by Joseph H. Larnerd
Winterthur’s collection offers an excellent introduction to scrimshaw. A pie crimper, engraved teeth, and other objects attest to the diversity of artifacts made with whale bone and ivory. My thesis on a sperm whale tooth in the collection picturing War of 1812 naval captain James Biddle required I seek out collections where one could encounter more examples of scrimshaw types, subjects, and methods of production. How unique is the Biddle tooth’s iconography? How can its iconographical idiosyncrasies and materiality register Biddle’s lauded “coolness,” his “perseverance and self-possession in difficult emergencies”?1
A grant awarded by the Decorative Arts Trust (DAT) afforded three weeks of summer study in Massachusetts where I conducted thesis research on decorative sperm whale teeth engraved with portraits. I studied at the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) and Nantucket Whaling Museum (NWM) for two weeks. From August 20–28, I was a scholar-in-residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM), an institution housing the world’s largest scrimshaw collection. My summer research sought to historically contextualize the Biddle tooth. I also aspired to strengthen my connoisseurship skills. I will focus on the latter in this report.
Many scrimshanders worked whale teeth during idle time aboard. After a sperm whale was harpooned, captured, and brought alongside the ship, sailors boarded spermaceti and cut blubber to be rendered valuable oil. If they wished, whalemen also harvested the ivory teeth in the lower jaw. An older whale could have upwards of fifty teeth. These corporeal components, Charles R. Meyer states, served as “a side dish…to the main dish of making money.”2 After polishing a tooth, the sailor commenced carving. Teeth in Nantucket and New Bedford exhibit pursuit scenes, portraits, and other subjects commonly carved.
Whaling journals seldom discuss scrimshanding. The teeth, fortunately, testify to their means of decoration. Carvers employed a sharp implement—often a knife—to engrave teeth. Images could be drawn freehand or through a process called “pin-pricking.” This method involved laying a picture over the tooth and, using a pointed instrument, pricking the tooth along the image’s outline. Once the carver removed the picture, the pin pricks guided their incising. Once the image was drawn, the carver applied a dark substance, often lampblack, which settled into the marks. Polishing the tooth afterwards revealed the finished image.3
My summer research strengthened my connoisseurship skills, helping me bring a firsthand knowledge of scrimshaw production and subject matter to my study of the Biddle tooth. I have a better understanding of the process of producing Biddle’s pin-pricked portrait.4 The remaining iconography in the tooth appears to be done freehand. The Biddle tooth does not exhibit the work of an outstanding carver. Works by N.S. Finney at the NBWM, for example, evidence advanced handling. Yet the Winterthur piece’s iconographical peculiarities piqued my curiosity when I first encountered the tooth in July of 2011 and, after seeing hundreds of scrimshaw works this summer, they remain unique and thought-provoking.
For instance, Biddle appears to rest on a decorated and tiered platform, one foreign to extant depictions of the captain and portraits on sperm whale teeth I viewed in Nantucket and New Bedford. This and other features, I believe, picture the portrait as a statue, a bust on a labeled pedestal. I am currently considering how iconographical divergences from the originary print source—a print by Thomas Gimbrede published as early as 1815—and the tooth’s materiality elicit the sitter’s emotional character in ways contemporary portraits by Gimbrede, Moritz Furst, Charles Willson Peale, and others do not.
The DAT summer research grant helped me visit esteemed institutions to examine dozens of teeth in-person and up-close, making possible the invaluable sensory experience of holding a historical artifact in one’s hands. Staff at the NHA and the NBWM happily opened their considerable collections to me. I thank them and the DAT for facilitating summer research pertinent to my thesis.5
Decorated Sperm Whale Teeth in the Collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum,
1 “Biographical Notice of Captain James Biddle,” The Analectic Magazine VI (November, 1815), 398.
2 Charles R. Meyer, Whaling and the Art of Scrimshaw (New York: Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1976), 72.
3 For a recent, beautifully illustrated, and thorough introduction to scrimshaw, see Stuart Frank, Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved: Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum—A Comprehensive Catalog of the World’s Largest Collection (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2012).
4 Winterthur conservator Bruno Pouliot examined the tooth under a stereobinocular microscope on October 25, 2012. This process made clear the pricks along Biddle’s profile. He tentatively identified India ink in the tooth’s incised marks. Upcoming analytical tests will confirm this identification and also the composition of other coloring agents.
5 I also thank the Society of Winterthur Fellows for awarding funds for my summer thesis research.