I’ll get right to it: this may be one of the most important books on whaling history written in decades.
Michael P. Dyer, senior maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, has just published a gem of a history/coffee table art book in the large-format, glossy-paged “O’er the Wide and Tractless Sea: Original Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt.”
It is outstanding. And it is nearly uncharted territory.
With 366 pages and some 381 images, it’s not so much a book as it is as walk through a museum.
Each page, a new painting; each painting containing a fascinating explanation and backstory by our curator, Dyer.
It took me well over an hour to flip through the first 50 pages. It’s absorbing. This is whaling as we have never seen it before.
The book takes a look at an aspect of whaling history that has been largely overlooked — whalers’ journals and art. As Dyer writes in his introduction:
“Buried deep within the logbooks, journals, and manuscripts documenting America’s nineteenth-century whaling heritage are exceptionally vivid watercolor paintings and other drawings representative of the hunt. Rarely, if ever, do we see these outside the vaults and exhibition cases of museums and libraries.”
I first heard about the book awhile back when Dyer was interviewed in the New York Times about collecting these images. So I was thrilled when Dyer contacted me recently to let me know the book was out.
The Whaling Museum hosts at launch and signing for the book July 21 at 6 p.m.He will speak July 20 at 7 p.m. at at the Westport Free Public Library, 408 Old County Road, Westport. Suggested donation $5. Actually, before this book, I had never even thought of whalers’ art, their personal journals and sketchbooks.
It had simply never occurred to me that once you were done harpooning, you’d open up your box of watercolors.
But of course, that’s exactly what you’d do before YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. (#whalehunt #SouthPacific #LightTheWorld.)
Evidently, quite a few whalers drew, painted or scrimshawed intricate images after or before a hunt. In their journals, they painted scenes of the hunt, sketched various home ports or exotic islands. Some whalers took painstaking detail in embellishing their journal covers.
These journals and sketches now serve as something of a 19th century documentary film — if the whalers had cameras instead, this is what would’ve aired on the National Geographic Chanel in 1842. As it is here, captured on paper, it feels ready-made for Ken Burns to turn into a PBS documentary.
“Logbooks were the official records of the voyages kept by the first mates. They were seldom illustrated. Personal journals of the whalemen onboard, however, were records of their own experience, documentary statements reflective of the whaling life,” Dyer writes. “Some whalemen used their off-duty hours to embellish their personal journals with paintings and drawings… Scrimshanders onboard used their free time to create their own special kind of whaling art.
“If whalemen artists knew anything, they knew whaling up close and personal in a way that others who had not experienced it directly could not fully grasp,” he writes.
Dyer has curated a wide range of images here, from hand-drawn penciled journal sketches, to fine works of art; from detailed depictions of whale hunts scrimshawed on bone.
What makes this book so incredible, so valuable, is not only Dyer’s perfect selection of art, but his museum-curator/historian's explanation of what makes each piece of art so unique; what it tells us; why it’s worth knowing.
In chapter one, for instance, we see a stunningly beautiful painting of New Bedford harbor in 1848, as painted by New Bedford whaleman/artist Benjamin Russell and local sign painter Caleb Purrington.
“Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” depicts the whaling ship William Hamilton, with clusters of warehouses, ship chandleries, and counting houses on the wharves.
Dyer notes the painting is “among the finest documentary views of New Bedford harbor in its whaling heyday. Russell’s highlighting this particular ship speaks to the depth of awareness of history and culture prevalent and arguably engrained in the American whale fishery. William Hamilton was long credited, accurately or note, as having been the first 17th center American colonist on Cape Cod to have harpooned a whale…”
We see a detailed pencil sketch of a ship from a sketchbook kept by Charles F. Keith of Fairhaven and Shubael K. Luce of Mattapoisett. Dyer notes: “Almost no documentary pictures exists of the extensive shipbuilding that took place along the shores of the Acushnet River. This rare view of a ship launching in Fairhaven in 1852… depicting the ship, The Rainbow.”
Dyer writes: “This book that brings this art form to life in the context in which it was created: in a commercial maritime culture, on shipboard, at sea, before and after the daily hunting of whales.”
Bottom line: This is a must-read for any SouthCoaster. It is an utterly captivating, eye-opening, shedding new light on a here-to-fore unknown aspect of whaling history and SouthCoast’s history, as told by artist/whalers themselves, from Provincetown to Providence, R.I.The book can be purchased at the Whaling Museum.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and book columnist. Contact her at email@example.com. She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer.