The art of the scrimshanderer

Published: Tuesday 4th April 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Hull Maritime Museum has the largest collection of scrimshaw in the whole of Europe. But what exactly is it?

Beautiful and wide-ranging, scrimshaw is a type of artwork produced by whalers in the 1700s.

It involves inscribing text and images onto bone or ivory. It was used as a way to pass the time and create mementoes of long voyages spent at sea.

Most commonly used were the byproducts of marine mammals, such as the bone and teeth of whales and the tusks of walruses.

Firstly, you would have to polish and clean the bone or tooth to make a smooth, blank canvas for carving. This was often done with rough sharkskin.

Whalers would then engrave the material with a sharp instrument and rub ink, candle black, soot or tobacco juice into the carvings.

Sometimes other coloured ink was used in the artwork. Afterwards, the artist would re-polish the item and remove any excess black.

This method was very effective and could be done in-between laborious shifts. Whilst out at sea, men would often spend a long time with nothing to do, so scrimshandering was a great hobby if you got bored easily.

Whaling was a dangerous, extreme job and this creative outlet allowed them to document and record experiences. It was also a way of expressing feelings of isolation and loneliness when homesick.

Whalers took a lot of inspiration from their maritime environment. For example, there are many designs that involve depictions of ships and vessels, as well as the animals that they hunted.

Depending on the skill of the artist, and how rocky the boat was, some of the artwork is very intricate. Detailed designs of extravagant ships and anatomical illustrations of whales were not uncommon.

Nautical mythology can also be seen on some of the scrimshaws. The artists often represented gods of the sea, like Neptune and Poseidon, as well as the nymph Amphitrite.

Meanwhile, those who were deeply religious would carve images of biblical stories and characters.

Whalers that missed their homes would often conjure up portrayals of fashionable ladies that they saw in magazines and books. Others would draw their loved ones as a reminder of home.

Many scrimshaw objects were purely for decoration and would be taken back to their land-dwelling loved ones. These keepsakes would be gifted to family, friends and partners to cherish whilst the man was at sea, often for years at a time.

However, some that have been found have a function. For example, there are walking sticks, toys and games, ladles and engraved tools.

Some items also came in handy on board, such as seam rubbers. This tool was used to produce sharp folds in sailmaking.

The word scrimshandering originally applied to all hobbies. The captain would tell the crew to “be about your scrimshandering” after they had completed all work onboard the ship.

Scrimshandering was a delicate art and died out along with the whaling industry in the 1830s. However, Hull Maritime Museum has a huge collection of scrimshaws that you can view and admire.

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Published: Tuesday 4th April 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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