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

J. Riley Cruttenden and Davina Kuh Jakobi


In 2017, the Rijksmuseum undertook technical examinations of two mid-19th century ship models produced by the R. Napier & Sons shipyard. The two models were investigated using ultraviolet radiation, digital microscopy, x-ray radiography, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and scanning electron microscopy with electron dispersive x-ray analysis. Technical investigations were complemented with historical analysis and art technological source research. Using identical analysis on two similar models permitted a comparative technical study, a novel methodology within the study of historic ship models. There is a dearth of technical studies on ship models in general, and this article demonstrates that comparative technical analysis offers an especially useful method for expanding our knowledge of historic model-making technologies. Analysis of Napier models at the Rijksmuseum revealed details related to the construction of the models’ wooden hulls, a decorative finish over both hulls composed of powdered tin applied with size or mordant, and miniature shroud-laid rope made from silvered copper threads. The rope would have required tools bespoke to ship model making, whereas other details suggest strong relationships between ship model making and other better-understood artistic practices such as gilding and varnishing. Side-by-side analysis also resolved questions about the original appearance of the models and the extent of an invasive restoration campaign, questions frequently encountered by ship model researchers that are often difficult to answer using other research methodologies. This study demonstrates the utility of comparative technical analysis in identifying non-original elements, illuminating original details, and building a more holistic understanding of historic model-making practices.

KEYWORDS: Ship models, Powdered tin, Japanning, Metal threads, Stratigraphic analysis, Comparative technical analysis

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2018 | Houston | Volume 25