Published: July 18, 2000
BY JUDITH N. LUND
DARTMOUTH, MASS. – Scrimshaw originated as the occupational art of the whalemen. With both time and whale products available on board their ships, the whalers filled the long hours between sightings of whale by crafting and decorating skeletal bone and sperm whale teeth, baleen, and occasional other materials found during the voyages. They made useful objects such as tools and a variety of decorative objects, many of which were intended gifts for loved ones at home.
William Perry was one of the first, if not the first, of a new breed of scrimshanders who worked in the materials and style of the earlier whalemen to make useful and decorative objects from whale parts, principally for sale in the marketplace. One tends to think of John F. Kennedy as fueling the scrimshaw collecting interest in the 1960s, but many collections now in museums: the collection at the Kendall Whaling Museum; the Snow, Hathaway, and Howland collections at New Bedford Whaling Museum, for example show us that the market for scrimshaw existed long before pubic interest inflated prices. So, from the time of whaling, there was a market, and it was natural that someone would come along to satisfy it in the 1920s through the 1950s.
William Perry was born in Oakland, California in 1894, the son of a New Bedford-born whaleman, Frank Antone Perry. Perry the father served a brief part of the voyage on the bark Morning Star of New Bedford from 1883 to 1888, (He deserted in Brava a month into the voyage) and on the bark Sea Fox of New Bedford, 1887-1889. Perry’s mother, Emily was described as “a very young girl from the Azores.” Shortly after their marriage Frank Perry and his wife went to Oakland, Calif., the location of a large Azoriean expatriate community, looking for work. Their son William was born in Oakland. The family soon returned to New Bedford where the father found work as a weaver in the cotton mills. Though William Perry neither was born nor died in New Bedford, he spent essentially his entire life in the city.
He was artistically talented as a youth, decorating the schoolroom blackboards for holidays, and winning a prize for a painting at age 13. When he finished school, Perry wanted to follow his father, to go whaling, but his mother did not want him to risk the dangers and uncertainties of the business. With his artistic talent, he tried his hand at the Pairpoint Glass factory in New Bedford, cutting glass. He says in an interview published in The American Neptune in 1952 (the only source of information on Perry heretofore published) that a Portuguese son of a whaler was not welcomed in the cutting shop, and so he left. A study of glass workers as listed in the New Bedford city directories for this period indicates there are few people with Portuguese names working in the glass industry at that time.
His formal employment as listed in the above-mentioned interview and in the city directories shows Perry pursued a number of menial jobs over his career – cook on a lightship, gardener, janitor, watchman, for a while watchman on the Charles W. Morgan when it was berthed at Round Hill in Dartmouth. In his later years, Perry worked as a watchman for Aerovox, a few blocks from his home in a three family tenement north of the center of city. Perry produced scrimshaw in his off-hours.
Perry was also a tattoo artist. His son says he was known as “Perry, the tattoo artist.” Collection notes from Mystic Seaport’s Registrar’s Office show two Perry pieces in their collection described as “A good example of modern work done by a tattoo artist in New Bedford.”
Perry’s wife, Florence, died in November 1965. After his wife’s death, Albion Stone, friend as well as business associate, helped Perry get into a public housing development. Within a month of his wife’s death, Perry himself suffered a stroke which incapacitated his right arm. Having lost his wife and his pastime, he had no reason to live. His care was taken over by his older son and daughter-in-law who took him to live with their family in New Mexico, but that was not to be for long. Perry died in Albuquerque on February 16, 1966 of another stroke.
Perry credits Jimmy Carr, an antiques dealer, with getting him interested in scrimshaw at about the age of 23. James A. Carr ran the Whaling City Antique and Curio Shop, first out of his house at 32 North Water Street at about that time, and then at 20 William Street, the location of the garden which is now being incorporated into the new New Bedford Whaling Museum entrance. The historic buildings on that location were lost in the gas explosions which rocked the Historic District of New Bedford in the winter of 1977.
An important key to Perry’s productive history is Albion Stone, a jeweler who had a shop on Union and Purchase Streets in New Bedford for about 45 years between 1930 and the mid ’70’s. Albion was a well-respected jeweler and purveyor of fine gifts. Stone provided a ready outlet for Perry’s work. According to Perry’s son, Perry also worked for William Kranzler, who sold antiques from his shop across the street from the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Kranzler was well known for his lack of interest in things modern, but he always had (before the Endangered Species act) a good supply of raw teeth in his shop. Stone and Kranzler had been friends from their youth, so the connection was no doubt that Kranzler supplied the teeth to Stone who gave them to Perry to decorate. The son also related that his father worked for Manuel Macedo, a dealer in maritime antiques whose stable of producers included the scrimshander Manuel Cunha of Madeira, whose story the Kendall Whaling Museum has published.
In the published interview, Perry estimated he had made over 1,000 pieces of scrimshaw, most of which are sperm whale teeth engraved with a scene, most frequently of whaling. He occasionally decorated flat or curved panbone plaques, cut ends of teeth, and tusks. He also decorated the small pieces, disks which Albion Stone cut from used piano keys, and later glued into jewelry findings. Over time many pieces made by William Perry have found their ways into public collections. Nantucket Whaling Museum holds the largest public collection of Perry’s work. Pieces can also be found in the collections of Mystic Seaport Museum and New Bedford Whaling Museum, among others, as well as in private collections of scrimshaw. A survey of about 90 pieces, or nearly ten percent of Perry’s output, allows some generalizations to be made. The pieces in this sample are almost all very large teeth, 7 to 8 inches in length. (This may reflect the fact the pieces seen were in the hands of museums or scrimshaw collectors, who may have selected the pieces for their size.
Most of his pieces are signed, either with “Wm Perry,” “Perry,” or the initials “W and P.” One sometimes has to look hard to find where he hid his initials within the design. His son relates that, at first, Perry didn’t sign his work. Soon he began to develop a reputation for fine work, and so he was proud to sign his pieces. It was then suggested to him that whalemen didn’t sign their work, and so therefore Perry’s work didn’t appear “real.” After this time, Perry began to hide his initials in the work, in order to sign them without appearing to have done so.
He engraved the pieces using a point – a scratcher, as his son calls it – a pointed tool mounted in a bone handle. Perry is shown holding the tool in the portrait photograph. His son also said he had a jackknife, but there is no evidence that he used it to engrave scrimshaw. Perhaps it was used for his carvings.
The man was also a good technician. His pieces are carefully done and in good detail. However, technician though he was, Perry was not very original. All the pieces studied appear to be copied from one printed source or another. His choice of images may have been at the suggestion of Albion Stone, who was selling his work, and knew that favorite whaling scenes sold well in New Bedford. Perry’s son also reports that his father would copy photographic portraits on special order. Perry was tracing designs and transferring them to teeth. A collection of his drawings for scrimshaw is held in private hands, and provides direct evidence of this. In fact, for many of his designs, he was tracing directly from postcards – an inexpensive and conveniently sized source of designs.
For years, postcard versions of the most popular whaling prints were available in New Bedford. What better source of cheap and ready-made designs for scrimshaw? Perry used many times over the prints entitled “Sperm Whaling No 2. The Capture” and “Sperm Whaling, No 2. The Conflict,” rework versions of well known, whaling images published by Charles Taber of New Bedford. Next to “The Capture,” his favorites were two postcards by Francisco Rapoza which show the Charles W. Morgan. Perry used this design to make many duplicates of the Morgan and the Wanderer under full sail. Morgan and Wanderer appear as decorated teeth, and as teeth mounted to form bookends.
Perry also must have owned Gordon Grant’s book Greasy Luck, which was published in the early 30s and is illustrated by the artist with a series of pen and ink drawings. Images from that book appear on several of Perry’s pieces, particularly the drawings Grant entitled “Going On,” “Thar She Blows,” and “Fitting Out.” Occasional other printed sources appear in Perry’s output, such as Currier’s version of “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie,” New Bedford street scenes based on the work of the artist William Allen Wall, and a number of Nantucket scenes based on printed material.
Perry experimented with aging teeth, that is, making teeth look old. Perry’s son relates that his father smoked the teeth over a match, and then rubbed the smoke with a rag. A few pieces in the collections of Mystic Seaport Museum and of Nantucket Historical Association have a brown overall treatment, which attest to these experiments. The technique produces an unusually dark brown, beyond what would have been occasioned by the passage of time.
In addition to engraving surfaces, Perry also carved eagle heads. His son reports that he did this often in addition to his engraving, and many heads did turn up at Bourne auction sales over the years which were credited to Perry. Perry’s eagles have a bold comma-like brow over the eye. These are the type consistently attributed to Perry by Richard Bourne. This conclusion is supported by the privately owned eagle head pictured above, which is signed inside in pencil, WP.
A few oil paintings by William Perry survive, mostly in the hands of the family. One example is the Wanderer, a favorite subject. His son owns the Charles W. Morgan. Another of his, family owned, shows an unidentified boatyard in winter, and appears to be entirely original. The same family owns what appears to be a Dutch scene, of a young woman milking a cow. Family tradition tells that Perry was inspired to paint again after spending time on the Morgan at Round Hill, which was a gathering place for Harry Neyland, Francisco Rapoza, and other local New Bedford artists.
Bold careful work, familiar scenes from prints, “The Capture” in particular, Charles W. Morgan and Wanderer, adorn Perry’s work. After Perry became disabled by his stroke, Albion Stone needed a new source of supply. He enlisted Gil Dolman to continue what had proven successful. Though Dolman felt he could improve on Perry’s work, he was told “Make it just like Perry did.” And so he did. Fortunately, he signed his work, and so it is not mistaken for Perry’s, but it does look identical.
Albert M. Williams
The story would not be complete, however, without the introduction of Perry’s collaborator, Albert M. Williams, a woodworker and sometime scrimshander himself, and the person who made, among other things, the mounts for Perry’s very popular bookends. The name of Williams was a well-known name in the Azorean community in the south end of New Bedford; three generations of Williams’ served the Azorean community as proprietors of one of its largest funeral homes. Williams, who was born October 25, 1898 and died February 22, 1959, had a professional education from a Boston school devoted to the funeral trade. He was employed in the family business for his entire life. Creating things of wood and bone was his avocation. Williams output was relatively small, and was held almost entirely by the family (with the exception of the work he did for Perry) until his daughter sold most of her things at Bourne’s in 1972.
Williams carved and shaped; he did not engrave. The New Bedford newspaper did a large spread on Williams in 1956, picturing things he had made, which, along with the Bourne sale of family rdf_Descriptions, helps to identify exactly what pieces he did make, since he didn’t sign his work.
Williams was a good and careful craftsman. He admits in the newspaper interview to having specialized in carving whales – a collection of his whales was on display in a store window in downtown New Bedford (the impetus for the newspaper article) on the occasion of the Moby-Dick movie premiere in the city. In the article accompanying the pictures, he said he spent many hours in preparation for carving, studying whales and talking to former whalemen, something which would have been easy in his neighborhood. He made whales of wood, of skeletal bone, and of whale ivory. Barbara Johnson had this fine board of Perry’s whales made of ivory which was sold in December of 1983. The Kendall Whaling Museum has in its collection eight carved whales mounted on a piece of Formica, which can be attributed to Williams.
In addition to mounting Perry’s engraved teeth on bookends, making both wooden and bone mounts, Williams made a variety of objects out of bone and ivory. He made several jagging wheels, both of original designs and, unfortunately accurate copies of pieces in the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. One, an imaginative satyr, was part of the body of work sold by his daughter in 1972. For his daughter, he made an elaborate desk set, which included a large Perry tooth engraved with a capture scene. That, too, has found its way to the marketplace and is now in a private collection. He mounted teeth on corkscrews and bottle openers. Williams fancy turned to atypical scrimshaw creatures. Snakes wrap around the pen of the desk set, and around the wonderful cane, topped with an alligator, pictured above.
Williams, too, carved eagle heads. His eagles are a different shape from those carved by William Perry, and can be easily distinguished. The feathers are more distinct, and the eagle has a pronounced rectangular topknot of feathers.
Williams’ story is a small adjunct to that of Perry. He did make some very interesting creations out of ivory and bone. However, wood was his principal medium, and whales his principal output, except for wooden bookends and bases for whale teeth decorated by William Perry.
These two men, both Americans of Azorean background, working together and alone, helped to keep alive the art of the whalemen as the whaling industry died out. Though never having been to sea themselves, they were steeped in the traditions of the city of New Bedford and the Azores islands. They put their artistic talents to use for added income (Perry) and recreation (Williams) while keeping alive that tradition as practitioners of an art which today is seen in the Azores and in the United States in every maritime center.
Judith N. Lund, former curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is now an independent research scholar.
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