toys for emotionally tormented sea captains
August 24, 2019 3:05 PM   Subscribe

The Art Gallery of Ontario hosts the Thomson collection of model ships, many of which were carved from bone by French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic wars.

Here's a review of the collection from the Toronto Review of Books, some comparisons between Thomson collection models and ships in the Tintin comics, and notes on the model of the Gilded Age yacht Gunilda. If you're more interested in practical advice on the career of a tormented sea captain during the Napoleonic Wars, N.A.M. Rodgers' article Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690–1815 has detailed charts of who got promoted when, as well as explanations of concepts such as half-pay and the precise nature of a master and commander.
posted by yarntheory (21 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, this is great! Thank you for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:13 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

The Thomson gallery is an excellent collection of model ships.

It's also a ridiculous permanent part of the gallery's collection. It's in a well designed but dark basement. No one goes there. And why would you? It's the vanity collection of Canada's richest man. Ken Thomson gifted the AGO with a broad array of Canadian art, from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven to Milne. He threw a Rubens in too. But the gift also came with his collection of mediveal European knick-knacks and his model boat collection.

Yeah, they're really nice model boats. Yeah, it's the kind of thing I'd like to see as a special exhibition. But the fact that it's part of the permanent collection, taking up floor space in a museum that often talks about how much of their collection is in storage and not on display, is a strange decision and one I doubt they'd make if not contractually obligated to do so.

The AGO has been doing some really interesting things lately like highly discounted memberships and free entry for young adults and an expanded focus on indigenous modern art. Their Frank Gehry designed expansion is gorgeous. And then you go see the model boats in the basement once and never, ever engage with that space again.
posted by thecjm at 3:22 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]

There's washrooms down there, though.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:10 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]

I'm a little flip. We're full paying members of the AGO; paying more to get in than we have to. Their programming lately has been beyond fantastic, basically the opposite of old white dudes; very anti-colonialist, very anti-patriarchy. The recent Brian Jungen Friendship Centre exhibition is phenomenal: indigenous sculptural forms sewn together out of consumer sports equipment. So many layers.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:14 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]

mediveal European knick-knacks

You mean the prayer beads? The AGO has a better collection than the Vatican!

posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:46 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

seanmpuckett - we're in the exact same boat. Got a full membership not to long before the $35 deal was announced and was totally fine with that. The Jungen exhibit was amazing and the rest of their anti-colonial work over the past year or so has been so needed. They even commissioned a large Jungen piece to be put outside where the big Henry Moore used to sit.

I'm a fan of the V&A model where you'll visit a museum of stuff. A room full of tiny hand painted cameos from the 17th century, and turn a corner and you'll see 1950's bakeware the copy of a 11th century knight's sarcophagus.

But it feels like the Thomson bequest forced that style of museum on the AGO when it does not match the rest of their collection or their current direction. It's been tucked into corners and the basement. But they need to send that stuff on tour and use those spaces for something different.
posted by thecjm at 5:09 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

For more model ships of similar vintage, check out the museum at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
posted by postel's law at 5:29 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

There's washrooms down there, though.

I have the member + guest membership, so I like inviting people for a free AGO jaunt. I’ve experienced this collection piece by piece over the years while waiting for someone who’s in the can.

It’s kind of funny - parents with kids who Really Have To Go will come rushing down the stairs and then they stop and go “Oh neat! Look at these ships!” And the kid will be like “But I have to gooooo.”
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:25 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

But I hadn’t really thought too much about the provenance of the models, despite finding their placement curious.

Thanks for posting this. It’s answered quite a few questions!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:40 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

I look at these ships every time I go to the AGO.
posted by sgrass at 6:55 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

Fun post!

Speaking of miniature ships vs models, the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia has the superb Crabtree Collection of Miniature Ships.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:24 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

"And then you go see the model boats in the basement once and never, ever engage with that space again."

I loved the model ships! I took phone photos of the model ships, and was promptly scolded by security for it. Wasn't expecting that -- permanent collection, no artists to get antsy about copyright...

OK, no photos of boats, then. :(

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- I haven't been back to the AGO since. I'm not avoiding it, it just became a less fun place to go to.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:35 PM on August 24

Carved from WHOSE bones, now?
posted by captain afab at 7:54 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]

Carved from WHOSE bones, now?

Also HAIR. I did not know that. This will change the way I look at these next time.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:19 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

The Prisoner of War – Bone Ship Models website has a bit more history; a bibliography; an updated Bone Ship Models Worldwide data sheet; a long, clickable list of international museums, galleries, catalogs, auctions, private collections (many with closeup photos and $$$$$ price tags), and related links.

If you’re locked in prison ashore or aboard a prison hulk, you might as well put your mind to work building a dream vessel to sail away.
posted by cenoxo at 10:27 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]

OK, no photos of boats, then. :(

Toronto Review of Books has some, including this photo of a POW Ship Model of the ‘St. Lucia’, made of bone, some painted; baleen; copper alloy; wood, some painted; paper; linen/cotton line. Impressive work indeed.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:34 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

I love the prayer beads. They are so insanely small.
posted by jb at 2:54 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]

some comparisons between Thomson collection models and ships in the Tintin comics

Why is this not the Thomson and Thompson collection?
posted by huimangm at 6:19 AM on August 25

I have a bigger issue with the new cedar stairs - which ANYONE could've guessed would be stained and grimy within a year of installation.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:38 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]

I always just assumed that the model ships were there because Thomson had given the AGO a boatload of money and demanded in return that the ships stay on display. I'm an AGO member, and I only ever go near there when I have to use the washroom.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 10:12 AM on August 26

Pshh. Call me when they manage to put it into a bottle.
posted by captain afab at 10:20 AM on August 26

« Older this is my ray post i don't have a jj post   |   A Colourful Craze - the humble Nudibranch Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments