Researching maritime art…the leading cause of gray hair

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Watercolor of the half brig Alfredo by Mathieu-Antoine Roux, 1859

Sometimes researching maritime art can be supremely frustrating but persistence is usually the key to unlocking an object’s story. This week I was contacted by a gentleman in South Africa who was interested in a watercolor in our collection by Mathieu-Antoine Roux. The image supposedly depicted a ship called “Alfred”. His ancestors immigrated to South Africa from Hamburg, Germany in 1859 and he was looking for an image that depicted the ship they had traveled on.

The watercolor showed a starboard broadside view of the ship under full sail. The artist very nicely depicted the vessel’s assigned Marryat code on the mizzen mast—the number ‘601’—as well as a house flag, a pennant with the name of the vessel, and a country flag on the stern. He also dated the watercolor (1859) and marked it so we had an idea of the region the ship was depicted in (Marseilles, so the ship was most likely in the Mediterranean).   Read more

The Power of the Internet (part 1)

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No museum can ever employ a subject matter expert for every type of object in their collection—especially when their collection is as vast as ours. While we do have a staff member who can usually handle the identification of our weaponry, I recently asked him question that he couldn’t answer.

The question involved a boarding axe that had four very distinctive stamps on the blade (only one other boarding axe in the collection has a mark—a stamped anchor that immediately identifies it as a French Model 1833). The stamps are a crowned “M”, a crowned “B”, an anchor that looked like a grappling hook, and an indistinct crowned “something or other” (sorry about the technical term). At first we thought it was an eagle, then an elephant, and then a little cleaning showed it to be a couple of decorative letters; a script “R” followed by a letter that looked like an “S” or “F”.
So what do you do when you have an object with distinctive stamps that you can’t identify? Google it. This quick search lead me to the wonderful David Lee in Scotland and his site I’m not lying…check it out if you’re a fan of historical weaponry–you’ll love it.
   Read more

Scholarship gone south…..

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Ditty box of James Paterson McKinstry

Recently I was working on finding objects for the upcoming Gallery Crawl and I stumbled across a great drawing in our collection. I was led to it as I researched a naval officer who owned a ditty box in the collection, James Paterson McKinstry, because it reputedly showed the action McKinstry was wounded in while serving as captain of the USS Monongahela (the night David Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron attempted attempted to run past Confederate batteries on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana). When I looked at the image I quickly realized that something wasn’t right and after digging through the object file it almost made me cringe with embarrassment—not my own, but for past curators of not only our organization but a few others.

When acquired, the drawing was encased within a mat and backing board that bore a handwritten inscription which partially read “…drawing of the fleet before New Orleans drawn by William B. McMurtrie…”. Inscriptions can be great things, but when they are applied by someone who wasn’t directly associated with the creation of a piece they should be taken with a grain of salt. Apparently every curator who came into contact with this drawing automatically assumed that the inscription identified the scene correctly but I knew from the first moment I looked at it that something was wrong.   Read more

New Instruments for the Collection

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We added two really interesting navigating instruments to our collection this month.  Both were designed to help navigators plot a tropical storm’s circulation so the ship could navigate around the zones where the worst weather was occurring—essentially “navigating by storm.”

The first, extremely rare instrument is called a Paracyclone. It was designed by Captain François Louis Roux of the French Navy in the 1870s and constructed by A. Santi of Marseille. This particular instrument was for use in the Southern hemisphere although Santi also developed a supplemental semicircle for Northern hemisphere use. Unfortunately this piece is missing the compass plate that would help determine the course of the storm. Only two other instruments of this type are known—one is in the Science Museum in London and the other is at the Observatory of San Fernando in Madrid.   Read more

More! Handling History

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Discussing the mariner’s quadrant in the Age of Exploration gallery.

We had another great Handling History tour with a group from the Virginia Chapter of Sponsored Research Administrators International (SRAI) who were in town for a conference at Christopher Newport University. The group received a tour of the USS Monitor Center and then I met them to look at pieces from our fantastic collection of navigating instruments and a few other wonderful items.

In our Age of Exploration gallery we looked at some of the instruments developed as Europeans began to explore the world around them to find new sources or routes of trade. Instruments included our Mariner’s quadrant (by Jacques Canivet, Paris, circa 1760); our truly fantastic silver-coated Mariner’s astrolabe— (by Nicolao Ruffo, Portugal, 1645); Cross-staff (by Hendrick Noordyk, Netherlands, 1804; Back-staff (by Walter Henshaw, England, 1711); and our 2-Day Marine Timekeeper (by John Arnold, England, ca 1772—this instrument probably traveled with Captain James Cook on his second voyage!).  I have reproductions of many of these instruments so I was able to let the group handle them and learn how they would be used by early navigators.   Read more