On a visit to the store room for Glasgow Museums’ ship model collection, CRSC members were astounded by the beauty and variety of what they saw. Andrew Clark reports.
Here is Cunard’s Aquitania, her four funnels standing in perfect proportion to her sleek superstructure and hull. Over there is Meg Merrilies, the handsome North British paddler that tried (and failed) to rival MacBrayne’s Iona on the Ardrishaig run in 1866. Nearby, under a long shelf, is the little Charlotte Dundas, precursor of Comet. And you can’t mistake the Union Castle Line’s Tantallon Castle, looking every bit as majestic as she must have done when she first sailed down the Clyde in 1894.
We have entered a ‘lumber room’, hidden from public view in a windowless storage depot on the outskirts of Glasgow, where ship models sit impassively facing each other — miniatures of ‘the real thing’, like slumbering ghosts of the past, waiting ever-so-quietly for someone interested enough to show appreciation and bring them to life (at least in the imagination). Big and small, these extravagant beauties, crafted in extraordinary detail, are a legacy of the Clyde’s shipbuilding heyday, when yards built scale-models to advertise their wares and ship owners would furnish booking offices and boardrooms with a mini-version of their latest acquisition.
This ‘lumber room’ is no musty remnant of the past. It is Pod 11 of the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, a modern building on an industrial estate at Nitshill, where the large majority of the city’s collection of ship models is preserved under carefully monitored atmospheric conditions.
The collection runs to just under 700 models. Given the amount of space they take up, only about 200 can be put on public display in the Riverside Museum at any one time. The rest wait their turn in this functional ‘Pod’, one of 18 housing everything from taxidermy to textiles, armour to pickled insects.
Built between 2004 and 2007 the Resource Centre houses state-of-the-art conservation and photography studios. Its purpose is not just to ensure that the city’s collection is preserved under the best possible conditions, but to free up more display space in the museums where they were originally housed.
Although the Resource Centre hosts daily tours, it is still something of a secret to the wider public. It was high time CRSC took a collective look. The spark that set the Club’s interest alight was a talk given to us in November 2018 by Emily Malcolm, curator for the Transport and Technology exhibits at Glasgow’s museums.
Emily proved every bit as engaging in her role as guide as she had as our guest speaker. The ship model collection, she explained, consists of two basic types. There are the sizeable ‘full hull builder’s models’ (e.g. Aquitania, Canadian Pacific’s Empress of Japan, Anchor Line’s Belgravia), designed to advertise the shipbuilder’s products at home and abroad; and there are smaller ‘half-hull design models’, built as tools of the industry to test the design and show owners what kind of boat they were getting.
The ‘half hull’ models are housed on racks. Some show only the shape of the hull, delicately moulded from layers of bare wood. Others have a mirror backing, tricking the eye into seeing a full model. This device was apparently more common in Scotland than elsewhere: it saved the model maker half the work, but was susceptible to decay due to flaking-off of the ‘silvering’, which was applied to the front of the mirror rather than the back.
A few models show the ship’s original drawing office design, before changes were made during construction (one of the best examples being the 1892 Glen Sannox, on show in the Riverside Museum). Some were made as ‘training models’ for teaching purposes, with cut-out sections revealing elegant interiors and engine rooms.
All the major shipyards are represented, from T. B. Seath of Rutherglen (the 150ft Mersey ferry Primrose of 1879) to Yarrows of Scotstoun, whose Cutty Sark, a sleek steam yacht built to a pre-1914 destroyer design, attracted many admiring comments during our tour. The smallest model we saw was of King George V — not a builder’s product, but one of a series made by Millars Marine Models Ltd for the mail order market. Little is known of the identity of the model-making professionals who worked for or in association with the shipyards.
The collection has grown steadily since the early 1870s and represents a remarkable continuity, CalMac’s Loch Shira being one of the more recent. It is by no means the world’s largest collection of ship models, but it is unique in that 95 per cent comes from one geographic location — the Clyde. Some periods are better represented than others. The pre-1914 era looms large — from the 1855 Iona to the 1890s Glasgow and South Western Railway paddlers — but there seem to be no representatives of Clyde steamers of the 1930s and 1950s. The large Waverley model (painted in WSN colours) looks like one of the few amateur examples in the collection.
Our tour was restricted to 14 people, and we quickly understood why. Although we were free to wander round, we were told not to touch or handle the models — a rule that might be difficult to enforce with larger numbers. Most of the models in Pod 11 have no glass cases or protective covers. Many are delicate and quite fragile, especially those with elaborate rigging. All would be susceptible to damage or deterioration if people were constantly passing their hands over them.
It was enough for us just to admire. And admire we did, surrounded by a 150-year repository of Clydeside craftsmanship and industry. Our thanks go to Emily and her assistant Kat for such an illuminating tour. CRSC hopes to organise a second tour at a date to be arranged. If you are interested (and a paid-up member), please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, you can join a public tour of the model collection: the next one is on 24 September. GMRCbookings@glasgowlife.org.uk 0141 276 9300
Glasgow Museums: The Ship Models: A History & Complete Illustrated Catalogue
The first full catalogue of Glasgow Museums’ internationally important collection of ship models will be published on 30 October. The 384-page hardback has been compiled and written by Emily Malcolm, and includes photographs of every major model in the collection.
Published on 8 September 2019