Today, 24th November, marks a couple of birthdays in our family. My great-grandfather, Harry Whatmore was born on 24 November 1879 in Limehouse, London. He was probably born in the family home, 32, West India Dock Road. According to the 1891 Census he was still living there 12 years later along with his parents, William and Ann, and his four sisters and three brothers.
In this photograph of Harry, I gather he was over 80 years old at the time, you can see a small statue in the background on the windowsill. A strange oriental piece that shows a Chinese man growing out of a lump of knobbly wood.
The sculpture has been in our family since one of Harry’s older brothers, Bill, a seaman, brought it back from a stint in the Far East. It is carved out of a single piece of irregularly, lumpy wood. I think it might be cedar root and possibly an example of the Chinese traditional folk art of cedar-root carving.
As I look at the old family photo, below, I wonder what happened to the sisters and the other brothers of Harry and Bill. I don’t remember my grandmother every talking about them although she did once mention the Limehouse Whatmores had been involved with running some kind of Christian Seamen’s Mission on the West India Dock Road.
I expect Bill brought other gifts back from overseas, but my grandmother was a great one for selling off stuff as and when required. She was certainly not sentimental by nature. This is the only known ‘art’ survivor from her family and it was not appreciated by my mother at all (she thought it rather creepy), but it was a favourite with my father.
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!
Ostrich egg scrimshaw, late 19th-century, depicting two sailing ships.
Ostrich egg scrimshaw depicting two fashionable ladies carved by 19th-century whalers.