Friday, 2 August 2013

Towing a leviathan


I bought this piece of 'scrimshaw' marine folk-art in a junk shop the other day. It had a label on it which just said, 'Tooth', so I don't think the owner had noticed the engraving of the good ship Maria Regina on it when it was put on the shelf. Consequently, I didn't pay too much for it.

My first thought was that it was yet another of those resin replicas that you see all over the world, but when I took it to the light and examined it with a glass that I carry with me at all times, it turned out to be the real thing. Even my doing this didn't ring any alarm bells with the shopkeeper, so I don't feel too bad about it.

I do feel a bit bad about owning a small piece of whale though, even though it was killed long ago in the early 19th century. They killed so many whales in those days that they make modern-day Japan seem like Greenpeace members by comparison, and at least they used every last bit of the creatures for everyday purposes, from oil-lamp fuel (the main bounty) to corsets, to candles, to cat-food. You can't eat the teeth, so what better thing to do with the ivory than turn it into an artwork?

I have an image of a salty old dog with the stub of a clay pipe in his beard-fringed mouth, whittling away at the thing, then rubbing the incisions with a tiny amount of the pitch used to caulk the boards of the very ship he had just proudly drawn in the tooth. It sounds horribly romantic, but I bet that is not too far from the truth.

Funny how the whaling industry remains steeped in romance to this day, when the reality must have been unspeakably bloody and brutal - both for the whales and the men who harpooned them.

Towing a leviathan 100 miles back to port, then chopping it up with 15-foot knives on the harbour quay; whiling away the hours until the next trip by scratching a little drawing of the mother-ship on the only bits to have no practical use at all - until the old salt adds value to them.

23 comments:

  1. A good find, although it does look rather feint. Has the bottom been filled in with sometyhing?

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    1. How did that 'y' get in there!

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    2. No the bottom has not been filled with anytything. It's just sawn off.

      I think Sarah Toa might pull you up on the spelling of 'feint', but I wouldn't.

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    3. I was probably thinking of 'feint lines' as in old fashioned writing paper. But, OK; it should be 'faint'.

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    4. I was about to and was stifling my pedantry until I read Tom's reply. My son's headmistress left a capital letter off on his annual report and I'm itching to do some pulling up there. Might be a bad move though.

      Love the scrimshaw and am hoping to see you feigning modest surprise as the Antique's Roadshow team tell you it's worth a small fortune.

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    5. Oh God - just noticed an uncalled for apostrophe sneaked in there. It's dark in here and my fingers are going crazy on the keyboard 'Tommy'-style. Not a great performance from the pedant. I use semi colons in a text-message.

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    6. In the light of that apostrophe, it's a good job you didn't pull up your son's headmistress.

      John uses the full colon in just about every post - especially his latest.

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  2. I was going to but you beat me to it Tom ...
    What a beautiful find. Antique scrimshaw has something really charismatic about it, like you wrote, it sets the imagination off.

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    1. No, FEINT is the correct spelling, despite what the mad woman says.

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  3. Dear Tom,
    Herman Melville, Shirley Hart&Wilkie Colin's Greenland song - much more I do not know about Whale-catching. I think that it is morally not condemnable when one buys something that old. It is there - and they will not make new ones because you bought it. So enjoy it, as the old whale-fisher did when he engraved it.

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    1. I am selling it at - hopefully - a profit.

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  4. What a find! I have to admit to being envious.

    The piece is old. A German actress (Inge Meysel) once answered when being questioned about wearing a leopard skin coat: "Well, it's old. Not wearing it now won't help the animal anymore."

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  5. Hello my grumpy friend. Thanks for your comments. Word verification is off, comment away, but try and keep it clean this time :-)

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    1. I'm sorry about last night's reply, Suzanne, I just lost my rag for some reason.

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  6. Moby Dick is certainly in my top five favourite books Tom. I don't think there was ever anything remotely romantic about whaling but I do think that books like Moby Dick contributed to making it seem so.
    I love the idea of that scrimshaw - it is yet another case of one of my favourite quotations
    (Koestler I think) that Fortune favours the prepared mind. Few visitors to the shop would have noticed it.

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  7. Replies
    1. I have to apologise - I am tired and emotional. I just learned that my favourite dog died, 43 years ago.

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  8. I've always liked scrimshaw. I would most likely keep that were i to have found it.

    I do have two ivory pieces, one a small rose pin i got in Bermuda years ago, and the other a silver necklace with little ivory elephants that i bought at a secondhand place.

    I have since hoped that the animals who provided the ivory for my two pieces were indeed used wholly.

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  9. I know you don't mean to be so helpful Tom but it is rare for me to read your blog and not learn something new.

    Also sorry about the dog.

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    1. It's nice to know that I can be informative as well as offensive sometimes. What dog?

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  10. I thought Moby Dick was an illness.

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    1. If it's a condition, it's a very large one.

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