Item number: 3974
A 19th Century ‘Turks Head Knot’, ‘Scrimshaw’, Swagger Stick
Ex Scottish Private Collection
Ex English Private Collection
‘Scrimshaw’, is a word usually employed to describe a distinctive form of maritime folk art prevalent among sailors throughout the 19th century and the term is generally associated with objects produced during this period, applying to both the process of production and the finished work itself.
The art form flourished when the whaling industry was at its height, although limited by the materials available, a diverse spectrum of both charmingly naive and beautifully complex works were produced, affirming both the skill and ingenuity of the art’s practitioners and the considerable time spent inactive on board a whaling ship in pursuit of its quarry.
A myriad of designs celebrating patriotism, the ship, life at sea, the whales themselves and process of hunting them, feature prominently as popular motifs on many of the decorated objects, however one overriding and overwhelming inspiration, influencing much of what was produced can be tellingly seen, not simply betrayed by the obvious rendering of female likenesses, reoccurring initials and heart designs relating to loved ones but by examining the intended role of the works produced and reading its often deeply symbolic nature, careful study and contemplation revealing a compelling and rather haunting sense of aspiration to return safely home again.
In addition to the production of personalised items, special keepsakes and practical gifts intended for family or sweetheart’s, a variety of utilitarian works were also produced, to be perhaps offered for sale or bartered back at port, providing some additional income to the often meagre sailors pay.
Canes such as this example were made of pan bone from the jaw of the Sperm Whale, the material ideally suited to the task, being both the largest and densest bone known to man. The simple shaft is adorned with a handle of sperm whale tooth, expertly carved in the form of a maritime knot known as the ‘Turks-head’. This complex knot, with no obvious beginning or end was commonly recognised and frequently adopted as a symbol representing eternal love and bond of marriage.