Scrimshaw with decorative detail of Don Juan
sperm whale teeth, 16.5 x 8cm
KINCM:2005.2291.2, KINCM:2005.2291.1, Hull Maritime Museum
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The images on these skilfully decorated sperm whale teeth reflect characters from the Spanish fictional legend Don Juan, popularised by Byron’s unfinished 1824 satiric version. The left tooth shows an actress with her right hand extended. She is wearing a small bonnet and flounced dress, and is standing against a landscape with palm trees in the background. The tooth is inscribed 'Haidee' on the reverse. She was a key character from Cantos 2, 3, and 4 of Byron’s poem, a woman who rescues the poem’s hero after he his shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, but who ultimately dies of a broken heart when Don Juan is sent away. The other tooth, inscribed on the reverse with 'Don Juan’, shows an elegantly dressed actor with a dagger in his right hand. Both stand on bases, probably made from elephant ivory, and each complement each other as a pair through their raised arms. The tooth of the whale still retains its original shape, yet through its decoration and mounting it has been decontextualized from its original animal setting, into one that is now embedded with human agency. 

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum