Found  /  Art History

The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships

The 19th-century whale hunt was a brutal business. But between the frantic calls of “there she blows!”, there was plenty of time for creation too.

This method of shore-fishery was gory, lucrative, and unsustainable. By 1730, the waters around Cape Cod and Nantucket had been overfished and the number of whales woefully depleted. But by this point Nantucket’s whaling market was booming. The collapse of the Dutch North Atlantic fisheries, combined with increased demands for oil in Britain and America, had driven oil prices upwards from around eight pounds sterling per barrel in 1725 to ten pounds in 1730. And so, incentivised by these convincingly healthy markets, well-off Nantucket merchants outfitted single-masted sailing vessels with dedicated crews and pursued their prey northward into the deeper waters.

Deeper-sea voyages made for longer expeditions, meaning that whalers might spend up to four years at sea, and as a consequence, two sorts of written and illustrated records emerged. The first was the logbook, an official, often tedious account kept by captains and first mates, which held administrative and financial information required by a ship’s owners. The second type of record was the unofficial journal, which might be maintained by anyone on board ship. For although maritime life was arduous and sometimes frantic, a sailor or passenger over the course of months at sea could find time for reflexion and creativity and turn their hand to a variety of artistic pursuits.

One such pursuit was scrimshandering, the craft of using a jack-knife or needle to engrave designs into bone and ivory obtained from whale teeth and walrus tusks. A work in scrimshaw could be decorated with a variety of subjects including whaling scenes and ships, portraits of lovers, and Masonic emblems.


Scrimshaw of a dramatic whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett, now in the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Born in 1805 on Nantucket, Burdett went on his first whaling voyage at the age of 17. Ten years later, now a deck officer, he died a tragic death: a harpoon line “running out” from the deck caught around his feet and dragged him overboard to drown in the ocean — Source

The other strand of artistic practice was on paper, rather than three-dimensional. Although their rationales differed, both logbooks and journals were also frequently illustrated, replete with images of daily ship-board life, of faraway lands, and, most frequently, of whales. Hundreds of these have been preserved and digitized by the Nantucket Historical Association; the selection here, mainly from the 1840s, gives a unique insight into the world of Nantucket whaling.

Ship’s officers used logbooks for a variety of practical reasons: charting different species, sightings, and killings. Some logs, like that of the ship Indian Chief, kept by Thomas R. Bloomfield, contain careful, intricately-patterned drawings of the creatures, accompanied by the co-ordinates of where they were spotted.

Whaling logbook illustration

Drawings of whales in the log of the ship Indian Chief kept by Thomas R. Bloomfield (1842–1844) — Source