Scrimshaw, depicting blindfolded horseman, sperm whale tooth, carved by Alfred Evans, Australia, 1855-1865
This is one of several pieces of scrimshaw donated to the museum in 1914 by the wife of Alfred Evans, who had carved these pieces between 1855 and 1865. Early pieces with a direct provenance to a carver are rare and ones from Australia even rarer. This piece was made from the tooth of a whale caught off the Australian coast in 1852. It depicts a blindfolded horseman, wearing a cape and helmet and brandishing a sword while on a rearing horse. The design has been traced from an illustration and the dots joined up using a knife or incising tool.
The word scrimshaw is primarily used to describe the carving and decoration of baleen (sometimes referred to as whalebone) and skeletal bones and teeth (sometimes referred to as ivory). Other materials used are horn, wood and walrus tusks. Some of the best known examples of the art of scrimshaw were made by whalers from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century when whaling ships used Australian and New Zealand ports to re-supply, which is why foreign scrimshaw is found in both these countries. Whaling was conducted on a smaller scale in Australia, making local scrimshaw harder to find.
Scrimshaw is essentially a folk art as most examples were produced by working men who found themselves far from home with time on their hands and carved scrimshaw objects to pass the time. Sailors away at sea for months or even years at a stretch carved baleen, teeth, and whalebone into a variety of forms. These included functional items such as tools, cultery and ship fittings, but the sailors also fabricated toys and jewellery.
The best known items associated with scrimshaw are the purely decorative engravings found on baleen and whale teeth. The subjects of these engravings are extremely varied; some were drawn freehand, based on a sailor's experience, while others were copied from popular magazines. Inscriptions, particularly those that identify ships and places, are rare and generally it is difficult to date a piece solely on stylistic grounds.
Whale scrimshaw objects were derived from two groups of whales: the Mysticeti (baleen whales), and the Odontoceti, the toothed whale. Mysticeti, 'Right' whales, are found in colder waters and were the first to be used commercially. Odontoceti, 'Sperm' whales, are found in the warmer waters of the Pacific and have an average of 25 teeth embedded in their lower jaw. After being scraped and polished, these were engraved with a sharp blade or point and then rubbed with ink or a mixture of oil and soot make the image stand out.
Althouh whaling flourished in the Pacific at the end of the eighteenth century, scrimshaw on whale teeth seems a rarity before the 1830s. One reason may have been the high price paid for whale tooth ivory in this period; scrimshaw making probably only became popular after the market was saturated and the price had dropped. The earliest identified engraver of whale teeth is the English whaling master Captain J. S. King who was active between 1817 and 1823.
Serious collecting of scrimshaw in America began in the 1940s when it was recognised as a distinct form of folk art. President Kennedy was a collector of scrimshaw, and this did much to popularise its collection. After he was assassinated in 1963 a piece of scrimshaw was placed alongside him in his coffin.
Geoff Barker, March, 2007
West, J., Credland, G., 'Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler', Hutton Press, Yorkshire, England, 1995
McClelland Gallery, 'Scrimshaw the Sailor's Art', McClelland Gallery, Victoria, Australia, 1986
This whale tooth scrimshaw was made by Alfred Evans in Australia, 1855-1865.
Scrimshandering, or scrimshaw, is a craft that was long practised by whale hunters. The origin of the word is obscure. It refers both to the technique and the finished product. Essentially, it is the carving or engraving of bone, ivory, shells, wood or any other suitable material. Contrary to popular belief, the craft is not confined to engraving on whale teeth and bone, although in this form it is very common. The origin of scrimshaw decoration is unknown, although suggestions range from the Eskimos to the South Sea Islanders. However, the craft with which we are familiar today developed on board whaling ships where the equipment was already at hand: sail needles, jack knives and other metal tools; whale or walrus teeth and bones; Indian ink or lamp black; illustrations from old newspapers and plenty of leisure time. During the course of a whaling voyage, which sometimes lasted up to five years, there would be long periods of calm when the ship was waiting for wind to take it to the whaling ground. To while away the time, sailors would occupy themselves with various shipboard crafts like rope or string work or wood carving. They would also draw or trace pictures onto bone from whales already caught and processed.
The technique of scrimshaw involved the scraping, filing and grinding of the object, before honing the surface (in the case of teeth and bone this was done with shark skin). With a smooth medium on which to work, sailors used a variety of tools (awls, gimlets, files, sail needles and knives) to incise the surface. Once the desired pattern had been completed, it was rubbed over with soot, tar, Indian ink or lamp black. Polishing removed the excess colour, leaving a graphic representation of fine black lines.
Illustrations from books or journals were traced onto the surface by pricking the outline of the picture with a pin. The dots were then joined up with incisions, and the process finished as usual. Objects produced by these methods were many and varied and include crimping wheels for decorating pie crusts, ink stands, cuff links, studs, walking sticks and knife handles. Teeth, bones, shells and wood were also lathe-turned, carved and skilfully inlaid to make cribbage boards and work boxes. The subjects depicted were as varied as the objects they adorn. Whaling scenes were popular, as were sailing ships, figures of gentlemen and ladies, and scenes taken from illustrations of classical subjects. For more information see: Keenan, Annette,. "Scrimshaw" in 'A Companion to the Mint Collection' (Sydney, 1982).