The Art of Scrimshaw - hand etching on tooth


A once traditional pastime of bygone whalers, now sought-after and rare, takes centre stage in our newest exhibition, The Art of Scrimshaw.

From the nautical expression ‘to waste time’, the art of scrimshaw was the saviour of idle hands aboard the early historical whaling ships. Excess time was a curse for many seamen, with months passing between whale sightings, and whaling voyages that lasted several years.

The term scrimshaw refers to the carving and engraving of ivory, bone, seashells, antlers or horn. The scrimshaw that originated on whaling vessels was usually inspired by the ocean, depicting whaling journeys, portraits of sweethearts, ships, or mermaids sunbathing on rocks.

Housed within The Gary Tonkin Gallery, The Art of Scrimshaw exhibition is a permanent addition to our onsite experience exploring the history and creative process of scrimshaw, in the context of the whaling industry. Visitors can learn about the complexities of this traditional art form through an interactive touchscreen and unique exhibition design.

The Art of Scrimshaw features artwork from internationally renowned Scrimshander, Gary Tonkin, including his largest and most intricately carved piece, an intact 4-metre Sperm whale jawbone.

Originally taken from one of the largest Sperm whales caught by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, and hand crafted by Tonkin over the past 30 years, this exquisitely unique masterpiece now sits pride of place within the exhibition.

From concept to creation, Tonkin has meticulously designed, shaped and etched this jawbone with a story straight out of the history books: the sinking of the American whaling ship, the bark Kathleen in 1901, from a Sperm whale strike.

Surrounded by turbulent seas, Tonkin’s portrayal of the capsizing ship is carefully etched into the large surface of the jaw’s panbone. The whaleboats and harried crew are depicted fleeing the carnage, as they row down the jawbone’s length. This spectacle is brought to life with deep carving that highlights the complexities of the scene.

The jawbone also includes 22 ivory teeth, original to the jaw. Illustrating life during a typical whaling voyage, Tonkin’s scrimshawed designs on these teeth portray scenes inspired by verses from ballads written by crewmates on board the Kathleen.

The Art of Scrimshaw exhibition opened on 3 May 2023, and entry to this exhibition is included within the Historic Whaling Station admission ticket.

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