Art

Harbouring desires

Faithful scale replicas of historic ships are coveted from Maryland to the Middle East. Alan Harper reports on a collectable with the wind at its back.

January 23 2012
Alan Harper

The record auction price for a ship model is £660,000, set at Christie’s in 2003. It was an 18th-century British Navy Board model – an example of the type generally regarded as the pinnacle of the model shipwright’s art. Navy Board models are as rare as they are precious – the boxwood equivalent of the Mauritius Twopenny Blue, or a Jane Austen first edition.

“The 18th century is the golden age,” says Simon Stephens, curator of ship models at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. “It was the real period of clinical, nicely finished, sharp models. You’ve got far superior tools and materials coming in, and the naval architecture was becoming a real science and an art, which transferred to the models.”

Most are in museums, of course, and when those few in private hands do come on the market, their prices reflect their rarity. Even collectors who can hope to afford one have to wait years, or a lifetime, for a chance to make their bid.

Not all choose to do so. An American recently commissioned the English model shipwright Malcolm Darch, of Salcombe in south Devon, to build him a Navy Board-style model of the frigate HMS Minerva. An avowed enthusiast of the Hornblower novels and the owner of a house in Minerva, New York, he knew exactly what he wanted: his own personal version of the 18th-century model of Minerva in the US Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland.

Delivered earlier this summer, Darch’s model is a miniature masterpiece. Like the original, it is constructed in dense, fine-grained English boxwood, which Darch, a trained shipwright, describes as the world’s best carving timber. Unlike the Annapolis model, it is built to 1/64th scale, which makes it a perfect size for a private house.

It took Darch more than three years to make, which is longer than it took Woolwich dockyard to build the actual 38-gun frigate in 1780. Examine the model and you can understand why.

“I’ve known his work for years, and the quality and detail he goes into, the amount of research, is of the first order,” says Stephens, who made the trip from Greenwich to Salcombe to inspect the finished model. “The amazing thing for me is how close he has actually got to the original.”

At the National Maritime Museum, Stephens uses an endoscope-mounted camera to explore inside the collection’s 18th-century models, and Darch’s Minerva offers a similar temptation: squint through the glazed stern gallery and behold the sweep of the gundeck, cleared for action, with a glinting brass flintlock atop each 18-pounder and every block and tackle in its place.

The copper plates on the hull are one-thousandth of an inch thick, and the glass in the stern windows is scale-thickness acetate, rather than glass (which must give peace of mind when it comes to shipping). The rigging was spun to the correct diameters and colour on a miniature ropewalk.

This is the 61-year-old Darch’s 54th model in a 35-year career, and each is accompanied by a thick dossier detailing the history of the ship. The dossier for Minerva, which served as Cornwallis’s flagship and saw action against the French, the Spanish and the Americans, is bound in eight volumes.

Charles Miller, a London auctioneer who specialises in scientific models, including ships – it was he, when at Christie’s, who brought down the hammer on that £660,000 bid in 2003 – agrees. “Darch’s modelling is top quality; very clean, very tight,” he says. “Some modelmakers’ strengths are hull forms, some are very good at rigging, some are great at carving. Darch is good in all categories, which is why it’s worth paying the money because you won’t get better than this.”

The Salcombe modelmaker is guarding his client’s privacy about the price of the Minerva model, revealing only that it was a fraction of that auction record. “But quite a large fraction,” he admits.

For those whose maritime interests lean towards a later era, the ultimate collector’s piece is the “shipyard model”, built or commissioned by the shipyard itself. These were intended for boardroom display or for presentation to the ship’s owners, and can be appreciated as much for their engineering as for their artistry.

Charles Miller explains: “The golden period for naval shipyard models is 1650 to 1750, and about 1850 to 1950 for mercantile ones, when each yard, by and large, maintained its own modelling workshops. These are the finest models of the time: with the war, the model workshops were closed down, and after the war work was usually subcontracted, so gone were the gold-plated fittings and silk rigging, the beautiful mahogany cases, the nicely worked ivory nameplates, and all those details that people go for.”

Ships, too, became less interesting visually. Steam gave way to diesel, cargo-handling systems became more efficient and crews became smaller. “All the old rigged derricks, davits, lifeboats and brightwork are much more interesting to look at. So a 1950s model is worth substantially less than a good prewar one.”

Shipyard models don’t command the same prices as the older Navy Board examples, but given the right subject they can be every bit as pleasing, and sometimes very large. Last year, Miller sold a spectacular model of the Edwardian armoured cruiser HMS Leviathan, in its original case, that measured more than 13ft long. “A lot of potential buyers were put off by the cost of moving it,” he recalls. The 1901 model eventually went for £48,000 to Lord Thomson of Fleet, to join other models in his collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Commissioning a new model has its advantages. You can have exactly the ship you want. John Dean, based in Peterborough, is working on a detailed model of HMS Cumberland, heroine of the River Plate, which at 1/100th scale is about six-feet long and will cost its owner £25,000.

A professional modelmaker since leaving art college, 37-year-old Dean has built yachts and cargo ships as well as naval vessels, and his boardroom models are owned by banks and shipping companies. But he had to turn down one recent commission. “It was a sheikh’s superyacht,” he explains. “He wanted three models, but they all had to be ready for launch day, which was only two months later. I just couldn’t do it. It would have been £60,000 per model.”

While Dean has charged up to £30,000 for a single model, he says that duplication of parts on modern vessels – standardised turrets, weapons, ships’ boats, for example – do help to speed up the build process. His recent model of Lord Mountbatten’s destroyer HMS Kelly, at 1/100th scale and five-feet long placed in its case, cost £12,000.

Not far from Dean’s workshop, a few miles south of Cambridge, John Haynes has specialised in second world war naval vessels since the 1970s. His father served on HMS Hood before the war and in the famous anti-submarine flotilla of Captain Walker during the Battle of the Atlantic, so his interest in the period was perhaps inevitable.

A trained engineer, Haynes works with fibreglass hulls from his own moulds, and produces castings in resin and alloy, and fine detail in photo-etched brass, to produce models of museum-quality. His big break came when the artist John Hamilton displayed an early Haynes model alongside his paintings at the Silver Jubilee exhibition in the Guildhall in London. That led to a commission from the Royal Navy for a ship to display at the 1978 Ideal Home exhibition, and restoration and new-builds for the Imperial War Museum.

Haynes’s work now features in London’s Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum. He also built eight Blue Riband liners for Conrad Black. “We used to take them to Stansted Airport and load them onto his Gulfstream,” he remembers.

The 65-year-old Haynes usually works to commission, but occasionally produces speculative work for Charles Miller’s auctions. “It’s a gamble, but I usually get the price,” he says. The latest was a small HMS Ajax that fetched £5,500, and he currently has “in stock” a 1/192th scale HMS Euryalus, which is yours for £57,000.

“John’s work is very high quality, top of the line,” avows Miller. “He specialises in 20th-century warships, and from an auctioneer’s point of view, the trouble with them is that the overall impression, in spite of the beautiful detailing and planked decks, is of a large grey model. That’s fine if you like large grey models. The rule generally is that chaps do, and wives don’t. Men look at these ships and think they’re fantastic, and you can hear the wives murmur, ‘You’re not having that!’”

Spoilsports. For the sake of marital harmony, then, perhaps a little something in English boxwood?

See also

Collecting