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Dr. Janet West

Dr. Janet West

Emeritus Associate

Work centres on scrimshaw, the art of the whaleman

Biography

Career

  • 1988 – 2000 : Advisory Curator of Scrimshaw at the Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Massachusetts, USA.
  • Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.
  • Emeritus Associate, Scott Polar Research Institute.

Qualifications

  • BA (Natural Sciences) at Newnham College.
  • PhD at Newnham College.

Research

My interests include all forms of maritime art, especially those of the seafarers themselves. My work now centres on scrimshaw, the art-form developed by those involved with the whaling industry and reached its peak by ca. the mid 19th century, during the days of sail and the hand-held harpoon. Research involves identifying the materials and the method of decorations used and, where possible, the subjects of the images, their dates and, occasionally, their origins. This is done in the context of the industry: the types of whale caught and where, and the shipping of the period.

Having studied whale jaw bone (panbone) and the different ivories used for scrimshaw (especially Sperm whale teeth and walrus tusks), using microscopy, it was relatively easy for me to recognise the many plastic scrimshaw forgeries which have flooded the market since the 1970s. I was the first person to undertake a chemical analysis and discover that a styrene polymer was a common component of many. Later, I pioneered the use of microscopy with oblique lighting to investigate the surface characteristics of the pictorial images on sperm whale teeth and other scrimshaw materials in order to deduce which engraving techniques were used. In some cases, discovering how the material was prepared, what tools were used and how the engraving has worn, can reveal authenticity as well as age. During the 1990's, this led to a major collaborative project on the scrimshaw of Frederick Myrick of Nantucket and his famous series of 'Susan' teeth, done ca. 1829. However, many fine scrimshanders remain anonymous alas, which is the case with most of the SPRI Collection.

My long-term research on the SPRI scrimshaw collection and on other notable examples across the world continues. The identity of many of the SPRI motifs was established before the era of IT and digitised images, and by 2008 a brief description of each accompanied the images on the SPRI website. It has long been recognised that many scrimshaw images were copied from prints and popular pictures of the time. However, names are very rarely engraved, so identifying such sources has not been easy as it depended on memorising the scrimshaw image and recognising it again elsewhere in another medium. The most surprising discovery was that the portrait on no. 72B was of Lady Sarah Villiers (who become Princess Nicholas Esterhazy). Its dimensions are the same as an engraving of a portrait which appeared in "Heath's Book of Beauty" in 1843. The portrait on the reverse (Fig 72A) is of Elizabeth Macleod, one of two daughters of the 24th Chief of the Clan. It was illustrated in Heath's Book for 1845. It was an expensive book and unlikely to have come the way of a whaleman under normal circumstances.

Now many images are digitised, even the hundreds of fashion plates, especially in the USA, which may have inspired scrimshaw. A colleague there has devised a way of comparing prints with scrimshaw, so more sources have now been unearthed.

In 1991 I was affected by severe damage to my spinal sensory nerves which prevented my working for some years. A slow recovery followed but chronic pain still hampers my work and mobility.

Background

After reading natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, followed by a Ph.D. and some years of post-doctoral research in plant biochemistry, I began to develop my early interest in ships and the sea: marine painting; ship models and all types of sailors' decorative work, particularly scrimshaw. Most, but not all the examples I documented were found amongst the collections in Maritime museums. My scientific training and curiosity as to how and from what materials various examples were constructed, soon led to the routine use of magnification and special illumination for examination and a number of ivories were identified in scrimshaw collections. In comparison with the USA, scrimshaw is largely a neglected subject in Britain, with very few publications, in spite of the fact that many examples of fine work are of British origin. This is particularly true of the SPRI collection of decorated Sperm whale teeth.

I also became aware of examples of fake scrimshaw being offered for sale, especially moulded polymer forgeries in the form of whale teeth, walrus tusks, etc. I wrote some of the first publications on fake scrimshaw. I have continued to publish articles on scrimshaw and related topics in a variety of journals. These included a survey of the major scrimshaw collections in Australia - the first publication on the subject outside the USA.

The book: "Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler", is illustrated mainly from the collection at the Hull Maritime Museum, the largest scrimshaw collection in Europe. I wrote it jointly with Arthur G. Credland ( then Keeper, Hull Maritime Museum) and it was published in 1995. Although long out of print, SPRI still has a few copies.

A major project was an analysis of the motifs and engraving techniques used by the famous Nantucket artist Frederick Myrick on 31 sperm whale teeth. It was a surprise to discover that his technique changed drastically between 1828 and 1829, when he dated his work. Myrick's scrimshaw work fetches exceptionally high prices at auction. This research was published in 1999. It was also the major contribution to Kendall Whaling Museum Monograph No. 14. A detailed account of the rig and rigging of the four whaling vessels that Myrick portrayed on his work was published in The American Neptune. This was the first time that scrimshaw images were found to be detailed and accurate enough to show how some early 19th century whaling vessels were actually rigged, in contrast with those portrayed by professional or semi-professional artists. Some rigging details were found to been illustrated only on scrimshaw.

I collaborated with my husband, Dr. Martin H. Evans, on "Maritime Museums: a guide to the collections and museum ships in Britain and Ireland", published by Chatham, London, 1995. Until his final retirement in 2015, Dr Evans' frequently updated version was available online.

Publications

Selected publications

  • West, J. 1978. Scrimshaw, art of the whaleman. Annual Report, Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society 1978, 19-26.
  • West, J. 1980. Scrimshaw: recent forgeries in plastic. The Mariner's Mirror, 66, (4) 328-230.
  • West, J. 1982. Scrimshaw: facts and forgeries. Antique Collecting, 16, (10) 17-21.
  • West, J. 1984. Scrimshaw: old new or plastic? Australian Antique Collector, 27, 48-51.
  • West, J. 1985. Elephant seal scrimshaw and sealing on the 'Islands of Desolation'. Polar Record, 22, No. 141, 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. 8, (2) 82-95. Part 2. Classification, description and analysis of the artefacts. 9, (2) 26-39.
  • West, J. 1987. Australian Scrimshaw. Australiana, 9, (3) 71-83.
  • 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,.76, (2) 135-148.
  • West, J., 1991. Scrimshaw and the identification of sea mammal products.
    Journal of Museum Ethnography, 2 39-79.
  • West, J. and Credland, A.G. 1995. Scrimshaw: the art of the whaler. Hull: Hutton Press.
  • West, J. 1996. Scrimshaw. In: J. S. Turner (Ed.) The Dictionary of Art. London: Grove/Macmillan, Vol. 28, 302-303.
  • West, J. 1998. Review of: Dorothy Jean Ray (1996), A Legacy of Arctic Art. Seattle & London; University of Washington. Polar Record, 34, No.188, 69-70.
  • West, J., 1999. New research on the scrimshaw of Frederick Myrick. America in Britain (Journal of the American Museum, Bath), 37, 16-35.
  • Ridley, D.; Frank, S.M.; Madden, P.; Vardemann, P. and West, J. 2000. Frederick Myrick of Nantucket: scrimshaw catalogue raisonné. 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. 2000. The scrimshaw of Frederick Myrick: the rig and rigging of the whaling vessels Susan, Ann, Frances and Barclay, ca. 1829. The American Neptune, 60, (4) 391-411.
  • West, J. 2001. Scrimshaw in Cambridge. Wolfson College Magazine, 26, 110-121.
  • West, J. 2002. Scrimshaw. In: Bernard Stonehouse (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Antarctica & the Southern Oceans. p 227. Chichester: Wiley.
  • West, J. 2005. Scrimshaw. In: Mark Nuttall (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Arctic, Vol. 3, 1851-1853. London & New York; Routledge.
  • West, J. 2007. Review of: Stephen Hooper (2006), Pacific Encounters: art and divinity in Polynesia, London: British Museum. The Mariner's Mirror, 93, (2) 241-242.
  • Larkin, N.R.; West, J. and Porro, L. 2015. Cleaning a dolphin skull and mandible to enable assessment of unusual mid-nineteenth century scrimshaw. Journal of Natural Sciences Collections 2, 1-6.
  • In Press: 2017. An introduction to the London whaling industries (Arctic whaling 1611-1836, Southern whaling 1775-1859) including types of whale caught and where, and with scrimshaw portraits of some vessels. London Docklands History Society.

External activities

  • Member of the Society for Nautical Research (Council member 1989- 91). publishers of the journal The Mariner's Mirror.
  • Member of the Australian Association for Maritime History (publishers of the journal The Great Circle).
  • Main interests: 19th century mercantile and naval shipping: history, ship-types and rigging; the inshore fishing industry; marine painting; the polar world, and natural history especially botany, and in making jewellery.

I lecture on maritime subjects mainly to maritime museums and marine societies and respond to requests for information from across the world, mainly on maritime subjects and scrimshaw in particular.