Historian tells tales of whaling-era artwork

By Tanner Harding | Jun 22, 2017

Marion — In 1992, historian Michael Dyer was an intern at the Mystic Seaport museum in Connecticut. It was there that he realized most people didn’t know much about American maritime history. Now, 25 years later, he’s publishing his first book to help combat that.

“Just because we forget about [maritime culture] doesn’t mean it didn’t exist,” Dyer said.

Dyer, currently working as a curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, wrote a book called "The Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt.” The book explores whalemens' perceptions of the hunt as recorded pictorially in their manuscript logbooks, journals, and certain types of scrimshaw, and on Thursday night at the Music Hall, Dyer shared some of that information.

He said that at first, there was no art within whaling. However, once it grew into a true profession and developed a culture of its own, the art came along with it.

“Whaling information began to accrue all based on these drawings,” Dyer said. “It was used for the profession. That’s how the function of art began.”

In the 1820s illustrative journals began to show up, where whalemen had doodled within their logs.

“This is not fine art, that’s not what this is,” Dyer said. “This is regular people, mariners at sea, who drew pictures.”

However, by 1940s Yankee whaling had reached its cultural height.

“Some of the greatest scrimshaw was being made at this time,” Dyer said. “There were a ton of illustrative journals.”

The drawings in journals and log books would be used to reference again later on, often recording where whales were seen, how large, what type, etc. However, there were some examples of what Dyer called “fantasy drawings,” or depictions of things that never happened.

“These were things they wished would happen” he said.

To learn more about art created during the whaling era, Dyer’s book will be available on July 21.

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