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Amazing Rare 1745 Ship Model on Display

HMS America model detailMARK YOUR CALENDAR

You have a rare chance to see the earliest item int he Porstmouth Athenaeum collection through May 16, 2014. This rare, large 1749 wooden model of the British ship HMA AMERICA was given to the Athenaeum in 1820 (when it was already an antique) and has been on display to proprietors for 200 years -- and now to the public. (Click headline for full article)  

Three decades before the American Revolution, Britain bestowed a great gift on the people of Portsmouth -- a commission for a Royal Navy ship. HMS America, built on the North Mill Pond by shipwright Nathaniel Meserve, was a reward for New England's impressive victory in the siege of Louisbourg in Cape Breton in 1745. 

"The French were completely defeated. Everyone involved was considered to be a great hero. And it was the first time New Englanders had really shown themselves to the British as being very capable soldiers and sailors," said Elizabeth Aykroyd, who with Joe Mulqueen is co-curating a free exhibit opening Feb. 15 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, "The 1749 Model of the HMS America, The Athenaeum's First Object -- 1820. 

Lt. Col. Nathaniel Meserve was the chief of artillery for William Pepperrell of Kittery, who with fleet commander Peter Warren forced the French to surrender. Warren was knighted and promoted; Pepperrell became a baronet. In 1747, Pepperrell awarded the contract for the 44-gun vessel to Meserve, whose shipyard stood at the current site of Cindy Ann Cleaners on Maplewood Avenue.

"Building such a ship was a big deal because it brought a lot of jobs to the Portsmouth area," said Aykroyd, who trained in the Winterthur Program and has worked in several museums, including as curator of the US Army First Armored Division Museum in Germany.

The original Colonial model of the ship was donated to the Athenaeum in 1820 -- three years after the founding of the membership museum and library. It is believed to be the earliest known American Admiralty-type ship model, Aykroyd said. In the early 1960s, the Smithsonian came calling and was allowed to borrow the model for several years in exchange for performing restoration work.

"The model was in a glass case in the front room of Nathaniel Meserve's home (next to his shipyard)," Aykroyd said. "It was listed in his estate inventory when he died."

Meserve and his firstborn son and namesake both perished of smallpox on June 28, 1758, in the second Louisbourg campaign.

The exhibit, which runs throughMay 17, will concentrate on the historical background of the model, Portsmouth shipbuilding, and the industries needed for building and equipping a ship -- ropemakers, joiners and cabinet makers, painters, blockmakers, coopers, blacksmiths and merchants of food and drink, among others.

 HMS America 1749 model at Portsmouth Atenaeum

OnMarch 26, Joe Mulqueen will present a talk, "The Sailor's Life in the 18th Century," illustrating what it would have been like aboard the HMS America. The free lecture is at7 p.m.in the Athenaeum's Research Library. Reservations are required.

For the past 12 years, Mulqueen has been a museum teacher and hearth cook at Strawbery Banke Museum, with a life-long interest in ship modeling and maritime history.  He has a particular interest in everyday life in the 18th century and how most people lived.  

"The HMS America was a British warship but, since battles are the exception, life on a warship is mostly about routine," Mulqueen said.  "My talk is focused on the everyday matters.  As an example, the hammocks for the seamen were hung 14 inches apart.  The Athenaeum’s Research Library, where the talk will take place, is not a very large space, but this much area on the America would have hammocks for about 140 seamen. Today, that might be considered rather close quarters."

Meserve faced his share of challenges building the vessel, Aykroyd said.

"I don't think he made huge amounts of money out of this," said Aykroyd, who noted the ship's construction began in 1748.

"The date of the ship is 1749, but it had problems when it was launched," she said. "The rudder was cracked and had to be rebuilt. It didn't leave for England until July 1750."

The ship model is the centerpiece of the exhibit, which will also include maps, paintings, cannon balls of the era and gunpowder kegs.

Aykroyd said the model came to the Portsmouth Athenaeum by way of Elizabeth Langdon Elwyn, who donated it in 1820. She was the daughter of merchant John Langdon, who may have purchased the model after Meserve's heir, a supporter of England during the Revolution, lost his possessions for being a Tory. 

For more information, go towww.portsmouthathenaeum.org. For lecture reservations, call603-431-2538.

The exhibit is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from1 to 4 p.m.in the Athenaeum's Randall Gallery. An opening reception will be held Feb. 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the gallery, 6-8 Market Square.

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