This article appeared in Museum of Art Bulletin published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1923. It features an exhibition of the "Cuckfield Park' models - then owned by rich American Colonel HH Rogers to the Museum in New York:
The building of ship models may be said to have had its beginnings in the most remote past. How far back cannot be definitely said, but the high state of development of the examples found by the Museum’s Egyptian Expedition of 1919 in the small chamber adjoining the tomb of Mehenkwetrê (XI Dynasty, 2000 B. C.), a part of which are now displayed in the Museum, proves conclusively that the practice of model making for funerary purposes must have begun at a very early date.
Models also have been extensively employed for many centuries as votive offerings hung up in temples, churches, and shrines, a custom perhaps borrowed from the Egyptians.
Dating from about the beginning of the seventeenth century, ship models served a more practical purpose. When the construction of an important vessel or class of vessels was contemplated, it was found advisable to build, in advance of the actual work upon the full-sized craft, a model to some convenient scale, usually one to forty eight, that is, one quarter of an inch to a foot, a miniature prototype of the real ship, showing in complete detail the keel, framing (ribs), wales, deck-beams, and all the major constructional portions of the hull, as well as the bulkheads, cabin divisions, woodwork, and decorations, including also all of the auxiliary machinery, such as cleats, capstans, bell, and anchors.
This method furnished a practical means of studying the design and the capabilities of the proposed vessel and offered an opportunity for such modifications of plan as might be deemed advisable.
The more important ships of this period were ornamented with elaborate gilded wood carvings upon practically all parts susceptible of such embellishment, while the woodwork and decorations in the quarters of the principal officers were as carefully treated as were the houses of persons of equal importance. While this method applied principally to governmental vessels, the construction of merchant ships and privately owned ships sometimes received almost equal attention.
Great artists were employed in designing the decoration as well as in its execution, among whom may be mentioned Pierre Puget (1620-1692) in France, Sir Anthony Van Dyck in England, and probably many others whose names unfortunately have not been connected with this branch of the exercise of their talents. Puget executed with his own hand many wood carvings for the water-craft of Louis XIV. Several of these original wood carvings are now displayed in the Musée de Marine in the Louvre, and we have the name of the Noël brothers, who executed the wonderfully elaborate carvings for the "Sovereign of the Seas" constructed for Charles I of England (1637) by Phineas and Peter Pett.
One of the earliest known English construction models still preserved is that now in Trinity House in London. It has been thought that it represents the "Loyal London" of the year 1664, but this attribution has been questioned.
Among early collections of ship models historically authenticated is that gathered while he was Clerk of the Acts of the Navy by Samuel Pepys, the author of the celebrated diary. These models were disposed of by his will but all subsequent trace of them has vanished. At about the same time, Thomas Hewer also formed a collection.
Charles Sergison was Clerk of the Acts of the British Navy from 1689 to 1718, that is, during the reigns of William III, Anne, and the early portion of that of George I; and as such, probably inspired by the example of Pepys, he counted as one of his "perquisites" the acquisition of numerous models constructed at the various British naval depots under his jurisdiction. However, he may be excused from any charge of serious veniality on this count as, subsequent to the building of the several ships for which they had served as plans in three dimensions, the models seem to have been at this time accounted as of little value except as mementos. Their historical importance was then apparently as little appreciated by the navy authorities as was their artistry.
At all events, Sergison installed such of them as he selected in his beautiful mansion, Cuckfield Park, in Sussex, where they were displayed in contemporary cases and cabinets specially constructed for their reception and preservation. These will be separately treated in another article in the next Bulletin. This thoughtful care, continued through successive generations, accounts for the wonderful condition of the major part of the collection, almost unscathed by the ravages of nearly two and one quarter centuries.
Of these models, now on display in Gallery H 22 through the loan of Col. HH Rogers, the finest is that of the ‘Britannia’, a first rate of 1700. This item, constructed almost wholly of pearwood in the natural colour varnished, represents a vessel of 100 guns. That it was used experimentally seems probable from the fact that certain discrepancies exist between the position of some of the gunports in the after part of the structure and the plans still extant of the actual vessel.
The decoration, much of it in full relief, is broadly treated and, notwithstanding its minuteness, strong. The figurehead, a mounted warrior trampling on prostrate enemies (a favourite allegory upon British ships), and fighting horsemen and figures are scarcely suggestive of the subject. But the name is displayed on a ribbon at the break of the poop, an unusual occurrence. Various emblems are shown on the other bulkheads and stern transom. The curved form of the outer sides o the transverse bulkheads with their heavily carved mouldings is indicative of the style of the period.
The hull is supported upon a fine cradle formed of dolphins carved in the round upon a veneered walnut base. The length of the model is 41.5 inches, the breadth is 12I inches.
The fully rigged three-decker represents the “St. George” of 1701-2, a second rate, 96 guns. The model is constructed of pear-wood, the rails and some other portions being ebonized. Much of the carving is gilded.
The rigging is practically all original and nearly complete. The figurehead is what would naturally be expected. Saint George triumphing over a very much convoluted dragon. The rails and corbels of the beakhead and the pierced lattice below are worked into a tasteful and harmonious unit, so that the whole front of the little vessel, a most complicated mass of curves, notwithstanding its intricacy, does not in any way suggest heaviness nor does it labor to attain its effect.
The quarter galleries are not so stereotyped as those of “Britannia,” and their middle section passes easily into the stern gallery, where the same motive is carried across in the form of a railing or “garde fou.” The central panel of this railing bears the royal cipher fl W R (William III). Above this, and in the centre of the lunette at the top of the stern, supported by tritons, is another royal cipher, A. R., clearly added after the death of William.
This would seem to raise a doubt as to whether this model may have been constructed, not in anticipation of the building of the “St. George,” but subsequently, so as to furnish Sergison with an example of a second rate, in order to complete the unity of his collection. Another equally plausible assumption is that the lunette described above may have been subsequently altered to conform to a similar change made in the full-sized ship. The length is 48 inches and the breadth 12 inches.
Another fine example is the model of the two and one half deck, 80-gun ship of about the year 1695. This has not been identified with any of the vessels of this class and period, among which may be mentioned the "Newark” and "Cambridge” of that year, and it is quite possible that this is another experimental model. It is constructed of pear-wood, the ornamental parts being gilded, and it differs from the two models above described in that a portion of the decoration is painted on in imitation of gilded carving.
On the stern transom is a full-length figure of the monarch, William III, surrounded by amorini and panoplies. It also bears the royal arms and the cipher of William and Mary. An entry port of particularly fine design adorns each side. It is supported upon a rest of gilded dolphins. The length is 47 inches and the breadth is 11 inches.
The single-masted rigged model is that of a royal or navy yacht. Yachting became quite the vogue in England during the Restoration period, and the royal yachts were apparently accounted a part of the navy. At all events, several are mentioned in the navy lists of the period.
It is difficult to identify these yacht models or to fix definitely the date of this example, although the style of decoration would seem to suggest the later part of the seventeenth century. It has been said that this may be a model of the “Navy” built by Sir Anthony Deane at Portsmouth in 1671.
The little vessel still bears a part of its original rigging. The hull is of boxwood gilded and polychromed, the upper strake being painted a soft blue, studded with stars surrounded by glories like those of the Order of the Garter. The portholes are surrounded by gilded wreaths. The stern bears, in the Jacobean form, the royal arms surrounded by amorini.
This model stands on a base of veneered walnut with circular inlay of hare-wood in the style of William and Mary. It is 21.5 inches long and the width is 7.5 inches.
The collection includes also a fine pinnace or large rowing boat in use at that time in the navy, with the rowers and helmsman in contemporaneous uniforms. It was in such a boat as this, Pepys relates, that he went down the river Thames to view the vessels anchored below.
There are several other smaller ships, one partly rigged, and other examples of rowing boats. The collection as a whole is a well-rounded one. Captain Charles N. Robinson of the British Royal Navy says unqualifiedly that the collection was actually made by Sergison himself to illustrate the types of ships produced during the period when he was Clerk of the Acts and that it is therefore what may be called a self-contained unit showing a distinct period of naval architecture. In this case, it must be absolutely unique.
by Henry B. Culver
Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 18, No. 7 (Jul., 1923), pp. 168-173 (6 pages)
Published by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
To be found in https://www.jstor.org/stable/3254717
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.