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by Ben Simons

Presentation ladle, from the shop of Theophilus Bradbury, Newburyport, Mass., 1819. Silver. Inscribed 'DER' and 'Ship Essex to Danl Russell/April 1819.' Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. Gift of the Max and Heidi Berry Acquisition Fund, 2008.9.1.

Founded on July 9, 1894, by sons and daughters of the last great Nantucket whaling generation, the Nantucket Historical Assocation began with the express mission to preserve 'all sorts of relics' before valuable mementoes of the whaling and maritime tradition were 'cast as rubbish to the void.' With the help of many generous private donors and the efforts of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, the NHA has recently added a number of outstanding pieces to the collection gathered over the last 114 years.

Essex Ladle

Holding a central place in the history of Nantucket is the wreck of the whaleship Essex, upon which Herman Melville based his novel Moby-Dick. On November 20, 1820, to the amazement of the Essex crew, an angry sperm whale turned on its hunters and sank the ship, embarking the men on a saga of survival on the high seas. Very few artifacts associated with the Essex are known. Among the items in the NHA's collection are a sea chest allegedly found floating alongside the Essex wreck; Captain Pollard's Bible; and a pair of spectacles belonging to the first mate, Owen Chase. The collection also holds several wharf books from the penultimate 1817-19 voyage of the Essex under master Daniel Russell.

In the spring of 2008, through a gift of the Max and Heidi Berry Acquisition Fund, the NHA purchased a sterling silver presentation ladle given to Daniel Russell upon leaving the Essex to become captain of the whaleship Aurora. In 1819, the Essex crew presented the captain with the ladle, fashioned in the shop of Theophilus Bradbury of Newburyport, Massachusetts. The ladle is engraved on the reverse of its coffin-shaped handle: 'Ship Essex to Danl Russell/April 1819.' The ladle remained in the Russell family and was subsequently inscribed to George G. Russell in 1885; it was purchased from direct descendants of Captain Russell. Among the crew members who presented the ladle to Russell were several who went on the next and last voyage of the Essex.

Scrimshaw candlesticks. Anonymous, mid-nineteenth century. Ivory and whalebone. Ex-collection Charles Carpenter Jr. Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association with support from the Gosnell and Geschke families, 2008.10.1-2.

Scrimshaw Candlesticks

Nantucket was built on the profits of the whaling industry and the spermaceti candles from her factories supplied a significant portion of those profits, earning the little island a worldwide reputation as the manufacturer of this 'aristocrat of candles'-reputed to be the cleanest, brightest, and longest-burning of their kind. There are few more complete symbols of the whaleman's life than scrimshaw candlesticks - symbolizing the pursuit of the whale, the pastime of scrimshanding, and the candles resulting from harvesting the raw materials.

The Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, with additional support from Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Geschke and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Gosnell, purchased for the collection a remarkable pair of period whale ivory and whalebone candlesticks at the Christie's January 2008 Americana sale. They were part of the estate of Charles H. Carpenter Jr., a longtime islander and the author, along with his wife, Mary Grace, of The Decorative Arts and Crafts of Nantucket. He was one of the great postwar collectors of Nantucket material and a life member of the NHA.

True period scrimshaw candlesticks are extremely rare, and this pair is one of the few examples to appear on the market within living memory. Made of three finely turned, fitted ivory sperm whale teeth forming stately columns with red and blue rings, the candlesticks are mounted on turned whalebone bases, and terminate at the top in delicately carved overhanging lips showing only slight signs of wear.

ABOVE and BELOW: Scrimshaw Sperm-Whale Tooth, Edward Burdett (1805-33), circa 1826-28. Ivory. Inscribed 'Rose of Nantucket.' Private Collection.

Burdett Teeth of the Rose of Nantucket

Nantucket, though a remote island thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, was the center of the global whaling industry for nearly a hundred years. The two most celebrated scrimshaw artisans, Frederick Myrick (1808-1862) and Edward Burdett (1805-1833), were Nantucket youths who entered upon the great 'island career' of whaling. They rose in the ranks, until, in Myrick's case, early retirement to land, and, in Burdett's, the quotidian brutalities of whaling 'slit the thin-spun life' of the young officer, recorded in a laconic note in Alexander Starbuck's History of the American Whale Fishery, 'First mate, E. Burditt [sic], taken down by a foul line November, 1833.' Burdett left behind a remarkable oeuvre of carved sperm whale teeth bearing his trademark intaglio style of deeply gouged surfaces. Burdett's career path is presumed to have begun as a green hand aboard the Foster of Nantucket (1822-1824). He is subsequently affirmatively tied to service as deck officer aboard the William Tell of New York (1829-1833), and lastly as first mate aboard the Montano (1833-1836), where he met his fate. Burdett is linked to various other vessels through his scrimshaw, though it is far from clear which ones he may have served aboard and which he was commissioned to portray or crafted of his own accord.

Two engraved ivory teeth depict the whaleship Rose in two typical Burdett treatments. One tooth, now in a private Nantucket collection (featured in Antiques and Fine Art's Summer 2007 issue), shows the Rose hove-to, with two whaleboats lowered, set against the scene of three exuberantly spouting whales, each with a charming circular spout - a characteristic Burdett detail. The tooth is engraved 'Rose of Nantucket' on its side).

ABOVE and BELOW: Scrimshaw Sperm-Whale Tooth, Edward Burdett (1805-33), circa 1826-28. Ivory. Inscribed 'Rose of Nantucket.' Collection of Naomi Brewer.

The second tooth also bears the inscription 'Rose of Nantucket,' (in the same location and nearly identical) with similar surrounding flourishes and the characteristic vine border seen on many Burdett teeth. The scene on this 'sister tooth' is more mundane, simply a profile of the ship under full sail, with stylized dramatically swirling waves and expressive curvature and hatch-mark shading on the sails. On the reverse, Lady Liberty is depicted in a cartouche, astride a mass of kegs and floating bundles by the open stern windows of an unseen vessel - perhaps an allusion to the Boston Tea Party and the Nantucket ship Beaver (a suggestion of NHA executive director William J. Tramposch). What is particularly interesting about this presentation is that it could offer an important link to the so-called 'British Burdetts,' which depict the figure of Britannia in a very similar treatment.

The two teeth possess an exemplary provenance, which has its roots in Hudson, New York, established as a whaling port by Nantucketers in the early 1780s in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Nantucket whaling master Shubael Cottle (1792-1864) and his wife, Rebecca Sayer Cottle (b. 1798), migrated there with their children some time prior to 1830, the year Shubael first went to sea as master of the Hudson whaleship America, after a lengthy career at the helm of the Nantucket vessels Charles (1815, 1815-1816); President (1820-1822); and Rose (1823-1825, 1826-1828). Until recently, the teeth had long been in the possession of Naomi Brewer of Ovid, New York, the granddaughter of Frederick Wyer, a Nantucket-descended Wyer, whose father, Robert Prince Wyer, married Captain Cottle's daughter, Delia Maria Cottle, on October 12, 1848. According to Brewer, the teeth were passed down from Shubael Cottle to his daughter, Delia, to her son 'Fred' Wyer, and then on to Brewer's mother, Edith Wyer, and ultimately to herself. For many years, they were kept in a 'Snoopy' lunch box in the family home. Now, they are safely on display at the Whaling Museum, possible clues to the undocumented portion of Edward Burdett's career and the journey of the Rose of Nantucket on its second voyage under Captain Shubael Cottle.

Ben Simons is Robyn and John Davis Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, Massachusetts.

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