Gilpin, William A. – Scrimshaw Artist

Scrimshaw whales tooth, William A. Gilpin on the Whaling Ship Ceres, Wilmington, Delaware, circa 1835, image of Jack Tar with American eagle grasping Free Trade and Sailors Rights banner

p4A ItemID D9800689
A scrimshaw decorated whale tooth with image of a seated ship captain with globe attributed to the Ceres Artisans of Wilimington, Delaware

p4A ItemID D9700861
A scrimshaw engraved whale tooth engraved with the Sailor's Return within a Ceres border attributed to William A. Gilpin

p4A ItemID E8904468

William A. Gilpin

William Gilpin and the Jack Tar tooth were discussed in the December 2008 issue of the Maine Antique Digest by Stuart Frank, senior curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. He called the Ceres tooth with the figure of Jack Tar not only one of the best and most important works of scrimshaw to have emerged in a decade, but also a key to the identity of an entire highly regarded scrimshaw opus that has been puzzling scholars and collectors for more than 35 year. Frank calls Gilpin the most accomplished of four scrimshaw artists who have been identified as schimshanders aboard the Ceres during a whaling voyage out of Wilmington, Delaware, May 1834 to October 1837.

There are 19 known works by Gilpin, 18 whale’s teeth and a corset busk made from panbone. Twelve teeth are engraved on one side only and six on both sides. Two are pairs; the others might be halves of pairs. The Jack Tar motif appears on seven teeth. According to Frank, the “brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed” design was transferred from a printed source by the pinprick method, the dots connected with a knife, and the engraving blackened with lampblack.

William Aratus Gilpin was born in 1805 in Wilmington, Delaware. He was 29 when he sailed on the Ceres. Only two of his voyages are known for sure, but he may have taken more. He married, had a daughter, Anna Elizabeth, who married Charles Sparks in 1869, and some of his possessions descended in that family.


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