The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Scrimshaw from the Barbara Johnson Collection (1982)

Art at Auction, Sotheby Publications, 1982, pp. 382 - 385 (4 color and 1 b&w illustration).

The most singular fact about the Barbara Johnson Collection was that it consisted not of one type of object, but of hundreds of different types of objects all relating to a central subject: whales and whaling. It was less a collection of things than a section of life, a physical chronicle of an activity, in which human and natural history had been pieced back together. Thus one found within this huge assemblage books, prints, manuscripts, paintings, tools, models, weathervanes, furniture and carvings. Barbara Johnson says she often did not know what she was looking for until she found it.

Scrimshaw is the folk art of the whaleman and was therefore an essential part of the collection. The term embraces objects made of materials taken from whales: whales' teeth; whalebone, from the jaw of the sperm whale, including pan bone, the very dense, thin, flat bone from the joint region; and baleen, the flexible, plastic-like plates taken from the mouths of baleen whales. It may also include wood, walrus ivory and other marine materials.

Great care was taken in selecting scrimshaw for the collection, both to screen out the fakes and the non-scrimshaw bone and ivory, and also to select discriminately from the great quantity of scrimshaw that was coming on to the market at the time Barbara Johnson began collecting. The task was particularly difficult as scrimshaw has no history, almost no known artists because it is seldom signed, and no clear scheme of dating. The literature was mostly guesswork, so the only tangible points of reference were scrimshaw in museums or in the hands of dealers, and one's own ability to learn from mistakes.

The first piece of scrimshaw that Barbara Johnson acquired was an engraved tooth, one of a pair. Her primary interest at the time was printed historical material and, at first, she felt that one tooth was enough. Soon she went back to buy the second, but it had been sold - she has been looking for it ever since. It was then she learned that a collector seldom regrets what she buys, only what she has not bought.

As time went on, the outlines of the subject gained in clarity and detail. It became possible to identify prisoner-of-war and Oriental carving, and the various kinds of bone and ivory, carved and engraved in so many ways for so many centuries, all of which seemed to come with the hopeful label "scrimshaw." The collection grew to contain more than 2,000 pieces, including hundreds of outstanding examples of common types: busks, swifts, whaling scenes engraved on teeth, jagging wheels and canes.

Decorative corset stays, or "busks," were popular courting gifts and a preferred form for the scrimshander. The busk illustrated here (Fig 1), which came to be called the "unity busk," was Barbara Johnson's own favorite. It was made circa 1840 from pan bone, and it is almost an inventory of pictorial scrimshaw themes of the time: the American eagle and flag, the dove of peace, the square-rigged ship, Calliope with her lyre, and the angel of mercy. The engraving, done with a sail needle and filled with coloured pigments, is typical of the best of its kind. Although "primitive" in design, it has a muscular calligraphy and sureness that puts most commercial illustration of the period to shame. There are examples in the literature of engraved scrimshaw by the same hand, which give rare clues to the identity of the artist, the ship on which he sailed and the likely date of engraving. A similar busk bears the name J. V. Booth, and the inscription "M Ann" on this piece may refer to the Mary Ann which made six voyages from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, between 1838 and 1858.

The swift, a complicated piece of machinery which held a hank of yarn so that it could be wound into a ball, was another common type of scrimshaw and might be said to be the test of an advanced scrimshander. The whalebone, whale-ivory and tortoise-shell swift illustrated here (Fig 2) is exceptional for its fine proportions and grace, and for the engraved slats, which are a very rare feature. Made at about the same time as the busk, it is as much an inventory of scrimshaw-making techniques as the busk is of scrimshaw motifs, incorporating carving, engraving, turning, joining, riveting and inlay. The pretty grey and yellow ribbons are original. Like the busk, which is engraved with the legend Remember Me When Far Away, the swift was probably a gift for someone at home.

In the early nineteenth century, scrimshaw engraving had tended to be graceful and calligraphic and carving was trim and spare. Later, engraving became denser and more rigid, and carving often became complex to the point of rococo, as exemplified by a magnificent vanity chest (Fig 3), made circa 1880. It is fashioned from hundreds of pieces of exotic wood, whale ivory, whalebone, baleen, abalone shell, copper and silver. The complexity does not stop with the sparkling contrasts of the surface inlay, but extends to the construction. There are four small drawers and a large drawer in the front of the box, and lifting the hinged top reveals six more drawers, a secret compartment and a mirror. It is a tour de force of extravagant Victorian craftsmanship.

A search for the special and unique began once the collection had filled up with the favorite forms of the scrimshander. It soon became evident that the more unusual the item, the more the ordinary collector shied away from it. That is why the most expensive scrimshaw are the famous "Susan's teeth," which are not only typical and celebrated, but also the only scrimshaw known to have been done in series (Fig 4). About eighteen teeth have been found, all engraved, signed, dated and inscribed by Frederick Myrick on board the ship Susan of Nantucket, in 1828 and 1829.

A scrimshaw chess set was once scorned by most bidders at a New England auction because, while elephant-ivory chess sets were common, whale-ivory chess sets were known only from whaling journals. It was assumed that it was not "right." Barbara Johnson bought this set amid much scoffing for a fraction of its real value. At the same sale, on the other hand, she paid dearly for a set of whalebone door knobs, simply because one other collector had, like herself, looked past the rough carving to recognize how unique and interesting they were as scrimshaw.

The Barbara Johnson Collection was the largest private collection in the world, not only of scrimshaw, but of everything relating to whales, whaling and whalers. It is improbable that its like will ever be dispersed again.