Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Whale of a Cane

There are literally hundreds of great artworks in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection, and our main folk art gallery only holds about 75 – 100 of them. So it stands to reason that you will occasionally find phenomenal masterpieces in storage, usually when touring a collector through the stacks and smiling politely when they look at you aghast at seeing such wonderful stuff not on view.

A few years ago we had the great pleasure of hosting a group of folk art collectors here in Cooperstown. One of them is an expert on early American scrimshaw. When he saw what we had in storage he was very surprised, and much more polite about it than he needed to be.

In a far corner of our storage facility, stacked in a vertical unit with a host of other walking sticks, is one of the greatest scrimshaw canes in America. Who knew?

It’s not scrimshaw in the strictest sense of the word. Scrimshaw developed in the early 19th century with the rise of the commercial whaling industry. It was a leisure activity of the whalers who endured long voyages in pursuit of Sperm whales whose oil (from the blubber under their skin) was widely used for lighting. Scrimshanders (as scrimshaw artists were called) engraved images into the teeth and jawbones of the whales, and then covered them with a dark pigment that, when wiped away, left dark lines where the bone was incised. The images ranged from portraits to patriotic symbols to pictures of ships and far-off ports.

Our cane was likely made from the jawbone of the whale, and rather than having incised designs it features mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlay as its main design element. The range of images is remarkable, and includes Sperm whales, boats, American eagles, and even the figure of Miss Liberty holding a Liberty cap and, in another image, a flag. The cane is about 35” long, and the maker is unknown. The date is also hard to ascribe, but I would guess it to be 1825-1850.

This treasure of our maritime past will be on view for all to enjoy in our folk art gallery starting on April 1st.

And trust me, I’ll make sure our collector friend knows it’s out of storage.

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