A very popular form of artistic expression in the 19th century, scrimshaw is largely synonymous with the whaling heritage of the Azores islands, but the tradition has all but disappeared due to the diminishing supply of whales’ teeth.
Scrimshaw refers to the fine art and intricate technique of carving or engraving whale ivory, whalebone, walrus tusks, etc. as a leisure occupation.
The origin of the word scrimshaw remains somewhat vague, but it most likely derives from skrimshank, an old English word for a time-waster or someone who shirks their responsibilities.
Long outliving the whaling industry itself, this rare and quite unique style of artistic expression flourished and was once being practised on seafaring vessels all over the world.
During long periods of time spent at sea, the whalers took up the art-form as a means to passing the time, using the materials they had readily to hand.
Scrimshaw dates right back to the Stone Age when one of mankind’s earliest artists etched the figure of a mammoth onto a piece of ivory. Dark brown in colour, the carving stands out in stark relief against the mammoth tusk it is engraved upon.
Unearthed in northern Russia, the tusk has been carbon dated to around 12,000 years ago and is one of the oldest pieces of art in the world, making its creator the first-ever known scrimshaw artist.
Archaeologists working in North America have also discovered works of art etched onto ivory by native Americans in 100-200 AD, but it was the Yankee whalers of the 1800s who are credited with popularising and actually naming the art-form known today as scrimshaw.
In his famous whaling novel, Moby Dick, Herman Melville referred to ‘lively sketches of whales and whaling scenes, engraved by the fishermen themselves on sperm whale-teeth’.
Scrimshaw received widespread recognition when President John F. Kennedy declared himself to be an enthusiastic collector, thus making it much more visible to the public eye.
Nowadays, significant displays can be found in important museums on both sides of the Atlantic and artisans the world over continue to produce high-quality work, most notably in the Azores.
Besides immense artistic prowess, good scrimshaw requires a lot of patience and precision. First the ridged ivory must be sanded smooth and worked to a fine polish in the area where it will be engraved, or scrimmed.
Polishing serves to seal the surface and prevent pigments that are added later from staining the material in unwanted areas. A layer of ink or pigment is then applied to the surface.
The most collectable, high-quality scrimshaw is produced by a single artist working alone from start to finish, allowing their individual technique to shine.
Following the demise of the whaling industry, scrimshaw is set to become increasingly rare as less pieces are produced due to the lack of teeth being available, which in turn has caused a general reduction in the number of scrimshaw artists actively working around the world.
Today’s visitors to Portugal, particularly the Azores, where whaling was once a regular activity, can enter an artisan’s workshop and view many exquisite pieces of scrimshaw, which are truly unique as no two items are ever the same.
The world’s largest private collection of scrimshaw is on display in a museum above Peter Sport Café which overlooks the harbour in the port town of Horta on Faial island.