Friday, March 18, 2011

Literary Scrimshaw

The Museum has a wonderful piece of scrimshaw entitled "The Sailor Boy." (Accession number 1974.691) The illustration appears on a large, nine-inch sperm whale and is very nicely done. Richard Malley, who was the Assistant Registrar at Mystic Seaport when he wrote about the Museum's scrimshaw collection in his 1983 book Graven by the Fishermen Themselves, states, "Though the scrimshander's skill is of the highest order, the artist did not concoct the scene on his own." Indeed, as so many other sailors did, this particular jack tar copied a scene from a published source that would have been well known at the time. In the accompanying image, the scrimshaw piece appears on the left, and the published source on the right. The published scene was used as the frontispiece for Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea by Charles Ellms, first published in 1836. The verse that appears below the boy as he ascends the ratlines reads "Though the strained mast quivers as a reed, And the rent canvas fluttering strew the gale, Still I must on...Byron." A poignant look at the perils of a young man at sea as seen through the eyes of both a poet and a scrimshander. It is a prized piece at Mystic Seaport.

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