjects – sailors, family members (I would think), an exotic person seen on their travels, the ships – a lot can be deduced just looking at the details of dress or ship rigging – info for us hundreds of years later. Very interesting.
Yes, and it’s interesting to see what non-artists were recording within an informal visual context.
I know that you were mainly writing about the art but I never knew whales had teeth until I read this! A very specialized branch of ‘sunday painters’ by the look of it.
I love the ‘sunday painters’ comment – is that a Canadian expression? Made me smile!
I always thought it was an art expression about someone with no formal training and not necessarily meant as derogatory.
I guess it’s an expression that’s not so popular here in the UK these days – ‘amateur artist’ is more commonly used and also not in a derogatory fashion. The BBC have just run a series (The Big Painting Challenge) searching for the best amateur artist in UK and the winner’s work is currently on display at Tate Britain.
Oh Agnes, I’ve used the phrase ‘Sunday painter’ all my life. Sunday painters hang their work on, say, the railings at Hyde Park. And I’m afraid in my family it did always mean someone who, whilst not necessarily without talent, didn’t exactly bring joy to the senses.