Published: August 13, 2019
Hot off the press – and the latest must-have book for the library of any serious maritime antiques collector – is Scrimshaw on Nantucket, The Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association (2019), by Stuart Frank, PhD. Antiques & The Arts Weekly asked Frank to share his thoughts on the book, the collection and if there is any piece of scrimshaw he himself has been in pursuit of.
You’ve been writing on scrimshaw for years. What is it about scrimshaw that most captivates you?
I became a scrimshaw historian only by default. At my first museum job at Mystic Seaport in the 1970s, I became interested in the shipboard artworks and songs of American sailors, of which scrimshaw constitutes only a part. But in the 1980s, when I was director and chief curator of the Kendall Whaling Museum, which had the world’s largest and most comprehensive scrimshaw collection (now part of the New Bedford Whaling Museum), I came to realize that nobody had ever done any serious, systematic, scientific research on scrimshaw. So with a small coterie of maritime specialists in the USA, Australia and Britain who had come to analogous realizations, we began, individually and collaboratively, to apply orthodox art-historical methodologies to the study of scrimshaw – to examine surface characteristics in macro and micro scale; compare the works of different whalemen-artists; and develop attributions across the usual boundaries and constraints of nationality and individual collections, together with studying the origins and history of scrimshaw-making; the physiognomy of the materials; and the practical facts of how, when, where and by whom it was made. For me, the mystery, intrigue and captivation are in the details.
In the course of writing this book, what was the most surprising thing you learned from the scrimshaw collections at the NHA?
Two unique features of the NHA scrimshaw collection are, to me, outstanding and unique. One is that a very significant portion of pieces in the collection can be attributed to whalemen-artists from Nantucket itself; and that the NHA accordingly holds a hefty handful of pieces that are substantially earlier than most other scrimshaw – that is, they were made before 1820, at the very dawn of the era in which British and American mariners began producing scrimshaw.
Is there a misconception about scrimshaw you frequently encounter?
The greatest misconceptions about scrimshaw are that just about anything a sailor made using a knife and that just about any artwork or decorative object that has scratchings on it to form the design are called “scrimshaw” by the poorly informed. But scrimshaw is a sailor-world technical term, meaning decorative and practical objects made by sailors utilizing the hard byproducts of whaling – whale ivory, walrus ivory, skeletal bone, and baleen – often in combination with other “found” materials. Other uses of the word arise from the superficial similarity of other kinds of workmanship (for example, carving on wood or antler; ship models; and so on). However, for maritime museums and for the book, we use the term in its original context as an occupational art of sailors using ivory, bone, and baleen from the marine mammals encountered in the whale hunt.
You’ve arguably handled more teeth than just about anyone. Are you still finding new and exciting things when you come across one you aren’t familiar with?
First of all, it’s not all about “teeth,” and among the greatest strengths of the NHA collection are what we call “built” pieces that combine whale and walrus ivory and bone with other materials to make storage boxes, sewing fancies, kitchen implements, hand-tools, and so on.
As for “new and exciting”: Along with “my” Scrimshaw Forensics team in New Bedford and regarding the many pieces that are brought to our attention, there are two manifestations of scrimshaw that are particularly exciting – newly discovered or newly identified works by artists already familiar to us and works the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Every now and then, an authentic masterpiece comes along that we are privileged to examine, vet and photograph.
Are there gaps in NHA’s scrimshaw collection you’d like to see filled?
Every collection has its shortfalls, but any such thing in the NHA collection is only by comparison with the hundreds of other objects with which the collection overflows. For example, there’s a tooth that has a superb landscape view of Washington’s tomb and estate at Mount Vernon, but only one with a portrait of Washington himself and none of Lincoln. And notwithstanding that some of the sailors’ hand-tools (fids, seam rubbers, and some more exotic) are as good as they get, one could wish there were more edge tools and carpentry tools: there are no standard sailor knives and not even one scrimshaw saw.
Is there a scrimshaw Holy Grail, a White Whale of a tooth, that you’ve heard about but never seen?
More than 30 years ago in the British whaling port of Hull (Kingston-upon-Hull), I was told one day of a four-poster bed on which all four posts were extra-long narwhal tusks. Later that day, some other informant told me that each of the posts on the bed was made from three conjoined narwhal tusks, making 12 in all – only, in both cases, the informants hadn’t actually seen the bed themselves, had only heard of it, or knew somebody who knew someone who had seen it; and the owner had been in Hull only a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months before; and so on. The usual urban myth with no sold basis in fact. But there could be such a bed…
Does this book cover new ground that has been previously unexplored?
The NHA scrimshaw collection has never been comprehensively cataloged, was never before adequately attributed and much of it was never before photographed – so the great challenge and the most gratifying feature of the project was to publish one of the world’s great scrimshaw collections which had never been published or documented before.
—Madelia Hickman Ring
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