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.
After Christmas and the New Year we are all encouraged to turn our attention to holidays. During the Victorian era with the coming of the railways more and more people could afford to take a holiday. And, a stay at the seaside became a family treat. Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk with its beautiful long sandy beach rapidly developed to attract the ‘new’ holidaymaker. Naturally, at the end of their visit people wanted to buy souvenirs as little reminders of their stay, and a porcelain plate decorated with pictures of various seaside attractions made the perfect keepsake.
Plates, cups and saucers, mugs, jugs, and unusually, ceramic shoes were decorated with an appropriate topographical scene transferred on to white porcelain or earthenware. Coloured glazes then finished off the pieces. Glazes of pale blue and green were used, but pink was the most popular colour towards the end of the 19th century.
However, a visitor didn’t have to buy the standard view of the seaside pier, they could always choose a ceramic adorned with the ever popular theme pictures of children.
The above pieces sum up in three objects so much about how we, in the 21st century, view the everyday Victorian and their questionable taste, but pause a moment and note that pink kitsch is alive and kicking today – not least in this pair of pink resin reindeers.
Earlier this year I went to the exhibition ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’ at the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. The aim of the exhibition was to highlight examples of embroidered work that had been created by people at times of mental distress. Perhaps the most eye-catching works were two long embroidered ‘letters’ sewn by Lorina Bulwer.
These two pieces are 12ft and 14ft long by about 14 inches wide. Each ‘letter’ has been worked in coloured wools on pieced cotton grounds using various colours to ensure the text is clear and readable on every different ground.
Lorina (born in Beccles, Suffolk in 1838) made her letters whilst residing in the lunatic wing of Great Yarmouth Workhouse between 1900 and 1910. Many of the words are underlined as she angrily relates her story including writing about her family, neighbours and her troubled life.
When I saw Lorina’s work I remembered Tracy Emin’s provocative textile creations. Maybe the soft pliable quality of embroidered cloth and the frequent prettiness of embroidery magnifies the power of angry text. It was an inspiring exhibition and has led me to work a design for a scarf using text. My words are places in Suffolk and Norfolk surrounded by a few lines of verse from various poems by William Blake. I chose Blake as his words were also the words of an angry outsider.
In Britain towards the end of the 18th century the fad for ‘bathing in the sea’ gripped the wealthy and adventurous. At the same time travelling for pleasure instead of travelling for necessity or duty, became more affordable and accessible. The fashion for visiting the seaside, healthy promenading and sea bathing developed as a popular extension to the pastime of attending a spa town and taking the waters. As early as 1730, one, John Atkins, wrote about the benefits of ‘Sea Bathing’ in his book, ‘A Compendious Treatise on the Contents, Virtues, and Uses of Cold and Hot Mineral Springs in general.’
Wealthy people travelling by coach and horses began visiting coastal towns. On the east coast of Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, with a gentle, sandy beach became more than a fishing port and offered the early tourist perfect access to the sea to indulge in the latest health craze. No tourist was going to return home empty-handed and a selection of seaside mementos were available. Some early pieces have survived such as this cylindrical mug ‘A Trifle from Yarmouth’ or this jug ‘A Present from Yarmouth’. The jug shows the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Yarmouth, as it would have been before it was heavily renovated by the Victorians and then completely bombed out in 1942 by the Luftwaffe.
With the coming of the railway to Great Yarmouth in 1844, more and more people visited the seaside and town, and more and more merchandise of varying quality was made and sold. As with many items found in museums it is not always the quality, but often just the scarcity of a piece that gains it shelf space. But these little ceramics still impart some essence of the past. The verse on this early-19th-century bowl reads,
In every state
May you most happy be
And when far distant
Oft times think on me.
Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk was once visited by Charles Dickens. Apparently he stayed for a couple of days at the Royal Hotel on Waterloo Road in 1849. If you’ve every read or seen film/TV versions of David Copperfield you will know that David goes to stay in Yarmouth. Here’s young David’s description of Yarmouth.
When we got into the street (which was strange enough to me), and smelt the fish, and pitch, and oakum, and tar, and saw the sailors walking about, and the carts jangling up and down over the stones, I felt I had done so busy a place an injustice; and said as much to Peggotty, who heard my expressions of delight with great complacency, and told me it was well known (I suppose to those who had the good fortune to be born Bloaters) that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.’
The facade of the Royal Hotel is looking a bit tired these days, but facing the North Sea it probably needs repainting annually. Unlike the beautiful Victorian Winter Gardens which has been closed since 2008 and needs a lot more than paint. According to Darren Barker, senior conservation officer at Great Yarmouth Borough Council, the building requires extensive renovations as much of the glass is barely held in place by rotting wood. This elaborate glass palace was originally built for Torquay, but was bought and re-erected on the seafront at Yarmouth in 1903.
It looked very miserable and sad today. I wish I could have seen it in its heyday. These fish didn’t look to too cheery either!
UPDATE – sadly as of 2018 the Great Yarmouth Winter Gardens is now in the Victorian Society’s top 10 endangered Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the UK.