Portsmouth Builds Rare HMS America in 1749
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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"I think it's unique, absolutely unique," says Rob Napier of Newburyport. He is talking about the wooden ship model of HMS America on display in the Reading Room of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. (Click headline for full article)
Rob Napier should know. He restores and repairs ancient ship models full time and is currently booked two years in advance. Napier has worked extensively on the ship model exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and will be working on a model of "Old Ironsides" this year at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown.
Built by 1749, the model was already an antique when it was donated to the membership library in 1820, making it the very first item in the Athenaeum collection. It is the oldest known model of a British ship built in the United States. The 44-gun warship was built by Nathaniel Meserve at his yard once located along what is today Raynes Avenue at the North Mill Pond bridge.
"It's a beautiful model," he says. "It has great character and great visual texture, although it was created by a much less refined, less academic hand."
In other words, this prized possession of the Portsmouth Athenaeum is one-of-a-kind, but for lack of a better word, it is also "crude."
To understand what makes the model unique, Napier explains, we need to go back to England in the 17th century. That's when British shipwrights began building scale models of their warships. By the 18th century the British Admiralty had standardized the size of the models to 1:48 or one-quarter inch of model representing one-foot of the real ship.
Some 450 to 500 of these elegantly carved models have survived in museums and private collections, Napier says. Because of their intricate detail, historians once believed that the models were created first as a template in order to guide the building of the real ship.
"But this is not the case," Napier says. "The models were not the blueprints for the ships."
The British warships were built then, as today, from paper plans. The models were often built at the same time from the same plans right at the shipyard. That's why they have become known as "dockyard models." Their key purpose may have been public relations. Models could be shown to the patrons, political leaders, and navy brass to demonstrate how their money was being spent. Many models have survived in England, Napier surmises, because they were routinely given away as gifts and prized by their owners.
As with HMS America, most dockyard models did not include sails, masts, rigging, or armament. These elements were so standardized that everyone in the shipping business knew what to expect, and these additions simply made the models costly, took more time, and made them difficult to store and transport.
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