Elaborate 'dockyard' models, assumed for three centuries to have been copied by shipwrights making full-size ships, are now thought to have been made to satisfy the vanity of grown-up boys with a passion for grown-up toys. Simon Stephens, curator of ship models at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, has gathered evidence that even 'Navy Board' models, made in the 100 years from 1650, were often commissioned by individuals - admirals, captains, high-ranking civil servants - as collectables or presentation pieces.
Some were not completed until years after the ship itself had been built, with the guidance only of a plain 'block' - a carved wooden miniature of the hull. 'There is no real evidence that ship models played any part in the ship design of the time,' says Mr Stephens. 'A good quality Navy Board model took at least as long to build as the ship itself.'
He has found Navy Board letters complaining that a model of HMS Victory (the one launched in 1737, not Nelson's) was incomplete four years after the ship had entered service. Some of the models commissioned by the Board were for presentation to captains, such as one of Lord Anson's Centurion, launched in 1730, made to commemorate his circumnavigation of the globe in 1740-44.
Collecting ship models must have become something of a mania, at least among the naval aristocracy. Samuel Pepys, first secretary to the Admiralty, rescued his collection from the Great Fire of London. The following year, 1667, when the Dutch fleet raided towns on the Medway, Peter Pett, the Navy's commissioner at Chatham, was ridiculed for saving his ship models instead of the ships themselves.
James I had a collection. Charles I doted on his miniature Sovereign of the Seas (in 1637 the first 100-gun ship). Admirals dangled exquisite models before George III like toys, hoping to inveigle him into spending more on the Navy.
Today, most Navy Board models are in museums. But whenever one appears at auction the price can go through the roof. A record pounds 154,000 was paid by a dealer at Christie's South Kensington last October for a 1702 Navy Board 50- to 54-gun warship.
Most other ship models are pathetically cheap. Philip Wride of Dartmouth, one of the country's best-known professional makers, has been commissioned by a Far Eastern museum to build an 8ft-long early 18th-century 96-gun three- decker, without rigging, which could take him 2,000 hours. His price is pounds 23,000 - pounds 11.50 an hour.
He recommends seeking the work of gifted amateurs at auction - 'perhaps that of someone who has sat down in retirement and researched and built just one model from scratch'. The going rate at auction for even top-class amateur models works out at a measly pounds 1 an hour. At Christie's South Kensington this month, a cased, rigged, scratch model of the clipper Norman Court by a well- known name, Ray Wilson, was estimated pounds 250- pounds 350. It probably took at least as many hours to make and sold for pounds 380.
A finely detailed, cased model of the royal yacht Caroline of 1749, by Ken Britten, a 2,500-hour job estimated pounds 2,200- pounds 2,800, went for pounds 2,750. Other makers' names to watch for: J C Bertola, J A Evans, Ron Chapman and Russell Philips. Avoid models made from kits (unhistoric, inaccurate). Spot them by their prefabricated plastic details.
Jon Baddeley of Sotheby's said that less skilled 'sailor-made' models (the polite term for amateur work) tend to be knocked down cheap. 'Some vendors tell me, 'But I've spent 3,000 hours on this'. I say, 'Well, it's still worth only pounds 300, but you've had the joy of making it'.'
Still going strong: French Napoleonic prisoners-of-war models, often made from mutton bone. They command pounds 10,000 or so at auction because they are exquisitely detailed and small enough to fit on a mantelpiece, to become irresistible talking points. (Did you know that captured French officers were billeted on parole with local families? They sometimes bought the lower ranks' ship models as gifts for their hosts.)
The Napoleonic Wars were the first without regular exchange of prisoners, and captured French craftsmen faced 10 years or more whittling bone or twisting human hair into rigging. At inland prisons such as Dartmoor and Norman Cross, the models' accuracy declined. A style developed: over-rigged with extra- high masts and over-steep bowsprit.
The National Maritime Museum is holding its first Model Boat Show on 11 and 12 June: 32 model clubs and 25 model-making companies will be represented. As a stunt, the press will be invited on Tuesday, 7 June, to race and crash model powerboats, - anathema to enthusiasts of model racing yachts, unkindly dubbed 'pond yachts' by auctioneers four years ago when they came into vogue. A good Twenties or Thirties model yacht can fetch pounds 1,000- pounds 2,000 (or big, named Thirties yachts, 60-80in long, more than pounds 4,000).
Enthusiasts of static models and working models live in very different worlds. However accurately a static model may be scaled-down, it keels over if set afloat. Model racing yachts do not attempt to be replicas. As model yacht maker and restorer Richard Howlett explained: if you scale down all dimensions by the same factor, the keel will be too light to keep a model upright. So model yachts have six racing classes of their own, designed from scratch.
When founded in 1876, the Model Yacht Sailing Association, whose members frequent the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, drew up rules of entry, including blackballing, which matched those of any club in St James's. The question arose as to whether the owner's mate, the artisan with a 'turning pole' whose job it was to set the boat on fresh courses from distant sides of the pond, should be allowed to attend Association dinners. The answer was no. Some mates did, however, return home with their owners, where they resumed their responsibilities as servants.
Before radio control arrived in the Sixties, 'free sailing' boats raced in pairs rather than fleets, to avoid entanglement. The racing style of free sailers, auto-steered by a wind vane, is 'beating and running': start facing the wind and tack up, then let out the sails and run back downwind. Mr Howlett, secretary of the Vintage Model Yacht Group and measurer of the Model Yacht Sailing Association, is still resolutely a free sailing man. Half the country's model boat enthusiasts now use radio control. The annual model yacht regatta at the Round Pond is on Sunday 19 June.
Besides the Model Boat Show, the National Maritime Museum organises tours of the reserve collection and has copies of ships' plans (081-858 4422). Richard Howlett (071-480 5288).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies