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The Polar Museum: news blog

Ship-shape again! The fully conserved silver Terra Nova model revealed at last

This extraordinary solid silver model of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova was generously donated to the museum in 2010 by Scott’s descendants.  At that point it looked as if it had weathered a few storms:

the Terra Nova model after a few storms

The masts were bent and a lot of the rigging was broken or missing sections.  There was also a very distracting yellow coating over the metal which made it look almost more like a brass model than a silver one.

On closer inspection there were lots of old repairs to the model, either with solder, or with new wire rigging which didn’t match the old, or with original rigging wire repositioned or used to tie loose bits on.  Even the bowsprit was held on with a blob of Blu-tak inside the hull.  All in all it would be a daunting task to try and restore some of its original beauty.  And why did it look so battered in the first place?

The model was actually a present to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s son Peter, given to him in honour of his father’s gallantry in 1913, soon after the news of Scott’s death was announced in Britain.  The subscribers of “John Bull Magazine” had a whip-round and commissioned the model for Peter, whom they called “John Bull’s boy”.  Peter was 4 at the time.

To a modern eye it seems extraordinary enough to make a ship model out of sterling silver, although in fact this was in vogue in the 1910’s and this one was made by the famous London silversmiths, Mappin and Webb.  It seems even more unusual to give such a thing as a present to a 4 year-old boy.  But the damage to the rigging, masts and bowsprit, not to mention the amateur repairs, all show that Peter must have played with the ship (and possibly dropped it), and that it was part of his life.  Peter’s family remember the ship being in their childhood home, and from there it was very kindly given to the museum.

When conserving the model we wanted to repair much of the damage without losing all traces of this history, which is what makes the ship unique.  The first stage was to remove the old yellow coating.  This was originally applied to stop the ship from tarnishing, but had become disfiguring in its own right.  Removing it was enormously time-consuming, and was done with the help of ultra-violet light, as described in an earlier blog post.

Once the coating was gone and the silver gently polished, repairs to the masts and rigging could start.  We had a choice to take the model to a specialist conservation silversmith, who could deconstruct the rigging and completely restore it.  But this would erase all the quirks introduced by Peter Scott over the years and lose an important part of the ship’s story.  So instead the repairs were done by me, as the in-house conservator at the museum, using less interventive techniques.

As a non-rigging expert, understanding the rig and repairing it was an intimidating prospect, so I enlisted help from Janet West, Emeritus Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute and a renowned expert on scrimshaw.  Understanding ship rigging is bread and butter to her and we spent invaluable hours looking at the model and comparing it to photos of the Terra Nova in Antarctica.  It turned out that, although the hull was a perfect replica of the ship (according to the original plans) the rigging was very approximate and could not have worked in real life.  To be fair to the model maker, it would be almost impossible to rig the model realistically because the number of criss-crossing wires would become overwhelming.

Talking with Janet gave me confidence to start repairing the rigging.  I began with the footropes which hold the sails furled and then entered a hugely enjoyable flow state repairing everything else.  I used very fine nylon thread, archival tissue and adhesive to tie and reconnect the fine wires together.  I repositioned some original wire that had been wound round things to get it out of the way and by the end found that there was actually much less missing rigging than I first thought.  This is the finished article:

the newly conserved model

The result now strikes a balance – the ship still shows evidence of its past but has regained some of its “wow factor” too.

Sophie Rowe

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