skip to primary navigation skip to content

Dr. Janet West

Dr. Janet West

Emeritus Associate

Work centres on scrimshaw, the art of the whaleman



  • 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.


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


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. 1828-29 (see below). However, many fine scrimshanders remain anonymous alas, which is the case with most of the SPRI Collection.

During six months in 1983-84 I was able to travel extensively in Australia (partly aided by a grant from the Cambridge University Smuts Memorial Fund). I recorded many of the scrimshaw collections in Australian (including Tasmanian) museums and in some private collections. The records of this study were analysed in detail, and published in two parts in The Great Circle journal, 1986 and 1987. Following the publication of this extensive study Dr Stuart M. Frank, director of the Kendall Whaling Museum in Massachussets, offered me an honorary post of Advisory Curator of Scrimshaw at the Kendall Museum.

Sperm whale teeth decorated with scrimshaw became commercially valuable in the 1970s and by the 1990s a few pieces were selling for six-figure amounts. The work by the Nantucket scrimshander Frederick Myrick was much prized. In 1998 Dr. Stuart M. Frank, the director of the Kendall Whaling Museum, assembled a group of specialists to study as many examples as possible of Myrick scrimshaw believed to be genuine. I was an Advisory Curator and we were able to examine over 30 pieces in detail, 31 being accepted as genuine. It was a surprise to find that Myrick's technique changed drastically between 1828 and 1829, when he dated his work. This study formed a major contribution to the Kendall Whaling Museum Monograph number 14, and was published in 1999. My detailed study of the rig and rigging of the four whaling vessels that Myrick named in 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 be illustrated only on scrimshaw.

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 2013 I was invited to be the opening speaker at an international conference on London's whaling history, held in the Museum of London's Docklands. I was able to use some images from the SPRI collection to illustrate my presentation. The proceedings of this conference were published in 2018.

I was invited to contribute to an international conference on the history of whale fishery in Australasian waters. It was held in Hobart, Tasmania in 2019. My illness prevented me from travelling to Hobart, but my paper on the life of Londoner James Choyce was read on my behalf by an Australian colleague.


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. It was the first book about scrimshaw written from the British perspective. Although long out of print, SPRI still has a few copies.

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.

In 1991 I developed a very painful neuritis that severely damaged my spinal sensory nerves. This prevented my working for some years. A slow recovery followed but chronic pain still hampers my work and mobility.


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 raisonnĂ©. 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.
  • West, J. 2018. An introduction to the London whaling industries - and some related scrimshaw. In: Chris Ellmers and Charles Payton (Eds). London and the Whaling Trade. Proceedings of a Docklands History Group Symposium, March 2013. 9-31.
  • West, J. 2018. Ivory lobby is putting fine scrimshaw at risk. Letter to the Editor, Financial Times 7/8 July 2018, 10.
  • West, J. 2020. London to the South Seas: three journals kept by James Choyce on the whalers Asp (1814-16), Eliza Frances (1818-20) and Sarah Ann (1820-23) to the Coast of Peru. In: Broxham, Graham & Chatwin, Dale (Eds). Papers of the Hobart Whaling Conference 6-7 May 2019. Hobart (Tas): Navarine.

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. I have recently been able to advise some postgraduate students about the scrimshaw collection at the Polar Museum.