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Museum catalogue: Scrimshaw Collection


Scrimshaw and the Sperm whale:
The collection at the Scott Polar Research Institute

Dr Janet West

The SPRI collection of 78 pieces is unusual in containing material exclusively from sperm whaling. There are 75 decorated whale teeth, one bone stay busk (corset stay) and two examples of whale teeth used as Fiji tabua. There is an unusually high proportion of British motifs: flags, ensigns and other patriotic emblems such as the Royal Arms and Britannia, and the people or ships identified. Most of the teeth are engraved on both faces and a few are in the round. The collection was assembled by Surgeon Captain A.W.B. Livesey R.N. (ca. 1875-1945) and purchased for the Institute by the Friends in 1962. About half the collection is permanently on display.

SPRI Y: 62/15/5A SPRI Y: 62/15/5B

Most of the great whales are members of the cetacean order Mysticeti, the baleen whales. They feed off coastal banks and ice edges, consuming small organisms: plankton, krill or fish which they strain from sea water through plates of baleen. In the days of sail and the hand-held harpoon the main quarry were the three large species of Right whales: the Arctic Right whale (Greenland whale or Bowhead, Balaena mysticetus) and two ther species of Right wahles: the Atlantic (Balaena/Eubalaena glacialis) and the Southern (Balaena/Eubalaena australis). The main catch of modern whalers in the present century was another group of large baleen whales, the rorquals, most of them species of Balaenoptera.

The sperm whale (Physeter catodon/macrocephalus) is the only great whale in the order Odontoceti, the large group of toothed whales which includes porpoises and dolphins. Sperm whales, which prefer warm deep oceans, were not exploited until the early 18th century. Sperm whaling became the major industry for Yankee whalers although a small but significant London-based fleet in developed from the late 18th century, and later fleets were established in Australia and New Zealand. Sperm oil proved superior to whale oil (from baleen whales) as a lamp oil and was also non-drying and viscostatic and thus an excellent lubricant. The head chamber of this whale also contains spermaceti wax which made the finest candles.

Sperm whales develop some 23 pairs of large, roughly conical ivory teeth in the mandible which fit into sockets in the upper jaw. After extraction from the tough gum the teeth were filed or scraped smooth and carefully polished with shark skin, pumice or wood ash. The chosen design could be drawn or traced on to the surface. Some pictures were copied by pricking the surface of the tooth through a template, held or pasted to the surface. Pictures of women in particular are often outlined thus with dots or crosses (see examples Y: 62/15/72A-B), but these are rarely seen on ships or whaling scenes, most of which seem to have been done freehand.

Surprisingly, a careful examination has revealed that most scrimshaw engravings were done with a very fine sharp blade. Occasionally a fine point was used but evidence of a graving tool is extremely rare. Sometimes a stipple of dots was used in places (Y: 62/15/34) and a few designs were entirely stippled (Y: 62/15/67). Occasionally other marks such as deep pits or triangular picks are found (Y: 62/15/14A), or some areas deeply cut away (Y: 62/15/11A). This latter style was sometimes used by the scrimshaw artist Edward Burdett, who filled the interstices with red sealing wax.

The engraving was heightened by rubbing in pigment, usually black from soot or lamp-black and oil. Sometimes other colours were used in addition and referred to as polychrome. Red is the most common, on flags, to indicate the firing of cannon and as blood from injured whales. A greenish-blue, probably Prussian blue, is fairly common for flags and the sea. Women's clothes were the most likely to be coloured, and green, brown, yellow and orange are also occsionally found (Y: 62/15/74). Althogh ther has been fading in some cses, colours are visible on a number of exhibits.

Ivory teeth were also cut up and carved into a variety of scrimshaw artefacts and used for inlays. The SPRI collection has two rare late 18th or early 19th century examples of sculpted teeth (Y: 62/15/27 & 28), a technique which became popular with Antarctic whalers in the 20th century.

The mandibles (lower jaw bones) of the great whales were also a popular scrimshaw material. This bone could be sawn, bent, polished, carved and engraved and so was fashioned into dozens of things from purely functional tools to engraved plaques. A fine bone stay-busk (corset stay) with a British Sperm whaling scene (Y: 62/15/26) is on display. Less commonly the mandibles of small toothed whales such as pilot whales/blackfish (Globicephala species) and various dolphins were decorated complete, although the two halves were usually separated at the symphysis.

Of the types of motif found in the SPRI collection, two categories far outnumber the rest. Most common are sailing ships and boats, both mercantile and including whaling scenes, and naval including sea-fights. Flags or ensigns identify many as British with rather fewer from the USA. A number are without identification. A close second in frequency are pictures of women, generally in quite detailed clothes which were in fashion from ca. 1820 to 1880 but predominantly from the 1840s and 1850s. Fairly common are various patriotic motifs other than flags and ensigns. These are mainly British and American but include a very rare pair with Spanish inscriptions. Several show mammals, birds and plants. A small number are decorated with buildings, coastal features such as forts and lighthouses, sailors, soldiers, couples, children and literary/theatrical figures. There are single examples of others, including two street musicians, a very rare motif.

In addition to the above there are seventeen inscriptions. Unfortunately old scrimshaw rarely has inscriptions which provide names of ships, people, dates or localities. Most are general titles such as "The Orphan" or "Home". Occasionally the the image is easily recognisable, for example Lord Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte, but more have now been identified and the sources from which some of them were derived, identified.

Named vessels include the British naval ships the Arethusa, a 50-gun frigate in service from 1849-1872, after which she became a training ship for detitute biys until 1932. The Lion, a second-rate battleship of 80 guns launched in 1848, was converted to steam in 1860. There is an impressive engraving of the ship Governer Halkett in convoy in heavy weather. The composition is derived, but not directly copied, from illustrations of seamanship in Darcy Lever (London: 1819), "The young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor". She was built in Montevideo in 1803 and captured from the Spanish in 1805. For years she was a West Indies trader until fitted out for whaling in 1832, after which she operated from Sydney, NSW, Australia until 1842..

None of the pieces is signed, but from the style of the engraving, one is attributable to the Nantucket artist Edward Burdett (1805-33). It shows the British 14-gun cutter Algerine (in commission 1814-18) and the schooner Geneal Marion of New York probably built 1826 and registered in New York in 1829.

Although their names are as yet unknown, examples of the work several of the artists represented in the SPRI collection have been identified in museums and private collections in the USA and Australia, from a careful study of the style of decoration and the engraving technique used. The occurrence of the same motif in other collections as well as at SPRI indicates that the original image was published somewhere.

The scrimshaw also portrays interesting and important evets. There are naval engagements from the Napoleoonic wars, the war of 1812-1814 between britain and america, the bombardment of Algiers to release Christian slave in 1816, the struggle of many countries in South and Central America to achieve independence from Spanish rule and the efforts of the Royal Navy to suppress the slave trade from Africa. it illistrates the introduction of steam power for naval ships and many change sin sship design and rigging during the first half of the 19th century.

A note on fakes and reproductions

Old style whaling using the hand harpoon declined during the 19th century and with it the art of scrimshaw. However, the past few decades have seen a revival of interest especially in the USA and high prices are paid for what was previously of little commercial value. The art form has also been adopted by other artists and craftsmen, the best of whom sign their work. Unfortunately, with the high price of scrimshaw now, many old teeth and tusks (usually walrus), previously undecorated have been engraved and it can be very difficult to tell modern work from old, especially if the materials used were already old.

A more recent development has been the appearance of large numbers of decorated fake teeth, tusks, whale jaw bones, even ostrich eggs and turtle shells, and of small objects such as little boxes, walking stick handles etc. mass produced from plastic. They are very decorative and some are quite convincing. Many of these are legitimately on sale in gift shops and nautical catalogues for reasonable sums, but others are sold with intent to deceive. At present the plastic and fake-old far outnumbers any genuine old scrimshaw for sale.

The best known plastic scrimshaw pieces are made by the British firms Juratone and Grooveport (previously known as Historycraft of Cirencester) and many are listed as "fakeshaw" by S.M. Frank, see below.

There are chemical tests to identify the plastics and resins used but a few simple observations with a x8 or x10 hand-lens can help avoid disappointment.

Enamel is absent from mature sperm whale teeth, which consist of a core of dentine surrounded by a persistent cementum. As the tooth grows, successive cones of dentine and layers of cementum develop. When the tip of the tooth is worn down the ivory layers are exposed and may become differentially stained with age. This may show as wavy lines or bands across the tooth which follow the characteristic "grain" of whale ivory. It is visible on many of the specimens at SPRI. It is almost impossible to reproduce accurately in plastic the enhanced grain of old ivories, nor the tiny canals always present in the structure of skeletal bone.

Beware of important-looking or highly decorated teeth and tusks. Dates, localities and the names of people and ships are rare on old scrimshaw but common on modern scrimshaw and plastic.

Examine the surface. Even the finest plastic casting will have some fault. Look for irregularities in what should be a smooth surface, especially any raised areas. Pits may be surface damage, but could be from bubbles which, if just below the surface, show as tiny opalescent rings.

Surprisingly, most scrimshaw motifs are engraved with a sharp blade. It impossible to reproduce in a casting the tiny slits which a blade produces.

A freshly exposed surface may have a characteristic smell. Bone, ivory and horn smell quite different from plastic if the volatile materials contained in the matrix are released. If possible make a small scraping with a file or knife blade and sniff it immediately. Styrene-based plastics smell very different from animal materials though epoxy-based plastics have little smell. A hot pin, judiciously applied will penetrate a plastic surface and may release the smell - though owners object to this treatment.


The following publications may be seen in the Scott Polar Research Institute Library.

Basseches, J. and Frank, S.M. 1991.
Edward Burdett, 1805-1833. America's first master scrimshaw artist.
Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass. USA, Monograph No. 5.

Frank, S.M. 1988 and 1993.
Fakeshaw: a checklist of plastic 'scrimshaw'.
Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass. USA, Monograph No. 1. Second edition.

Frank, S.M. 1991.
Dictionary of scrimshaw artists.
Mystic Seaport Museum, Conn. USA.

Malley, R. 1983.
Graven by the fishermen themselves.
Mystic Seaport Museum, Con. USA.

Ridley, D.; Frank, S.M.; Madden, P.; Vardemann, P. and West, J. 2000.
Frederick Myrick of Nantucket: scrimshaw catalogue raisonee.
Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass. USA, Monograph No. 13.

Ridley, D. and West, J. 2000.
Frederick Myrick of Nantucket: physical characteristics of the scrimshaw.
Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass. USA, Monograph No. 14.

West, J. 1982.
Scrimshaw: facts and forgeries
Antique Collecting, Vol.16, No.10, pp. 17-21.

West, J. 1985.
Elephant seal scrimshaw and sealing on the 'Islands of Desolation'.
Polar Record, Vol.22, No.141, pp. 328-30.

West, J. 1986 and 1987.
Scrimshaw in Australia with special reference to the nineteenth century.
The Great Circle (Journal of the Australian Association for Maritime History).
Part 1. Discussion. Vol.8, No.2, pp. 82-95.
Part 2. Classification, description and analysis of the artefacts. Vol.9, No.2, pp. 26-39.

West, J. and Barnes, R.H. 1990.
The scrimshaw of William Lewis Roderick: a whale bone plaque dated 1858 showing the barque ADVENTURE of London whaling off Flores and Pulo Komba in the Indian Ocean.
The Mariner's Mirror, Vol.76, No.2, pp. 135-148.

West, J., 1991.
Scrimshaw and the identification of sea mammal products.
Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol.2, pp. 39-79.

West, J. and Credland, A.G. 1995.
Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler.
Hutton Press, Hull, UK.

West, J., 1999.
New research on the scrimshaw of Frederick Myrick.
America in Britain (Journal of the American Museum, Bath), Vol.37, pp. 16-35.

West, J. 2000.
The scrimshaw of Frederick Myrick: the rig and rigging of the whaling vessels Susan, Ann, Frances, and Barclay, ca. 1829.
The American Neptune, Vol.60, No.4, pp. 391-411.

The book "Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler" by West and Credland is presently out-of-print. Please contact the SPRI Museum Shop for details of availability.