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.
There is a display at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk that shows a 1940s bedroom with an old-fashioned rag rug placed in front of the fire.
I remember my Grandmother had one similarly placed in her sitting room only hers was to protect her polished floorboards from sparks. And, the little rug disappeared whenever there were visitors.
Now, I said ‘old-fashioned’, but perhaps I should have said vintage or ‘upcycled’. In 1997, remembering that little rug I persuaded my mother to ‘prod’ one for me. She was very patient. I drew out the design on a piece of hessian, provided her with a colour guide and gave her a bundle of old woollen cloth.
The rich colours, the dark red, brown and purple, are from old coats bought from charity shops along with some old blankets. Blankets tend to wear out in the middle leaving the edges still thick and useful. I cut off the edges and dyed them to make the oranges and pinks.
After several weeks, my very, very patient mother finished this three feet by four feet rag rug.
Originally made for a bedroom in a previous house, the rag rug is now in my kitchen. Ten years on the kitchen floor and it’s wearing very well!
So often in our modern world working with our hands is undervalued. With the recent financial crisis and extensive recession – ‘How much?’ is so often the primary concern. However, the creative process can not be viewed in monetary terms alone. The value of creating/making/producing a piece of work with your own hands can be extremely rewarding in other ways. The process of making can be intellectually stimulating. It can provide a forum for collaborative and communal working. It can bring personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. And, for many people the activity of creative handwork is therapeutic.
A recent exhibition “Frayed: Textiles on the Edge” at the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, shows the value of creating hand-stitched work during times of stress and anguish. There is more information about some of the pieces and how the exhibition was curated on their blog.
“The Evacuation of Dunkirk” woolwork by John Craske is a long and narrow piece of calico (I estimated about 4 metres by half a metre) embroidered with images showing the British forces being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Stitched between 1940 and 1943, John Craske called his work “painting in wools”. It is a piece created, developed and stitched during times of personal illness and mental strife.
Born in Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast in 1881, John had worked on the boats until he was called up for the army in 1917. Not long after this he caught flu which resulted in complications and an abscess on the brain. From this time onwards he suffered from comas and periods of debilitating depression and was often housebound. During these episodes he painted, but as his health deteriorated he spend longer periods confined to bed and at the suggestion of his wife, Laura, he began stitching his pictures instead.
These photographs do not do justice to the whole, long work which sadly remains unfinished as John Craske died in hospital in 1943. However, he has left us with a beautiful, delicate, almost shimmering interpretation of a traumatic moment in history.
Nowadays, in Western culture embroidery is viewed as a woman’s hobby with a long tradition of ladies occupying themselves with their needles. However they are part of a continuum stretching far back to when both sexes stitched. Opus Anglicanum (English work) is a type of fine needlework known across medieval Europe. Much of it was silk vestments embroidered with gold, silver-gilt and silver thread, and, it was created by men and women. The names of some of these embroiderers, both male and female, are recorded in contemporary documents.