Rob Hardy on books


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Authentic Folk Art from Melville's World



Rob Hardy


You will indulge me if I start this review with a long quotation from one of my favorite novels, Moby Dick: "Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner's fancy." 




The quotation comes from one of the three chapters Herman Melville devoted to his ideas about the depictions of whales in books and paintings, and engraved upon the teeth of the very whales the whalemen had taken. Stuart M. Frank in 1986 turned out one of the most useful books about Melville's great work, a commentary on the pictorial chapters of the book along with reproductions of the pictures that Melville mentioned. Melville's reference to the "skrimshaw" depicting whales gets a few pages of pictures in Frank's book Herman Melville's Picture Gallery. Frank when that book came out was the director of the Kendall Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. The New Bedford Whaling Museum absorbed the Kendall in 2001, creating the greatest collection of scrimshaw works in the world, and Frank is now the museum's senior curator. He is thus in a perfect position to bring out Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (David R. Godine, Publisher). It is a big book, a four-pounder whose large glossy pages contain hundreds of pictures of strange and beautiful artifacts made of whales' teeth, walrus tusks, whalebones, and baleen. Frank has provided commentary on each item, remarks on provenance and, although many of the works are anonymous, an introduction to the life of the artist if he is known. Although there are many whale-tooth pictures here of ships at work hunting the whale (making this a vital volume for Melville fans), there are also pictures of much else that took the "mariner's fancy," as well as domestic tools, vases, walking canes, and much more. It is a magnificent view of the whale fishery and the men who worked in it. 




It is a surprise to find that scrimshaw is such a young art form, born of the peculiar conditions of whaling, especially American sperm whaling. It is true that Vikings and Eskimos carved things out of whale bones and teeth (examples, of course, are illustrated here), but the particular nature of American whaling brought out the craft. A trade in whale oil blossomed in the nineteenth century, and New England sailors might originally have gone out on relatively local voyages to take the whales, voyages of a mere few weeks. As the local fishery was depleted, voyages became longer, perhaps five years. A long voyage out to the whaling grounds in the Pacific or Indian Ocean could be accomplished with a relatively small crew if it were a matter of just getting a ship there, but a whaler had to carry a further crew of officers, harpooners, and oarsman for the hunt itself. During the long voyages out and in, and during any time during the hunt waiting for whales to appear, these men had little to do once the whale was caught, the body stripped of blubber, the blubber rendered into oil, the oil barreled, and the barrels stowed. "With modest beginnings in the 1820s," writes Frank, "a great, universal florescence of scrimshaw followed in the 1830s and 40s, when some of the best pictorial scrimshaw was produced."  




The timing for this art form is so particular we can even know its very beginnings: "The first American known to have made pictures or inscriptions on a sperm whale tooth was Edward Burdett (1805 - 1833) of Nantucket, a career whaleman whose production was prodigious until his untimely death, when, as first mate of the whaleship Montano of Nantucket, he became fouled in a whale line and was dragged overboard and drowned." Naturally there are examples of Burdett's work here, and they are typical of what was to come: pictures of ships, and boats going after leaping whales, and also domestic scenes of village life. One of the surprises here is that not all the pictures are nautical. Often a sailor would take a fancy to an illustration from a magazine, such as a lady dressed in finery, and would reproduce it on a whale tooth. Sometimes research has brought forth the very illustration used. One tooth here has a husband, wife, and two children in a homey scene, and is indeed labeled "Domestic Happiness." It isn't surprising that the sailors' thoughts would turn to home during their long years out. It is perhaps surprising that since the artists were young men and were sailors that the depictions were not more naughty, but "scrimshaw was rarely overtly prurient or pornographic: most of it was the kind of thing that a young lad would willingly show to his mother and sisters." 




The one exception was a "Naughty Lady" motif, revealing a woman's bare leg as the handle of a cane or other utensil. Canes also got topped with carvings of monkey fist knots, birds' heads, fists, snakes, geometrical figures, and more. More ambiguous was the Naughty Lady form used as the legs for a spool stand. Besides the pictures the sailors would trace out on the bones and teeth, they made furniture and domestic tools; this not only proved a focus for their nostalgia for home, but would result in dandy presents for mothers, wives, or sisters. Pie crimpers, for instance, were made with handles and crimping wheels in diverse forms (the Naughty Lady motif for a handle is among the many shown here). The sailors made boxes and baskets out of strips of baleen. The most intricate of gadgets shown here are "swifts," tools for holding a skein of yarn while it was wound into a ball for knitting. Again, this was a call to domesticity: if he were at home, the sailor himself would perform the function, with his arms spread to hold the skein. There are many swifts shown here, intricate mechanical gadgets with scores of moving parts that could take years to make and then to decorate. 




Scrimshaw is not dead. There are shore-bound artisans who are still engraving pictures on whale ivory if they can get it, or walrus tusk or bone. There are even scrimshaw works produced by sailors in the modern whale fishery, and some are shown here, though they depict iron ships with harpoon guns rather than any whaling world that Melville would recognize. The nineteenth century specimens laid out here in handsome photographs are the real show (and I'd rather not think about modern whaling anyway). This fine volume brilliantly recalls the details of a lost and fascinating world. 




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