A decade has passed since I last toured the U.S. Naval Academy's Gallery of Ships, once housed in a somewhat spooky, antiquated museum setting. Priceless, centuries-old scale miniatures of Royal Navy warships from the 17th and 18th centuries loomed ghostly in a dim, shadowy interior where visitors could marvel at remarkable masterpieces of exacting craftsmanship. Today, longer visits are in order, since the redesigned gallery reopened in a modern, interpretive setting in old Preble Hall.
Oddly enough, as striking as the new gallery is, it has not received the public attention I think it deserves. It reopened in 2009 after being closed for two years during a $20 million renovation of the old building's interior, from which some 55,000 artifacts were removed with great care and placed in storage (www.usna.edu/museum).
Most of those wildly extravagant ships are no longer with us, of course, but in their wake contemporary "dockyard" models - built at the same time and in the same shipyard as the ships they depicted - have survived to give us an incredibly detailed look at the classic Age of Sail. I find it difficult to imagine how untrained yard workers could reduce to scale such ponderous creations as a 100-gun first-rater that carried a crew of 800 into war. In fact, the companion model often took longer to build than the ship it depicted.
First, we must salute the memory of Col. Henry Huddleston Rogers, without whom there would be no collection. The son of a robber baron who co-founded Standard Oil of New Jersey and owned railroads, coal and copper mines, Col. Rogers inherited fabulous wealth. He became interested in antique ship models, mostly owned by English aristocrats, when he served with distinction in World War I. After the war, landed gentry in desperate need of cash began selling their prize possessions to rich Americans. Rogers' first purchase, in 1916, was the dockyard model of the 100-gun Royal William. Eventually, he built his own museum to house his models on his 1,200-acre Southampton, N.Y., estate, The Port of Missing Men. He died in 1935 and donated the collection, including almost 50 dockyard models and 20 French POW models, to the Naval Academy.
Because of their age and fragility, these models demand attention and are always exhibited under glass or in beautiful antique cabinets originally built to display them. Donald R. Preul, 55, is the curator of ship models and responsible for the conservation and care of all 5,000 models in the collection. One of the world's best ship-model builders, Preul does not live in a house filled with little ships, as one might assume. "Not at all," he explains. "It's the old story of the cobbler whose children had no shoes. I have just one model at home, that of a nuclear submarine."
Preul has cut back on building custom scale models as his main profession since being named curator 3-1/2 years ago. Most of his orders are still for World War II ships, but he also builds models of modern vessels, aircraft, armor, miniature figurines and anything else of a military nature. A custom scale model, which might demand a thousand or more hours of extremely delicate handwork, could cost between $5,000 and $50,000.
Education specialist Grant Walker, 60, is a former history professor at the academy who had a lot to do with modernizing, organizing and designing the gallery. A noted authority on the ship models, he is well-versed on the life and times of the great era of sail and conducts tours with contagious glee. He also explores inaccessible interiors of these ships with fiber-optic tools and has made startling discoveries, including hidden signatures of model builders who never expected anyone would ever see them - for example, "This model was made by George Stockwell in the Year of Our Lord 1787 in the 56th year of his age."
"It was my great joy to design this new gallery and I am constantly in awe of the objects," Walker says, bursting with pride.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by a model of great rarity. The 1701 warship St. George was a 96-gun, 162-footer that carried a crew of 680. More than half of the surviving dockyard models are in England's National Maritime Museum, but none is finer than the St. George. Typical of English warship models built before 1703, this one is beautiful in every respect, although what sets it apart is its pristine rigging, which has lines of silk. It has survived 309 years virtually unscathed, making it the finest, most complete example of a fully rigged model from this period in the world. Also noteworthy is the antique cabinet with hand-blown glass that houses it, commissioned by the original owner of the model.
Among this model's baroque decorations is an elaborate figurehead of St. George, who cuts through the seas on horseback brandishing a raised sword while engaged in slaying the dragon of lore. But these decorations are outdone by whimsical art carvings that filled almost every space on the hulls of some ships, such as English cavaliers on horseback trampling enemies of England as staged in hand-carved splendor on one remarkable stern.
The first diorama encountered honors the ordinary dockyard workers who were also expert modelers. This particular vignette depicts life-size figures of a model maker and his apprentice at work. Ghostly grayish white in appearance, they wear clogs of a type found on skeletons in the well-preserved remains of the famed museum ship Vasa, which foundered in 1628 in the Swedish harbor on her maiden voyage of less than a mile.
Other exhibits using life-size figures illuminate facets of life aboard these warships - dining at a table hung from hooks, three crewmen preparing to fire a cannon and a midshipman learning to navigate with a sextant. The final life-size tableau depicts a French prisoner-of-war offering his fully rigged model on the London market while under the watchful eye of a marine-guard escort.
Unlike dockyard models, many POW models from the Napoleonic Wars were carved from the bones of beef rations, though not to scale. One of the exacting miniatures on view depicts a British three-decker armed with 110 guns. It is a poignant tribute to these prisoners, who may have yearned for the "good old days" at sea rather than living under deplorable conditions for years on end on the hard.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.