If you have passed the Museum lately you may have noticed the arrival of a giant ship in a bottle which was formerly located in Trafalgar Square.
A campaign was launched by the Art Fund and the National Maritime Museum at the end of 2011 and successfully raised £362,500 enabling the National Maritime Museum to acquire and permanently display Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s much-loved sculpture.
In order to help explain the meaning behind the sculpture and its new home at the National Maritime Museum we met up with Yinka Shonibare and our very own Simon Stephens.
The craft of putting ship models in bottles has both fascinated and puzzled people for years and when the new sculpture by Yinka Shonibare M.B.E. for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was installed, the interest became front-page news. As Curator of Ship Models at the NMM I was asked, for instance, by ITV London Tonight News, to comment about ship models in bottles and on the newly-installed sculpture, including the history of the craft and the various techniques used to construct them. Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture of HMS Victory in a bottle on top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
The richly patterned fabric sails are symbolic of African dress and independence and are a trademark of the Anglo-Nigerian artist.
The origins of putting models or objects in bottles can be traced as far back as the mid-18th century. These objects ranged from human and heavenly figures to wooden puzzles, with some of the earliest examples thought to have originated in monasteries where many quiet hours were given over to crafts.
It is generally accepted that the bottling of ship models started during the second half of the 19th century with the improvement in glass bottle production allowing a thinner and more even thickness of glass to be achieved together with reduction of unsightly air bubbles. This allowed a much better and less distorted view of the model through the glass and, as a result, the craft soon became a popular activity of seamen and others with an interest in the sea. The models themselves generally depicted sailing ships with the hull normally carved from solid piece of wood. These were then set in a painted putty seabase up to the level of the waterline.
An early 20th century example by Robert Orr illustrating a four-masted barque on a painted putty sea base. It was also common to cover the neck of the bottle with decorative ropework, the most popular in the form of a ‘turks head’ (AAA0045)
People have always been fascinated as to how these models were placed in the bottles. Probably the most common method was using a ‘flatpack’ approach which incorporated pivoting masts and carefully led rigging. The masts were constructed in several sections and connected to the hull via small wooden hinges at their base. The yards were crossed and allowed to turn through 45 degrees so that they would lie flat in line with the masts along the centreline of the hull. The cord rigging was then fixed or allowed to pass through small holes drilled in the spars and hull. This method enabled the model to be constructed in a collapsed – almost flat – state, allowing it to pass through the narrow neck of the bottle stern first and then be positioned on the painted putty sea. The whole rig was erected by pulling the rigging through a series of guide holes, either down through the hull towards the bow or through and under the bowsprit. Finally, the excess rigging was then hidden under the hull or tied off at the bowsprit and trimmed as required.
In the case of the Fourth Plinth ship in a bottle, Yinka Shonibare prefers to keep his method a secret. When I met the artist in his East London studio, a few weeks after the work was unveiled, he politely declined to tell me how he managed to put what is a large fully rigged model into the ‘demijohn’ shaped bottle. I have my own personal views on how he achieved it, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the mystery!
During the early 20th century, the range of vessels modelled increased with introduction of tugs, steamships, light vessels, together with lighthouses and dioramas of the shore all finding their way into bottles. Today, the craft is still very popular worldwide with models made from scratch through to commercially available kits (see illustrations). It is intriguing to see that Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture has married an old traditional maritime craft with the world of contemporary art. Let’s hope that it inspires others to keep the craft of ship models in bottles alive for years to come. A modern example made by Patricia and Leon Labistour in 1977. It is complete with a barque under sail and a steam tug nearby. Notice the small diorama in the neck of the bottle. (AAA0059) The four-masted barque Olivebank (1892) at anchor with a lighthouse on the shore just off the bow. (AAA0060) A model made in 1967 of the containership Mosel Express with a drawing of the docks and cranes in the background. (AAA0049) The three-masted topsail schooner Kathleen and May (1900) set inside the familiar dimple whisky bottle. This model was made in 1978 by Mark Lester and is typical of the style of model and bottle that is available commercially as a kit. (AAA0053)
As Curator of Ship Models, I need to ensure that the Museum collects examples of vessels of historical and technical importance to expand our world-class collection of over 3000 models. As well as historical models we are always looking for examples which keep pace with current developments in shipping.
LNG Carrier Methane Heather Sally (ZBA4653)
One of our most recent acquisitions is the Liquid Natural Gas Carrier (LNG) Methane Heather Sally, kindly presented to the museum by the BG Group in 2009. As the UK’s natural gas reserves are diminishing, the gas supply companies have to import gas from abroad. Carrying this commodity in bulk – economically and by sea – is certainly challenging as the gas has to be refrigerated at a temperature of minus 161 degrees centigrade. The NMM’s ship model collection already includes examples of the earliest ships to transport this cargo, dating from the 1970s onwards, and this fine, full-hulled example brings the story right up to date. It is slightly unusual in that the hull includes a cut-away section showing the internal layout and construction of the gas cells.
As you can see, the port side towards the bow shows the various colour-coded layers of the membrane containment system which comprises stainless steel, glass-fibre cloth and an aluminum foam wood sandwich. The volume of gas carried by the vessel, once expanded from its liquid form, is 145,000 cubic metres, which is enough to power over half a million American homes for a month!
This vessel is also typical of modern shipbuilding, with most vessels designed with the greenest credentials and the ability to re-cycle the hull materials at the end of their working life. Some of the more notable green features on the Methane Heather Sally include:-
Using the boil-off gas to fuel the boilers for both the main engines and electrical generators, rather than using additional energy for refrigerating the LNG
Burning gas rather than heavy fuel oil, which reduces CO2, NO2 and SO2 emissions
A waste oil incinerator and rubbish re-cycling and compactor
A safe water ballast transfer system which prevents the movement of invasive marine species to undesired locations
These ships are theoretically able to circumnavigate the world around the zero meridians in about 44 days at an operating speed of 20 knots. They will be operating in and out of a new handling facility currently under construction at Milford Haven.
As an organics conservator at the National Maritime Museum I am responsible for conserving ship models - a highly specialised field in conservation. The museum holds the largest collection of ship models in the world, over 3000 models. I have recently treated a Maltese galley, which was made around the 1770′s and is an example of the warships used by the Order of the Knights of Saint John in the Mediterranean during the Crusades. These ships would have been powered by a mixture of sail and man power. The main body of this model is made of painted and gilded wood and it is fully rigged with linen sails. There are a number of removable sections, 53 wooden oars and two miniature copper alloy canons.
This model has been a particularly interesting project for me because of the wide range of materials and the different types of treatment that the galley needed. As well as general cleaning and repairing minor structural damage, there has been the tricky problem of stabilising the fragile textile sails while still attached to the model. With all the treatments I undertook it was necessary for me to find materials that were reversible. This is an important consideration in conservation as treatment should be reversible to allow for the object to be reverted to pre-conserved state if necessary.
There was a thick layer of fudgy dirt – like soot – on the surface of the model. It’s likely that a sticky layer of varnish made of linseed and industrial methylated spirits had been applied to the model at some point during its life and this varnish had helped to stick the dirt to the surface.
I removed the dirt using a liquid spirit soap called Vulpex diluted in distilled water applied with small cotton wool swabs and removed with distilled water on cotton swabs. As the dirt was removed it revealed beautiful painted detail on the deck which hadn’t been obvious before the model’s treatment. A diamond and floral decoration and a painted surface implying wooden marquetry were found underneath the dirt. The same method was used to clean the large number of oars that were also extremely dirty.
The stem at the bow of the ship had been repaired before using small nails. The nails were removed with pliers and the piece of wood adhered back into place with an adhesive.
The boomkins at the stern of the galley had snapped away. This was reattached with adhesive but the amount of loss to the wood and the tiny repair area meant that the repair would be vulnerable. I decided that a ‘filler’ should also be applied to this area as it would give the repair added structural support and make it more visually pleasing. I decided on a fill made of glass microballoons mixed with an adhesive called Paraloid, which is a material that can be removed easily with solvents such as acetone.
Microballoons are extremely tiny silica glass-bubbles that make an excellent fill material for areas of loss in wood giving the filler an elastic quality which allows for expansion and contraction of organic material. The microballoons were mixed into an adhesive and solvent solution; making a paste which has a similar appearance to icing sugar. I applied the mixture with a miniature metal spatula, working quickly as the solvent evaporated fast making the paste less flexible. When the fill had dried, I carefully smoothed the fill to be flush with the rest of the wood and used red acrylic paints to colour match it to the original wood.
The most complicated part of the treatment was stabilising the damaged linen sails. The blue/green linen was very fragile and there were a number of tears and splits because the fibres were brittle and powdery. I decided to use an adhesive repair technique on the sails as they were much too fragile to be repaired by sewing.
Tests were done on two types of adhesives – Lascaux and BEVA. Both are thermoplastic adhesives which can be applied as a liquid, left to dry and then activated with heat – this makes for cleaner repairs and easier positioning of the support textile. The result showed that BEVA was more successful at adhering the support textile to the sail and permeating the powdery fibres. The fact that the BEVA can be reactivated with heat means that it is a reversible and can be removed in the future if needs be. To apply the adhesive a support textile called Stabiltex was stretched over a frame and then the BEVA was sprayed onto the support textile using an artist’s spray gun to give fine and even layers of adhesive.
In most situations textiles can be treated flat on a level surface. However in this situation the bindings which attached the sail to the mast were too brittle and fragile to be untied. Localised humidification could have been used to untie each one individually but ultimately this would have caused more damage and the bindings would have had to be replaced. It was felt that the textile could be worked on while still in position. A support was made, consisting of a wooden fabric covered panel which allowed me to apply pressure and work on the sails while they were still attached.
The Stabiltex was applied in strips to the sails and then using a heated spatula was adhered into place. During application, paper parchment was used in between the spatula and the support textile to protect the support textile and the sails from direct heat and stop the adhesive from sticking to the metal.
Small areas of damaged rigging were replaced with fresh rigging and toned in with water based stain. In a couple of places removing the damaged rigging would have caused further damage or meant that large areas would have to be removed. In these cases Japanese tissue and adhesive repairs were used to bridge the breaks. Finally, the model was given a light clean with a museum vacuum and a soft brush and the oars positioned, making the galley ready for display.
This galley is going to be on display at the newly refurbished galleries at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell from spring 2010 onwards.