Sailor's Delight

By Lawrence Biemiller

Annapolis, Md. -- The more Grant Walker tells you about the armada of antique British ship models on the lower floor of the United States Naval Academy's museum, the easier it is to understand how collectors as varied as Samuel Pepys and J.P. Morgan came to covet models like these. Mr. Walker, a retired Army major who is a research associate at the museum, moves from case to case pointing out ships of the line, their gunports bristling with cannon, and handsome frigates whose unsheathed hulls reveal sturdy pearwood frames and elegant lines. He shows off gilded figureheads and spritsail topmasts and miniature ships' bells hung in miniature belfries. One model -- "an absolute stunner," Mr. Walker says -- lifts apart above the lower gundeck, affording a view into the hold. Another, dating from about 1705, is the earliest known example of a ship in which a wheel is used to control the rudder -- and the miniature version was fully functional.

But what really sets these models apart, Mr. Walker says, is that almost all of them were built at the same time and in the same shipyards as the ships they represent. Known as dockyard, Admiralty, or Navy Board models, they were constructed by shipwrights working directly from the vessels' plans -- indeed, many are in the 1:48 scale commonly used for the construction drawings, on which one inch equals four feet. Once finished, the models were given to various dignitaries -- Pepys, for instance, acquired several as secretary to the Admiralty, and his successor, Charles Sergison, amassed a collection of 15 that he kept at his country house, Chuckfield Park. "Dockyard models were scattered all over England as fine furnishings," Mr. Walker says.

Only about 400 such models still exist, of which about 250 are in the collection of Britain's National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, England. Either 51 or 52 -- some of the models have uncertain histories -- are here at the Naval Academy, bequeathed in 1935 by Col. Henry Huddleston Rogers, son of a cofounder of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Colonel Rogers, Mr. Walker says, "collected voraciously throughout the 1920s." His oldest model dates to 1650 -- older than any other known dockyard model -- while the newest was made about 1830. In between, the only decade not represented is the 1750s. The models range from ships' boats to a 100-gun ship of the line, so called because opposing fleets lined up to fire at each other. The largest models have hulls four feet long.

Colonel Rogers bought some models at auction in New York and purchased others in England, including the entire Sergison collection, which came with antique, custom-made display cases. One such case now holds the Henrietta, one of 26 yachts built for King Charles II. Another holds the Britannia, a model famous for its carved stern galleries, which are surmounted by a pair of equestrians trampling the enemies of Britain. Of special interest, Mr. Walker says, is a monogram of William III, because his predecessor Charles II was still on the throne when the ship was launched, in 1682. "I'm pretty convinced this model was built when the ship was built, and the model was rebuilt when the ship was rebuilt" during William's reign. Charles's "CR" monogram was duly stippled over on a drum on the model's stern, and William's monogram was added.

Other intriguing models abound. One case contains a model of a fireship, a vessel designed to be set ablaze as its crew disembarked -- having first wedged the rudder on a course that would take the burning ship into the midst of an enemy fleet. Its spars were equipped with hooks to snare any ship it got close to. The fire, Mr. Walker says, was lighted below deck, using a grid of V-shaped troughs filled with gunpowder. "The network of troughs is all there," he says of the model's interior. "You can see how the crew would have primed everything."

Elsewhere is a 1780 model of the Minerva that may have been used to show George III how ships' hulls could be plated with copper to protect them from the wood-boring teredo worm. The copper is attached to the hull by tiny tacks -- "40,000 of them, if I did the math right," Mr. Walker says. "It's really a corker of a model." Another vessel has a pair of open-air urinals, known as "pissdales." These were common on ships but rare on models. Like their full-sized counterparts, each of the tiny conveniences is lined with lead and designed to drain overboard.

Plans for many British warships built after 1700 survive -- along with measurements taken during various refittings -- and they reveal that almost all of the models are built precisely to scale. But discrepancies lurk in every shadow. For one thing, about 90 percent of dockyard models were built without masts and rigging, says Mr. Walker. Colonel Rogers had rigging made for many of his purchases by Henry Culver, a New York lawyer-turned-model-maker who also performed whatever repairs were necessary. "Of the 50 or so models Colonel Rogers bought, about half were in pristine shape. Some others were just hulks," Mr. Walker says. Culver "did a phenomenal job, but he made mistakes" -- sometimes fitting out a ship with rigging inappropriate to its era, for instance, or with a belfry that its full-scale counterpart never had. "One of my biggest jobs in the past 10 years has been figuring out what is Culver's and what's not," says Mr. Walker, who is writing a book about the Naval Academy's dockyard models that is due to be published in about a year. "You work on these long enough, and you get a feel for what's authentic."

He doesn't go solely on instinct, however. Repairs and alterations were often made to the models' exteriors without affecting the interiors, which are generally inaccessible. Mr. Walker and a photographer friend, Dick Bond, have poked about inside some of the models with arthroscopic cameras, developed for surgical use. In some cases the images have revealed original configurations preserved inside the models. And many of the photographs show finished interiors -- elegant stairways, working doors, inlaid floors in captains' cabins -- that could have been seen only while the model was under construction. In one model, the bilge pumps are so realistic that Mr. Walker had to check to make sure they didn't work.

For all their detail, however, a number of the models remain unidentified. Ships' names were not generally painted on their sterns before the American Revolution, and the names of vessels represented by many of the models were forgotten as the models changed hands over the decades. Many models carry clues -- the figurehead of the 90-gun St. George shows the saint slaying the dragon, for instance. But other identities are difficult to track down. The name of the fireship eluded Mr. Walker for years, until a letter from a scholar in Adelaide, Australia, suggested that he look at little-known plans for a ship called the Griffin -- a perfect match.

He's particularly frustrated by a frigate whose identity he cannot discover. "I've spent more time and brainpower on that model, and I still don't have it." But he isn't jumping to conclusions. "People have been throwing names on these models for so long, and most of them were wrong. I'm pretty cautious."

Although Colonel Rogers's bequest required the museum to employ a curator for the models, the collection hasn't always received as much attention as it gets now. Before the current dockyard-model gallery was built, American admirals and captains had borrowed many of the models as office decorations. To get the dockyard models back, the museum had to find other models the officers could borrow instead. Even then, the academy didn't have a good sense of what the collection contained. "I started a six-week project to identify the models and order the collection," Mr. Walker says. "That was 10 years ago."

The precision with which the models were constructed makes them invaluable to scholars of naval history, he notes, especially because they were made by shipwrights thoroughly familiar with the building techniques of the times. As for their value on the open market, the last dockyard model sold at auction went for about $400,000. But no one can put a price on the models' beauty -- except perhaps by gauging the ardor they have inspired in men like Pepys and Sergison and Colonel Rogers. Look at the original silk rigging of the St. George -- "There's one little replacement line, about two inches," says Mr. Walker -- or at the wooden frames of any of the frigates, their timbers handsomely curved and aged to a golden glow, or at the gilded stern galleries of the 1715 Prince Frederick, where Chinese temple guards watch over the captain's windows. Covetousness comes easy around such treasures, and the more you know about them, the worse it gets. Luckily -- for those of us without inherited fortunes -- delight comes easy, too, and the museum here is open every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. Admission is free.

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published December 13, 2002.