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Classic Sailing-Ship Models in Photographs

Classic Sailing-Ship Models in Photographs

by R. Morton Nance

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Loving tribute to the often startlingly beautiful sailing vessels of a bygone age, charmingly depicted in over 120 handsome photographs and 28 drawings. Flemish Carrack, c. 1450; the Norske Löve, 1634; the 90-gun Albemarle, 1680; a Venetian trading Galeass, 1726; a Dutch East Indiaman, c. 1740; and the Great Republic, an American clipper, 1853.


Loving tribute to the often startlingly beautiful sailing vessels of a bygone age, charmingly depicted in over 120 handsome photographs and 28 drawings. Flemish Carrack, c. 1450; the Norske Löve, 1634; the 90-gun Albemarle, 1680; a Venetian trading Galeass, 1726; a Dutch East Indiaman, c. 1740; and the Great Republic, an American clipper, 1853.

Editorial Reviews

This unabridged, slightly corrected replication of the 1924 Halton & Truscott Smith limited edition includes 124 b&w plates of ship models from circa 1450 to 1890 and a history of the ship-modeler's art. Lacks references and an index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Classic Sailing-Ship Models in Photographs

By R. Morton Nance

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14587-7



THE tiny, imitative art of ship-modelling, like the great creative arts, had its first beginnings in rites, half magical, half religious, by which man sought to control his fate, or groped his way towards a working theory of the universe, and is probably as old as the art of navigation itself.

The setting afloat of rude models of boats as offerings to the spirits, demons, or gods that control river-currents or sea-storms, with hope thereby to avert their attention from the boats themselves, is a rite that one might expect to find practised by the holders of any primitive faith, and one finds survivals of this not only in far parts of the earth, where such little vessels are still launched, but also it may be in places much nearer home, where, as in West Cornwall and in Guernsey, Good Friday of all days in the year is one on which every fisher-boy observes a traditional custom of sailing his toy-boat, giving a strong suggestion that the custom is a survival from days when a general propitiatory sacrifice of miniature boats heralded the opening of the season of seafaring.

Such boat offerings may well have been sent on Nile-appeasing voyages down the stream, but in Ancient Egypt it is as tomb-furniture that we still have ship-models preserved to this day. These again were connected with religious belief, for they were left buried with the owner of the original vessel so that from their lines might be built another fit for his needs in the spirit-world. Some of these Egyptian models, although block-carved, are finished with considerable detail, as notably one, perhaps the best, that came from the tomb of Mehenkwetre, Chancellor of Egypt about two thousand years B.C., and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which shows not only the crew, one steering, another heaving the lead, but also the mast and sail, the latter with all its rigging, including its boom below with the many standing lifts, just as we find these in contemporary wall-paintings and sculptures, the whole giving quite a satisfactory idea of accuracy. It is not in the nature of man to put his best work where it is not to be subjected to the criticism of his living fellow-man, and just as any rough suggestion of a boat was held good enough for fobbing off a boat-wrecking demon, so as provision for the future life of great Egyptians a scamped rough-sketch of a model was commonly made to serve. In such propitiatory or substituted models we may perhaps look for the origins of toy-boats, and so of model yachts, but it seems likely that it was rather as votive offerings, open acknowledgments of supernatural aid, made by the christened to be seen of their even-Christians, by the heathen to be seen by fellow- pagans, and displayed in places of worship, that the more complete portraits of ships, the true ancestors of our own ship-models, were first made.

Votive junks, highly-finished portrait-models, are still exposed in Chinese temples, just as in European churches we find hanging church-ships old and new, and a custom that is thus found at the most widely separated points of the Old World may well be thought to have its roots very deep in the past. In Jutland, whence a church-ship, that of sand-buried Old Skjagen, makes its appearance in literature—coming down from the roof and sailing away as large as life, in a tale of Hans Christian Andersen's—and where the church-ship is still an institution, a peat-bog has yielded three conventionally shaped votive boats of gold that date back to the first century; but boats and ships of pottery, apparently votive offerings, that go back very much farther than this, have been dug up in Amathus, Cyprus, and Carthage. All through the Middle Ages we have reason to assume that any church attended by seafarers, whether by profession or as pilgrims, would have been likely to have had its ex voto ship or ships. Now and then we have an actual record of them, as at Bristol, where in the 15th century the chapel of St. Anne had twenty-seven votive models of wood, to which no monetary value was attached, and five of silver, valued at twenty shillings apiece.

In the Middle Ages, and long after, things that were old were only things to be despised, and worm-eaten models of wood were doubtless pulled down and burnt, and silver models melted down into new shapes, so that the thank-offerings of the living might replace those of the forgotten dead. This alone would account for the total loss of all those one-masted "nefs," "barges," "balingers" and "cogs," with their fore, top, and after "castles," the details of which would have so well eked out those too grudgingly given by conventional seals and yet more conventional monk-made miniatures.

Veneration for relics other than saintly is a sentiment far too modern to have saved us any of these, and even without wilful destruction at times of rebuilding or cleaning, models of their kind could not greatly have outlived their makers. To begin with, they were carved from blocks of wood, but slightly lightened as a rule by hollowing, and were of considerable weight, so that it is easy to imagine that a damp church, by rotting ropes, or rusting wires and chains, might have brought disaster to ships themselves as well as to possible worshippers beneath. Even failing such a downfall, their soft-wood "cage-work" and spars, their inferior cordage, and their thinly distemper-painted hulls themselves, were by no means proof against the attacks of time, so that a bare fifty years might thus seem a fair average of endurance for them.

In those countries that accepted the Reformation one might expect that ex voto church-ships, as having been offered in gratitude, usually either to Our Lady or to St. Nicholas, the sailors' patron, should have been condemned wholesale as "superstitious," and in England and Scotland this seems to have happened, for from that time we hear practically nothing of such models in these countries; but even this is doubtful, for in Lutheran countries, where the church-ship became commemorative rather than votive, as in Catholic countries where votive church-ships are still countenanced, although they remain as a traditional institution, we are no luckier in finding anything earlier than the 16th century, and very little that is as early.

Although they have long since gone to warm the sexton's chimney-corner, lost church-ships may have left traces of their existence in the better-drawn ships of miniaturists and seal-engravers. It was, I am sure, a church-ship that inspired the finest drawing that we have of a 15th-century ship—the kraeck, of the Flemish engraver who signs himself [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In the first place, this engraver has given full proof in other prints, five of smaller ships, "barges," one of a herring-buss, and one of a line-fishing hooker, that he had slight knowledge of rigging, proving that the carrack's wealth of detail was not drawn from memory. Again, the hull is shown impossibly high out of the water, and is given scanty underwater parts, both suggesting that she was drawn not from a ship but from a church-ship model, a suggestion borne out by the over-large blocks, bored but sheaveless, the twisted-wire fastenings of the lower dead-eyes, and lastly the curious fact that, although otherwise rigged to the final detail, ropes as important to a real ship as the ties and halyards, by which the yards are raised or lowered, are left out. The reason why church-ships should so almost universally have bored blocks only is obvious—sheaves show but little, and would give ten times the work; the same applies to the substitution of a twisted wire for the difficult metal-work detail of the chains, and to a model-maker (who must in these old ships remember to fix his knight-head down below and reeve his halyards through this and the ram-head before he finally fixes his deck, if he means to rig ties and halyards at all) it is very clear that the absence of this important gear, so often left out in old church-ships, points to a ship-model as original of the picture.

Of three other vessels, two carracks and a galley, in a painting by Carpaccio (Plate 1), there is no question as to their church-ship origin, for they are painted, surrounded by other votive offerings, as features in a church interior. With this hint, it becomes possible to trace back to a similar origin others among Carpaccio's ships, for it is not unusual to find these represented as floating rather unnaturally high out of the water, and with blocks on a scale that makes them too conspicuous. A 16th-century print, representing a philosopher in his study, gives us, with his books and spheres, another little hanging ship that is an early example of the "lay" model, though hardly different enough from the church-ship to be claimed as a ship-builder's. This is enough to show that artists who were fond of painting shipping subjects might, even in Carpaccio's day, have had little ships of their own, and that they were, even thus early, not peculiar to churches; but with the 16th century we find not pictures only, but actual models.

If we may judge by appearances alone, the doyen of this company is a model from the collection of the late Sir William Van Home (Plate 4), which is either a church-ship of about 1525 or a forgery of one so skilful as to deserve a high place as a "reconstruction." Unfortunately it comes to us without a pedigree, and worse still, after passing through the hands of curio-dealers who were not above tinkering with old models nor even innocent of offering the most barefaced of "fakes." The rigging, if original, has clearly been tampered with, and its disorder is not necessarily a sign of great age, but it would seem unlikely that a forger should have the knowledge requisite to give the hull of his ship just this combination of high forecastle and narrow, sheering, three-countered poop; round stem and square-tuck stern, and not only to place the guns rightly, and add just the right contemporary touch of herring-bone pattern in the painting, but to render all these characteristic features with exactly the disproportion of above-water detail to underbody that has always distinguished the church-ship. Still more in its favour is its freedom from any attempt at the carving by which ship-model forgers attempt to give interest and value to their productions. It has not even a figure-head, and, speaking as strongly for it as this reticence in decoration, we find under the lower counter two quite unromantic garderobe vents, of unusual form, but not unlike those of the ship in a window at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and at all events placed just where they would be in such a ship. The fender-bolts with which it is studded also seem possible enough. If only to invite further criticism, it seems at all events worth while to draw attention to this unvouched-for model, which is certainly not based on any known contemporary painting; for if genuine it is a valuable record, and if proved a "fake" may be as useful a warning.

A rival to this is an ancient model in the Naval Museum at Venice, that has there been accepted as representing a Venetian cocca or "cog" of the 15th century, as then employed in the Flanders trade. In its present form it is more possible as a ship of the first half of the 16th century, but from the shape of its stern can hardly be earlier, and it has apparently suffered rather drastic "restoration," to which possibly it owes the exaggerated forefoot that seems so little characteristic of ships of its reputed age. Another model at Venice (Plate 5) is a little later in date, being of the fashion of about 1550-1560, but shows a very convincing likeness to 19 the ship-pictures of that date. Although she has been called a galeone, she has not the lower beak-head, imitating that of a galley, that marks the 16th-century galleon, but retains the old, ship-style, projecting forecastle of earlier centuries in a but slightly modified form, and should, I think, rather be called a nave or ship. A drawing made from this very interesting model by Jal in 1835 shows that her wire rigging has since then been "restored" by someone who has tried to improve on the original arrangement, the braces in particular having now a less correct lead, and bobstays being added, as in the "cocca." Jal also shows the topsail-yards hoisted higher, as though sails might once have been set on them, and in his time we find that the mizen-yard and the broadside guns were lacking, and that a "ram-head" block was still attached to the ties of the main-yard, but twisted round so as to come before the mainmast. The crosses at the mast-heads (two in Paris's picture of her, Souvenirs de Marine, III.) are not shown by Jal, and a bulkhead and ladder at the poop are new also; otherwise the little ship is just as she was in 1835, and not very different from what she was when new.

That models of equal accuracy and even fuller detail were by 1550 being made in the Netherlands one might easily guess, but I think we may safely go further than this, and in two of the shipping plates engraved by Frans Huys, after drawings by Pieter Bruegel the elder, discover carefully-made portraits of one of these. Bruegel, in drawing others of his ships, may have found church-ships useful, but here we find what looks like proof that he did, for in one plate he gives us a broadside view of a ship with an unusually tall mizen-mast, furled sails, and yards all set a-cock-bill, in what has long been mourning-garb for ships, canted down to starboard on the foremast, to port on the mainmast; and when we find that the next plate gives us three ships, two of which are bow and stern views of this very ship in every detail, down to the exact cock of the yards, remembering the headlong imagination of this artist in his common mood, it is almost impossible not to see in this repetition evidence that it was here restrained by close attention to a model. That an actual ship was not drawn from is strongly suggested by the way in which these three ships are set in the water, as well as by the fact that they are given quite different land-backgrounds. Artists have in later times gained courage to attempt painting moving vessels after practice on the "still-life" of models, and it is not at all unlikely that the skill in ship-painting for which Dutch painters, beginning with Pieter Bruegel, gained so well-earned a fame was in part due to the ease with which they could find church-ships to study.

In 1571 all Christendom was rejoicing over the check given to the Turk at Lepanto, and many must have been the votive galleys or galeasses offered by survivors of the fight; but of these nothing remains. One reminder of their existence we do find, though, in a rough woodcut that illustrates Bartolomeo Crescentio's Nautica Mediterranea of 1607, and instead of representing a galeass of that date, closely resembles the six galeasses of Venice that took part in the battle of Lepanto. She has not only the semicircular turret forecastle and ram beak, the guns over the oars, three lateen yards, and Noah's-Ark-like deck-cabin aft, of these vessels as pictured, but is obviously drawn straight from a rather roughly made church-ship model that had already had time to get somewhat out of order, the sails having departed from the main and mizen yards, and the latter having lost its controlling "orses" and "ostes," so that one need have little hesitation in claiming this as a Lepanto ex voto.


Excerpted from Classic Sailing-Ship Models in Photographs by R. Morton Nance. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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