The craft of putting ship models in bottles has both fascinated and puzzled people for years and when the new sculpture by Yinka Shonibare M.B.E. for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was installed, the interest became front-page news.
As Curator of Ship Models at the NMM I was asked, for instance, by ITV London Tonight News, to comment about ship models in bottles and on the newly-installed sculpture, including the history of the craft and the various techniques used to construct them. Yinka Shonibare's sculpture of HMS Victory in a bottle on top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The richly patterned fabric sails are symbolic of African dress and independence and are a trademark of the Anglo-Nigerian artist.
The origins of putting models or objects in bottles can be traced as far back as the mid-18th century. These objects ranged from human and heavenly figures to wooden puzzles, with some of the earliest examples thought to have originated in monasteries where many quiet hours were given over to crafts. It is generally accepted that the bottling of ship models started during the second half of the 19th century with the improvement in glass bottle production allowing a thinner and more even thickness of glass to be achieved together with reduction of unsightly air bubbles. This allowed a much better and less distorted view of the model through the glass and, as a result, the craft soon became a popular activity of seamen and others with an interest in the sea. The models themselves generally depicted sailing ships with the hull normally carved from solid piece of wood. These were then set in a painted putty seabase up to the level of the waterline.
People have always been fascinated as to how these models were placed in the bottles. Probably the most common method was using a 'flatpack' approach which incorporated pivoting masts and carefully led rigging. The masts were constructed in several sections and connected to the hull via small wooden hinges at their base. The yards were crossed and allowed to turn through 45 degrees so that they would lie flat in line with the masts along the centreline of the hull. The cord rigging was then fixed or allowed to pass through small holes drilled in the spars and hull. This method enabled the model to be constructed in a collapsed - almost flat - state, allowing it to pass through the narrow neck of the bottle stern first and then be positioned on the painted putty sea. The whole rig was erected by pulling the rigging through a series of guide holes, either down through the hull towards the bow or through and under the bowsprit. Finally, the excess rigging was then hidden under the hull or tied off at the bowsprit and trimmed as required.
In the case of the Fourth Plinth ship in a bottle, Yinka Shonibare prefers to keep his method a secret. When I met the artist in his East London studio, a few weeks after the work was unveiled, he politely declined to tell me how he managed to put what is a large fully rigged model into the 'demijohn' shaped bottle. I have my own personal views on how he achieved it, but I wouldn't want to spoil the mystery! During the early 20th century, the range of vessels modelled increased with introduction of tugs, steamships, light vessels, together with lighthouses and dioramas of the shore all finding their way into bottles. Today, the craft is still very popular worldwide with models made from scratch through to commercially available kits (see illustrations). It is intriguing to see that Yinka Shonibare's sculpture has married an old traditional maritime craft with the world of contemporary art. Let's hope that it inspires others to keep the craft of ship models in bottles alive for years to come.
The four-masted barque Olivebank (1892) at anchor with a lighthouse on the shore just off the bow. (AAA0060)
The three-masted topsail schooner Kathleen and May (1900) set inside the familiar dimple whisky bottle. This model was made in 1978 by Mark Lester and is typical of the style of model and bottle that is available commercially as a kit. (AAA0053)