Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Research, or, When Nerds Get Excited

Yes, that's me.
Yesterday the NHS team received a very exciting bit of research from Stephen Duffy, author of Captain Blakeley and the Wasp - a copy of a letter and drawing sent by Isaac Chauncey in July 1805 to then Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith.  It reads:
I have the honor to submit for your consideration and approval a plan of the head for the U.S. Brig Hornet building at this place -
      I have the honor to be (etc)                            
                                  Isaac Chauncey

As those who've read the cursory history of Hornet published on the NHS website, the ship was originally fitted with an eagle figurehead that could be unshipped and replaced with a plain billet head.  Several contemporaries wrote of admiring the carving, which reportedly had an eight foot wing span, and even Hornet's builder, William Price, reported that it was hoisted into position on the ship's stem from the roof of his home and office at 910 Fell Street in Baltimore - a building which still stands today.

This latest bit of research is the first actual sketch, drawing or illustration we've had of this apparently notable feature of the original ship, and needless to say, we're very excited.

The drawing is very crude, and several of the proportions are a bit disjointed - such as the vertical placement of the hawseholes and gunports.  But it does contain several key details that will be integrated into our replica.
The drawing accompanying the above letter (click for larger view).

First, the eagle figurehead will be a prominent feature, and like the original we're planning it to be removable.  The figurehead on our 1:12 scale mock-up of the ship, affectionately dubbed "Mini-Hornet" gives a good three-dimensional view of what it might look like when finished (with the exception that the model does not include the escutcheon, or shield, depicted in the drawing - mostly because we didn't have the drawing when the model was made).  It's also of note that Hornet's original stern carving - also an eagle - still exists and is in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.  Even though they may have been contracted to different artisans, many of the stylistic details might have been quite similar, and so the existing artifact can serve as a guide in that regard.
Hornet's original stern eagle carving, on display at the Maryland Historical Society.

The figurehead on our 1:12 scale mock up of the ship was actually taken from the top of a large trophy.

The trailboards, or curved string of carvings below the figurehead, will keep the "spray of arms" common to many 18th and 19th century warships.  While many, including USS Constitution, later adopted a floral motif, the more elaborate spears, pikes, flags, drums, and gun implements shown in the sketch were just as common but today are probably vastly underrepresented.
A 'spray of arms' carved on the trailboard of a ship in the Rogers Ship Model Collection, US Naval Academy Museum.

And last but not least, there is that interesting face on the cathead.  These seem to very often have been lion or cat faces, either in homage of the name of the appendage, or possibly vice-versa.

Cathead carving on USS Constitution today.
Interesting stuff, all around.  It just goes to show the interesting things to be found in dusty archives (and on microfilm, as this case would have it)!  Thanks Steve!

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