Clifford W. Ashley was an artist who studied under the influential illustrator Howard Pyle, painted expressive maritime scenes, and published histories of whaling related to the waterfront of his hometown, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Yet he’s best remembered for a wildly popular book on knots.
“It’s the most famous knot book ever created, and one of the most important ones because he corrected a lot of historical errors,” Christina Connett, chief curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM), told Hyperallergic. The museum is currently exhibiting Thou Shalt Knot: Clifford W. Ashley, based on Ashley’s collection of knots that was donated by his daughters Phoebe Chardon and Jane Ashley in 2016. NBWM has a large collection of Ashley’s paintings, which complement these recently acquired materials, demonstrating the late artist’s passion for maritime subjects where ship rigging and shipboard tying were frequently present.
The Ashley Book of Knots, first published in 1944 and still in print, contains nearly 7,000 illustrations of over 3,000 knots, and everyone from author Annie Proulx to tightrope artist Philippe Petit (who contributed to the exhibition catalogue) has cited it as an inspiration. Many of the knots that Ashley used as models for his book illustrations were part of the acquired collection. The book, for which Ashley dedicated over a decade of research, writing, and illustration, remains an essential guide to knot tying, and is also a historical archive of their uses.
“Many of the knots that the whaling men were tying were going obsolete, because they no longer had a function outside the ship,” Connett said. Ashley spent time aboard whaling ships, including the Sunbeam for a piece commissioned by Harper’s Monthly Magazine. In addition to writing about the industry and sketching its knots, he photographed the vessels and crews, creating a rare archive of the early 20th-century New England maritime trade. For his book research, he tried to get as broad an overview of knots as possible, visiting the circus, fishermen, bakers, tree surgeons, and anyone else who employed this technology in their work.
His quixotic goal was to document and reproduce every known knot, cataloguing them by their uses and designs, and offer instructions on how to recreate their specific ties. He examined old seamen’s dictionaries, and became an expert knot tyer himself. As he wrote in The Ashley Book of Knots:
… I have continued to collect knots wherever I could find them, and as unfamiliar sailors’ knots became increasingly difficult to find I was attracted by the knots of other occupations. I hobnobbed with butchers and steeple jacks, cobblers and truck drivers, electric linesmen, Boy Scouts, and with elderly ladies who knit. Mr. Ringling himself … took me about his circus and was pleased to be able to dazzle me with a score of knots with which I was quite unfamiliar.
In Thou Shalt Knot, the Ashley-related objects are accompanied by other pieces that relate to the history of knots as a technology and an art. Some are utilitarian, like a pair of 19th-century seaman’s chest beckets used as handles, others are purely decorative, like examples of Victorian hair art and a metallic weaving added as a flourish on an 1850-62 officer’s dress hat. “I went through every single drawer and shelf of the museum and found things that are interesting knots,” Connett explained. Since whalers were world travelers, NBWM has an extensive ethnographic collection, so they were able to include such objects as a Hawaiian/Polynesian “Lei niho palaoa,” which contains walrus ivory woven between human hair.
“We’re really looking at how indebted we are to knots as human beings,” Connett said. She noted that from the textiles of our clothing — made of tiny knots — to expressions like a “stomach in knots,” this technology is a major part of our culture, even if new innovations have often replaced the knots themselves. Connett affirmed, “The show is really about the human connection through knotting, to really think about how much knots impact your daily life, and they are very present in almost every aspect of it.”
Thou Shalt Knot: Clifford W. Ashley continues at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Massachusetts) through June 2018.