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Nineteenth-Century Maritime Art

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Being a big fan of both scrimshaw and of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (even though I was visiting that museum when the Great House Robbery of 2014 led to the theft of years of research that made up the primary sources of Empire of Timber), I thought this was extremely cool:

During the 19th century, travelers on whaling ships used art to record dramatic and sometimes gory events. In official logbooks and personal journals, sailors and passengers listed sea routes, weather conditions, whale-oil harvests, ship repairs and stops for provisions. In pen, pencil and watercolor, they added drawings of heaving whales in their death throes dragging boats, bleeding whale carcasses being torn apart and seamen’s coffins lowered into the ocean.

Michael P. Dyer, the senior maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, is tracking down these illustrations for a book, “The Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt: Manuscript Illustration in the Age of Sail.” Some journals contain just one meticulously detailed image because, Mr. Dyer said, “in the middle of the voyage, something extraordinary happened.”

The last major study of the subject appeared in the 1980s. Illustrated whaling journals are now on display in the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibition “Mapping Ahab’s ‘Storied Waves’ — Whaling and the Geography of ‘Moby-Dick,’” about cartographic resources that Herman Melville’s vengeful main character would have used to find the white behemoth that bit off his lower leg.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum owns 2,300 logbooks. About 100 are digitized and online, and more digitizing is in progress. The museum has been acquiring them, as gifts and purchases, for more than a century. (Heavily illustrated volumes can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each.) One-third of the collection’s logbooks contain some kind of drawing, including simple outlines of whales in the margins or tableaus detailed with ship rigging; portraits of particular American Indian and African-American crewmen; marine creatures’ fin and fluke silhouettes; and the animals’ wounds from gunshots, lances and harpoons.

The drawings at times reveal mishaps: broken tools and ropes, escaped whales and the untethered bodies of whales that sank. Each logbook could cover several trips around the world and contain writings and images from numerous shipmates. Sailors would share drawings onboard, they critiqued one another’s art, and they sometimes worked on commission for officers. A number of the identifiable artists, including Joseph Bogart Hersey and Joseph Washington Tuck, were based in Provincetown, Mass., where a culture of maritime sketching seems to have arisen. “To this day, Provincetown is an artists’ colony,” Mr. Dyer observed.

It’s of course not surprising that you’d have cool drawings like this, not to mention scrimshaw. After all, what else are you going to do on endless ocean voyages?

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