Friday, October 8, 2010

Lions, Dragons, and Ornamental Carvings

Old Ship Figure-heads and Sterns: with which are Associated Galleries, Hancing-pieces, Catheads and Divers other Matters that Concern the “Grace and Countenance” of Old Sailing Ships./ by L.G. Carr-Laughton

In author Laughton’s book, figureheads and sterns extravagantly display the art of decoration and wood carving on British, French, Spanish and Dutch ships from the 14th through the 19th centuries. As he explains, the custom of ship and sail decoration began much, much earlier, with carvings of scaly or winged symbols, draggons and lions, of religious or state importance. The carvings adorned the flagship of a fleet with its painted sails, representing style and culture. He recounts:

“We do know that shipwrights of this period… wished their ships to carry an impression of their “terror and majesty” to their enemies, and to all beholders…” p. 12

Canons being fitted to military ships along the port and starboard sides, were extended around the sterns in galleries, built above and below the quarterdecks, or walkways for masters of the ships.

Originally written in 1925, Laughton’s description of ornamentation is decisive, and supplied with examples and footnotes; he maintains his intent was to produce a popular, as opposed to scholarly, work. He begins the chapter on figureheads by noting that “we remember the analogy between a ship and a living creature”, p. 63, giving illustrations of early Greek, Phoenician, and Roman ships’ animal carvings. A review of the chapter on sterns compares similar time periods. He includes a note on American ships of the 1800s with entire human figures, an example of the evolution of figurehead design.

The book includes 48 pages of plates showing examples from built models, photographs and illustrations held by various maritime museums. Its ten chapters are supported by a subject index, a ship index, and lists of illustrations in color, black and white, and numerous line drawings. For the model builder, the chapters following an introduction are: Fashion in Ornament, the Limitation of Ornament, The Head, Figure-Heads, the Stern, Quarter Galleries and Badges, The Broadside, Inboard Works, and Painting and Gilding. The book in the Library is a republications by Dover Publications, 2001.

Explanation of terms used from Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Second edition. Edited by I.C.B. Dear and Peter Kemp. Published by Oxford University Press, 2005. 971 p. :
Figurehead: “an ornamental carved and painted figure erected … below the bowsprit (forward of the vessel, at the bow) as a decorative emblem…” p. 302.

Flagship: “in navies, the ship that carries the admiral’s flag… in mercantile shipping lines, the ship of the commodore or senior captain of the line.” p. 314

Gallery: “the walk built out from the admiral’s or captain’s cabin in larger sailing warships…” p. 335.

Quarter deck: “in sailing ships, it is the part of the ship from which it was commanded by the captain, master or officer of the watch… or where the captain used to walk…” p. 679.

Stern: the after end of the vessel, p. 834.

Books in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library are available for borrowing by Museum members. See the book Old Ship Figure-heads and Sterns/ by L.G. Carr-Laughton in our online catalog.

Figure-heads: see genuine figure-heads on display from our permanent collection at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Alchemy and naval power

Gunpowder : alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics : the history of the explosive that changed the world. / by Jack Kelly. Basic Books, N.Y., 2004. 261 pages, illustrations, sources, and index.

Before navies had canons, ships relied on boarding and armed combat, or even earlier, used the technique of ramming other ships to damage and sink them. Gunpowder was originally created to imitate and amplify the sudden snap and split of burning bamboo. Author Jack Kelly tells the story of pyrotechnics and artificial fire in thirteen chapters with initial and ending remarks:

Prologue -- Fire drug -- Thundring noyse -- The most pernicious arts -- The devills birds -- Villainous saltpetre -- Conquest's crimson wing -- Nitro-aerial spirit -- No one reasons -- What victory costs -- History out of control -- The meeting of heaven and earth -- Appalling grandeur -- The old article -- Epilogue.

Centuries of fascination with the power of this explosive stretched to cover one thousand years: in this time military inventions intensified its capacity, responsible for historical conquests among the European monarchies. Ships carried gunpowder as early as 1337, p. 92, and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was noted as the inventor of waging battles principally with canon. The author’s account describes gunpowder’s use from the Medieval Period and the Renaissance, claiming that it supported colonialism and world-wide exploit. A sense of the rudimentary nature of manufacturing and utilizing gunpowder is seen in the illustrations below, pages 37 and 44.

Books in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library are available for borrowing by Museum members. See the book Gunpowder : alchemy, bombards, and pyrotechnics : the history of the explosive that changed the world. / by Jack Kelly, and other accounts of the Medieval, Renaissance, and colonical military history in our online catalog.

Navy ships: see expertly built models at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.