By Bob Jackman
SHARON, MASS. – From June 23 to 25 the Kendall Whaling Museum hosted its tenth annual Scrimshaw Collectors’ Weekend. Twelve papers with extensive slide illustrations were delivered along with several ad hoc talks, and two demonstrations. This continues to be the premier annual scrimshaw event in North America.
New Discoveries On Antique Scrimshaw
One discovery was a walrus tusk engraved by Benjamin Blossom who Ridley called “possibly the greatest scrimshander. He was so skilled that he was able to engrave parallel lines a quarter millimeter apart. His work was really exceptional.”
Blossom’s work was featured at the 1999 Scrimshaw Collectors’ Weekend, and a few weeks later a New Hampshire lady offered an engraved walrus tusk to dealer Andy Jacobson. He recognized characteristics similar to Blossom rdf_Descriptions at the symposium. He brought the tusk to the Kendall Museum where curator Stuart Frank and Don Ridley determined that the tusk had indeed been engraved by Blossom.
Ridley also updated the symposium on recent developments concerning Myrick teeth. Frederick Myrick was the Nantucket seaman who shipped out on one voyage of Susan, and scrimshawed sperm whale teeth with a complex design of original motifs including the whalers Susan, Barclay, Frances, and Ann. The price of a single Myrick tooth is now approaching $100,000. Over the past 12 months, the museum was told of three Myrick teeth that had never been mentioned in the literature. One of those claims appeared to be spurious. The tooth never materialized and the person claiming to have the tooth cited experts who did not verify his account. The other two teeth were examined by Ridley and curator Frank who determined the teeth were engraved by Myrick.
A third major discovery developed from the systematic examination of scrimshaw at the Kendall Whaling Museum by Don Ridley. Several years ago Ridley had assigned the name Ceres A to an unidentified man who had engraved a number of fine scrimshaw objects. This past year Ridley noted those works had the same iconographic motifs as another group of objects that family oral tradition linked to Shubael Spooner. When the engravings were compared under 20 to 60 power magnification, they were found to share a similar set of characteristics. The weight of the evidence indicates that the scrimshander assigned the name Ceres A was actually Shubael Spooner.
Bill Gillickson’s Keynote Address
Artist and scrimshander Bill Gillickson of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia delivered the keynote address on “Scrimshaw Beyond the Norm.” While living in Massachusetts in 1975, Gillickson authored the highly successful book The Scrimshander, the first book on modern scrimshaw. He is a fine contemporary scrimshander working with the traditional subjects.
Gillickson reviewed the rising acceptance of modern scrimshaw. He recalled that several decades ago Marion Brewington, the first Kendall curator, told him that no more scrimshaw was being made. Gillickson noted that Gary Tonkin had founded an Australian school of scrimshaw and the United States had several thousand listed scrimshanders divided into a Northwest school and an East Coast school. He expressed the opinion that scrimshaw was a living form that should be seen as a constantly evolving nautical form of ivory engraving.
Two themes ran through Gillickson’s presentation. The first stated that art historians place low esteem on current work because they see so much of it. He argued that what is happening now is history, and future historians will find today’s society to be fascinating. The second theme maintained that some current work is extraordinary, and as an example Gillickson cited the work currently being done by Bob Weiss of Norwalk, Conn. He specifically spoke about the Constitution tooth engraved by Weiss, and which sold for $40,000, as reported in a large article in Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
At one point Gillickson asserted that Nineteenth Century scrimshanders aboard whalers produced scrimshaw commercially. In discussions, other modern scrimshanders also embraced that view. That view is totally contrary to contemporaneous Nineteenth Century accounts. In American whaling literature there are over 6,000 identified passages that refer to scrimshaw. Kendall curator Stuart Frank pointed out that in only one case was there a reference to work of scrimshaw being sold. Furthermore, in that case the maker believed his sweetheart had married a rival and thereby made surplus of an rdf_Description that he had created for her. All other period accounts that ascribe motives for scrimshawing report that scrimshaw was made for the sailors, for presentation, and for their loved ones.
Scrimshaw By Gary Tonkin, Albany, Australia
Much of the weekend was devoted to the scrimshaw of Australian Gary Tonkin, who delivered two talks and one demonstration, while many other speakers made reference to his work.
Whalers hunted whales on traditional feeding grounds, calving waters, and the migration routes between them. One concentrated whale population was along the western shore of Australia and up into Indonesian waters. The area became known as both the Western Australia fishery and the New Holland (Indonesia) fishery. As a young man, Gary Tonkin worked in the whaling industry. Twenty-five years ago he began dealing in whale teeth and engraving some scrimshaw. Today he is considered Australia’s leading scrimshander. He is based in Albany, Australia – exactly at the opposite spot on the globe from Boston.
Tonkin uses traditional scrimshaw techniques, and he represents most of the traditional scrimshaw subjects. In recent years, he has created works in series rather than as single objects. Most of those series have documented the history of the Western Australian whale fishery. That fishery was conducted both by vessels based in Australian ports, and by Yankee whalers out of New Bedford, Nantucket, and Salem. All six series that Tonkin discussed in detail at this symposium portrayed memorable moments of Yankee whalers in Australian waters. Federal laws and regulations prohibited bringing the teeth physically into the country, and therefore the gallery display presented photographs of the teeth rather than the teeth themselves.
Eric Larson of the Providence Children’s Museum presented the symposium with the colorful historical events behind Tonkin’s Catalpa series. In 1866 English authorities arrested 280 Fenians (Irish nationalists) and shipped them to a penal colony in Western Australia. In 1869 with the assistance of the local priest and the warden’s daughter, Fenian convict John Boyle O’Reilly escaped to the Yankee whaler Gazelle which took him to America. He became a prominent Boston author whose writings were later quoted in speeches by Mayor Honey Fitzgerald and the mayor’s grandson John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Several years later Boston Fenians began planning a military action to rescue six former soldiers still held in Australia. O’Reilly convinced them that a rescue by whalers would be more successful than a military attack. The Fenians purchased the whaler Catalpa, and dispatched her to the Western Australian fisheries. In 1876 the Catalpa rescued the six remaining Fenians.
Kendall curator Stuart Frank presented a paper that demonstrated glimpses of the whaling life revealed by contemporaneous ballads composed on ship. His focus was on music created aboard the whaler Kathleen that enjoyed 50 years of prosperous voyages and particularly good morale. However the Kathleen’s good luck ended abruptly off the Brazilian coast when an angry whale attacked broadside and stowed in the hull. Imagery from individual stanzas was used by Gary Tonkin to engrave one jawbone and the 21 teeth it supported.
Dr Jack Chang and Ivory Science
For the past decade, Dr Jack Chang of Colorado has extended scientific understanding on ivory. This year Dr Jack introduced three new scientific topics. First he suggested, “I am increasingly skeptical about the traditional nomenclature for whale teeth. My review of the nomenclature system is not complete, but to this point it suggests that a new nomenclature system might be needed.”
Dr Jack’s next inquiry was about enamel on sperm whale teeth. He stated, “All the scientific descriptions of sperm whale teeth have stated that the tip of the tooth is covered with enamel. I wonder if those writers have ever seen a whale’s tooth. Has anyone here ever seen a sperm whale tooth with enamel? [audience laughs] I thought those written accounts may have been based on young whales. The teeth I have seen from juvenile sperm whales have not had enamel. If you read the government’s 37-page instructions for recognizing sperm whale teeth, it talks about an enamel tip.”
Dr Jack’s other area of inquiry was into matching teeth from a single whale. A sperm whale does not have teeth in its upper jaw, and it has 42 teeth in the lower. Teeth from a single whale have similar profiles. This can be seen in the illustrations of this article by comparing the various teeth decorated with scenes from the Kathleen, which are from the same whale. Dr Jack is testing an hypothesis that 21 teeth on the left jaw are mirror images of the 21 teeth on the right jaw. For example, the fifth tooth in the right side is a mirror image of the fifth tooth on the left side. He asked enthusiasts who have matching pairs of teeth in their collection to contact him. He would like to perform several noninvasive scientific tests on these pairs.
Judith Lund on Perry Scrimshaw
Former New Bedford Whaling Museum curator Judith Lund delivered a fine paper on New Bedford scrimshander William Perry. Perry was an important transitional figure between traditional scrimshanders on whalers and modern scrimshanders working on land. The Lund paper was rich in fresh insights and factual material that has never been published. Next week’s issue of Antiques and the Arts Weekly will contain Judith Lund’s paper on the scrimshaw of William Perry.