New ways of looking at historic ship models: A comparative technical study of a pair of Napier & Sons ship models in the Rijksmuseum collection

Riley Cruttenden and Davina Kuh Jakobi


Ship models of the Buffel, an ironclad ram ship, and the Tijger, an ironclad monitor, were built by R. Napier & Sons in Glasgow, Scotland, between 1867-1868 for the Dutch Department of the Navy. Both models were presented to the commander of the Buffel and subsequently transferred to the Rijksmuseum in 1883 alongside other models in the naval collection. In 2017, the Rijksmuseum undertook a comparative technical study of the two models. Techniques employed by the craftsmen associated with historic ship models are generally not well understood and object-based examination had not previously been performed to characterize the materials found on these models.

This presentation will review the results of this comparative technical analysis, which have provided new insight into the models and the practice of historical model making and suggest routes for future research. Additionally, it will describe the implications of utilizing a technical art history approach in the study of ship models. Historically, ship models have typically been used to represent their larger counterpart, to demonstrate developments in shipbuilding, or to embody aspects and historical maritime events. As a result, the materials and techniques found on ship models have often been obscured or even completely removed by intrusive restoration campaigns, which usually focus on preserving the aesthetic and illustrative values of the ship model. However, historic ship models carry traces of social histories that have not been widely explored and their various media demonstrate a range of craft techniques. Comparative technical analysis offers a novel approach to the study of ship model making; in-depth technical studies comparing ship modelling materials and techniques have neither been published nor presented previously. Importantly, this method of study, when combined with art historical research, offers significant potential in exploring these understudied areas, identifying historical model making practices, and building a more holistic understanding of historic ship models.

This comparative study combined scientific and technical examinations with historical and primary source research to better understand how these models were made, what they are made from, and the historical context of their production. Together, the models of the Buffel and the Tijger were investigated using visual observation, ultraviolet illumination, digital microscopy, X-radiography, XRF, and paint sampling paired with SEM/EDX. The technical examinations revealed nuances in the construction of the models such as gilding applied with an oil mordant containing chrome yellow pigment, a decorative finish over the hulls composed of granulated tin applied with a mordant, and miniature rope purpose-made from silvered copper threads. Material analysis and historical sources suggests that the Napier & Sons model makers’ methods were closely linked to contemporary techniques employed by specialized craftspeople.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25