During my 10 year affiliation with the museum, I have seen its collection grow in size and quality. Important areas that were not represented ten years ago are in featured exhibits today. Members of the Gulf Coast Ship Modelers Society create and contribute outstanding models to fill collection voids. The workmanship and quality standards of these contributions literally “blow visitors away”. Recent examples to look for on your next visit include John Heard’s model of Scottish Maid 1839, which was featured in the prestigious Nautical Research Journal, and Charlie Cozewith’s reproduction of a votive ship model (circa 1400) discovered in an Italian seaport church.
Given all there is to choose from, selecting a favorite is nearly impossible. Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true,” and as both a creator and admirer of maritime miniatures, I chose one model I had researched, built, and contributed to the museum myself, following an investment of about 100+ hours of time. It is the only replicated Napoleonic Prisoner of War (POW) model in the collection. Built of pre-ban ivory, the scrimshawed
model measures 4 1/2″ long x 3 1/2″ tall, and features several 3/16″ tall crew member.
This piece is my favorite, not for the specific vessel’s history, but rather because of the history of this form of maritime modeling. The idea for the piece was born from a meeting I had with the Director of the Barcelona Maritime Museum, a world-class facility housed in a former shipyard that once built Roman Galleys. Sitting in the museum library with five Napoleonic ivory scrimshawed POW models built in the 1800’s, I shot photographs, made sketches, and took measurements as we discussed the provenance of this type of modeling.
The French POW’s formed quasi-artisan guilds to produce small objets d’art to sell in periodic civilian open markets. Funds raised bought the prisoners tobacco and other goods. Many of these French sailors had been shanghaied by French naval vessel crews to complete the ship’s complement. Some of the kidnapped Frenchmen were craftsmen like gold or silversmiths, wood carvers, cabinet makers, etc., who had wandered out of the town tavern drunk, were knocked out, and awoke twenty miles out at sea as sailors. The models that the guilds built were initially made of available materials like beef bones from dinner, and the hair of guild members for rigging. A wealthy merchant, clergyman, or even a member of royalty might
have liked and bought the model, but they would not like what it was made from and asked to have it remade with an exotic material like ivory, which they would provide. My model seeks to replicate this type of piece.
These works of art are sought by maritime museums worldwide because of their unique history and rarity. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to add an
original Napoleonic Prisoner of War ship model to our collection, but in the interim, I replicated this one to fill our collection void. Look for it on your next visit. Knowing the history of this type of craftsmanship, I bet it will become your favorite model too!
By: Burton Reckles, Docent & Trustee
Excerpt from The Anchor Newslettter, April, 2014.