I was recently waxing lyrical about Gaudy Welsh:
To my eye, there’s a kinship between Gaudy Welsh and the painted enamelware or Cans found on narrow boats. Whilst there’s no evidence of them being directly connected, they do talk to each other from a formal and social perspective. They were contemporaneous. Both were working class appropriations of middle class ornamentation. Both took pride of place in the family home/boat. Both featured highly stylised, abstracted elements loosely based on natural forms. Both utilised the slick skills of skilled artisans to produce an affordable, cost-effective yet precious object.
Today I’m also looking at a folk art that’s outwardly about as far away from the canals of Britain as its possible to imagine. But it’s also a form of creative expression that can add to the conversation on the possible motivations of boatmen in making decorative work for the boats of the inland waterways.
When viewed from both a formal and social perspective rather than a geographical one scrimshaw immediately seems less exotic and comes closer to the experience of the inland boatman.
In the same way that a boatman painter would paint a Water Can or decorate a back cabin, a scrimshander would use materials lying to hand and include in the work familiar references and images. To my mind the scrimshander’s handiwork of the 18th and 19th century whaling fleets could speak to an inland boatmen.
Scrimshaw is a form of engraving or carving done in bone or ivory. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses.
The ivory teeth from the Sperm Whale were the most popular for scrimshaw engravings because they were small enough to be stowed away in the sailor’s sea chest and were freely available, with no commercial value the ship’s Captain would hand them out at no cost to the sailors.
In their natural form the ivory whale’s teeth had ridges and other imperfections that had to be removed before the engraving work could be done. The sailors removed the imperfections by first scraping the tooth with a knife, and then smoothing the surface with sharkskin or pumice, before polishing them to a high gloss finish with a cloth.
A broad range of subjects were depicted on the whale teeth, the most common were portraits of the ship they were sailing on or maybe the ship’s captain; there were also portraits of wives or sweethearts; all kinds of sea creatures or mermaids and often they featured whaling scenes. Some engravings were adapted from line-drawing illustrations found in books or pamphlets and these designs would be ‘pin-prick’ transferred onto the whale tooth.
The engravings were done with a pocket knife or if the sailor/whaler was lucky a discarded needle from the ships sail maker. The movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry.
Periodically during the engraving process the scrimshander would rub pigment into the cuts and scratches, since ink wasn’t readily available they would use soot from the chimney of the ships cooking stove, gun powder with a little whale oil, candle black or tobacco juice to bring the etched design into view. It was this pigment, rubbed into the cuts and scratches, that brought the image to life.
Oh, and the artform continues, as this piece illustrates, unless ‘Star Wars’ was actually an 18th C phenomenon!