The HMS Victory sculpture; carved entirely from original oak from Lord Nelson’s Flagship; HMS Victory.

The history behind the making of the HMS Victory replica which was carved entirely from HMS Victory’s original oak timbers.

HMS Victory ‘Running before the wind’ 

The HMS Victory sculpture is currently on exhibition in Chatham dockyards 

 'Hearts of Oak' gallery in Kent.

  www.victorysculpture.com

( scale 1 : 75 )

Length approximately 47 inches (120cm) x 19 inches ( 48 cm) wide x 36 " (92cm) high

( scale 1 : 74 )

A totally unique carved oak replica of HMS Victory a First Rate Ship of the Line; Lord Nelson’s Flagship was carved by sculptor Ian G Brennan entirely from the very timbers it replicates; HMS Victory.       
          

 

Whilst Ian was working on-board HMS Victory carving the replacement starboard side entrance port, two large rotten worm damaged oak beams, amongst others were removed from the lower gun deck and after being careful examination by the restoration team were deemed impracticable to be restored and returned back on to the ship so they were dropped into a large skip which was placed alongside the Victory. Such old beams were then moved and stored to await an uncertain fate piled up in on top of many other such discarded old beams in the dank old brick built former prison cells below ground in the building which once housed amongst others the unfortunate ‘press ganged’ men in the 18th century forced to serve on the naval ships of war. This building which was built alongside HMS Victory was recently demolished and the magnificent new Mary Rose exhibition centre was erected in its place. Sometime later Ian was asked rather than these old ships timbers being simply wasted would he like to see if it was possible to produce anything useful from them. ..…this was to become the start of the ultimate recycling project. 

Ian was later asked rather than these old ships timbers were simply wasted would he like to see if it was possible to produce anything useful from them. ..…this was to become the start of the ultimate recycling project. 

 The first large carving Ian produced from one of two larger original oak beams was a four feet long bas-relief carving of a scene from the ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ depicting HMS Victory and HMS Royal Sovereign about to break through the French and Spanish line of warships. This relief carving is now on display on-board HMS Victory’s middle gun deck however this time the oak beam was protected from any such adverse conditions it once endured on-board the lower gun deck in its own an airtight glass display case. The other large oak beam removed from the lower gun deck at the same time was later used to produce the HMS Victory sculpture shown ‘running before the wind" which is currently on loan to the historic dockyard in Chatham in Kent where HMS Victory was originally built in 1765.

 

    

‘Breaking the Allied Line’ now shown on exhibition on-board HMS Victory in Portsmouth – The HMS Victory sculpture now on exhibition at Chatham Dockyard in Kent.

HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson's flagship is the oldest commissioned warship in the world and is still manned by Officers and Ratings of the Royal Navy. This ‘Ship of the Line’ is the only surviving warship that fought in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars and is now the flagship of the Second Sea Lord and Commander in Chief Naval Home Command and lies in No 2 Dry Dock at Portsmouth Naval Base in Hampshire UK, where she has a permanent berth. HMS Victory is currently the Flagship of the First Sea Lord; the only remaining 18th century Ship of the Line and the oldest naval warship in the world still in commission.

            

 HMS Victory in Portsmouth Dockyard – Portsmouth harbour in Hampshire UK

During 1991/1992, Ian G Brennan was commissioned by The Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth to carve from mahogany an exact replica of the original starboard side entrance port which can now be found in position on HMS Victory.  The original carved painted and gilded oak entrance port which was so badly decayed in many places and was consequently deemed beyond restoration and required replacing. 

 

Around 20% of HMS Victory in Portsmouth historic naval dockyard is said to be contain original timbers used during the ships construction in 1765 which can mostly be found on the lower gun deck and below. During the first week Ian was carving the Victory’s replacement entrance port he was shown around the ship to see for himself how the current restoration work was progressing. The centuries had taken their toll on many of the oak timbers on the ship particularly those original beams from the lower gun deck area many of which were found to be so badly rotten and worm damaged they were being removed and replaced using new beams made from teak and iroko. Although it was decided in the early stages of the restoration process whenever possible to restore and maintain the Victory using the correct method and materials maintaining a balance between "correct" and using modern technology and materials to maintain both structure and safety. However as there was always a difficulty finding oak of the right size a decision was taken early on to replace the oak in general around the ship with teak because it was also more practical and more importantly far more durable than oak.

 

The Victory was altered a lot after being taken out of service in 1812 and was then left to rot moored in Portsmouth harbour and was even at one time used as a prison ship. In 1922 she was in such poor condition she was at risk of sinking in the harbour when a decision had to be made to ether bring her into dry dock or take her out to sea and sink her as they did with a lot of such vessels at the time and was eventually in the same year floated into no 2 dry dock and the long restoration process began..

 


 

 

 The Victory sculpture – completed 20th February 2013

The history and stages behind producing the woodcarving of the ‘Battle of Trafalgar’   now on exhibition onboard HMS Victory and the wood sculpture ‘Running before the Wind’ now on exhibition in Chatham Dockyard where HMS Victory was originally built 250 years ago.

This page which shows how the Victory sculpture was produced is not meant to be an abject lesson on how to produce a scale model of an 18th century fully rigged Ship of the Line and although it is perhaps not the traditional way of making such a model ship it will hopefully show how I made this one. Although it may well have taken me a while to grasp the most important quality you require if you find yourself with a piece of Victory oak to try and make something from it is to be a real optimist. The reason I started to carve the Victory replica in the first place was not only did it sound like a good idea at the time but it was also a rather unique opportunity to be able to create a large model of HMS Victory in a way that has never been done before and due to the scarcity of original pieces of HMS Victory oak will most likely never be made quite like it again.

Victory oak is an exceptionally hard timber and it has to be said not a particularly pleasant timber to carve for many of the reasons which I will outline below but the simple fact is if it wasn’t for the history of oak I wouldn’t have tried carving it in the first place. Despite oak being the ‘national tree of England’ given the preference I prefer not to carve oak unless it is pacifically requested by the client, which as it happens appears to be more often than not. There are many examples of my oak woodcarvings around, such as the oak Pascal candle stand commissioned for St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle along with a high bas-relief carving of a Knights Coat of Arms commissioned to be placed within the crypt in St Paul’s Cathedral just a few feet from where Lord Nelson’s tomb can be found. So despite my preference for carving any hard timber apart from oak it is quite ironic that I then end up spending around twenty years carving one of the hardest and oldest pieces of oak available; HMS Victory oak.

Normally when I include a ‘how it was made’ section on my website for those who might be interested in such things, I tend not to get to preoccupied with the condition of the timber being used for the particular carving as if the timber was not of the highest quality in the first place I simply wouldn’t waste anyone’s time especially my own trying to create anything worthwhile from it. Oak is classified as a hardwood which is a term used to describe the timbers qualities and suitability for any particular job but original early Victory oak due to it being so well seasoned over the centuries within the hull of Nelson’s Flagship is as far as a the term hardwood concerned in a league all of its own and on the par to trying to carving concrete or perhaps more genetically in the long term coal. But if it wasn’t for the oaks scarcity, uniqueness, age and history behind each of the original ships timbers used to create the Victory sculpture; along with the challenge of actually trying to produce something worthwhile from what could be salvaged from it as far as I am concerned anyway it would never have existed in the first place.

Finding suitable good quality pieces of original oak from within HMS Victory’s original timbers due to its poor condition often felt almost on a par to panning for gold, as the model was created entirely from quality pieces of this oak searched out for from deep within a pile of old misshaped, rotten; worm damaged beams which were often found to be full of assorted pieces of metal in which it has been said, some of the metal was forced into the oak by the British at Chatham and some by the French at Trafalgar. To avoid all this metal much of which has been rusted into position long ago along with the odd traces bored into the oak from long departed woodworm intermingled with the layers of rotten pieces of timber you have to plan the carving well in advance more so than other timber I have ever used before in an attempt to avoid wasting any of this historic old oak. The timber is also very unforgiving and due to this original oak scarcity means you have to make sure you carve it right first time every time unlike modern timbers which if necessary could simply be replace and re-work again

This chapter is also not really about how you make such a model fully rigged warship or how long it took even though both subjects are well covered here, but it is so much more about the actual unique ships timbers themselves and what it takes to transform them from these once discarded old oak Victory beams into a somewhat smaller version of itself which I tend to concentrate on most. However despite the relative problems carving it I am fully aware if the oak didn’t have any of the aforementioned peculiarities and was in a reasonable condition, the simple fact is it wouldn’t have been removed from the Victory in the first place and as such these mighty oak timbers so full of history and potential wouldn’t have been made available to produce anything from.

During the past almost two and a half centuries HMS Victory had to endure many things, hostile action including by the French who gave her a massive pounding at Trafalgar when she was locked together with the Redoubtable only feet apart for almost an hour in which both ships exchanged fearsome broadsides in arguably the greatest Naval triumph the world has ever seen. The massive pounding the ship has endured by the sea, weather and human neglect over the centuries along with her massive oak timbers constantly being eaten by death watch beetles and the worm corynetes coeruleus and if that doesn’t sound frightful enough the Luftwaffe almost blew her up when a high explosive devise blew a 15 ft wide hole in her hull during an air raid over Portsmouth Naval Docks in 1941. Although probably not in the forefront of the pilots mind when he dropped the bomb, as it turned out the gaping hole which was then left in HMS Victory’s hull courtesy of the Luftwaffe actually helped with the preservation of this mighty wooden warship by helping to ventilate the gun decks.

When it was given these old beams as they were deemed un-restorable and consequently by definition in the worst possible condition I thought it might be fun to give it ago, this chapter explains how it took me almost two decades to find out it wasn’t. So for anyone who might have the opportunity to work with a piece of this special oak  I have decided to share some of  its good and bad qualities both working with it and more often as not working against it, so if I labour the point somewhat, which I am afraid I tend to do, I apologies in advance

To try and put it all in perspective the biggest challenge I actually found creating the replica of HMS Victory was without doubt trying to eke out every tiny scrap of Victory oak that was of good enough quality to create the sculpture from the vast majority of these old oak beams that wasn’t and if the oak was eventually found to not be in a good sound condition to be used for the Victory replica it simply wasn’t used. So for those not interested in how the Victory sculpture was created carved entirely from her original less than perfect timbers and more particularly all the trials and tribulations in my attempting to do just that, which it has to be said is what this particular page is all about, then please look away now.

   

 

 


 

 

 The replacement starboard mahogany side entrance port before and after

During 1991/1992 I was working on HMS Victory carving the replacement starboard side entrance port during HMS Victory’s much needed restoration program during the restoration for the most part was being concentrated on the starboard side entrance port area around the middle gun deck and the starboard side lower gun deck area around the forth to eighth gun ports where many of these old oak beams were being removed from the deck head right above where the 32 pounder guns were normally positioned. The team of shipwrights and carpenters at the time were tasked to bring HMS Victory back to how she would have looked on her most important Battle in 1805; The Battle of Trafalgar.

Although I had visited HMS Victory only once before I started working on her when I first arrived in Portsmouth as a teenager, I still felt some sort of a special affinity towards this rather special warship especially as it has long been said amongst my family many of which have served in the Royal Marines including my father James Brennan, that one of our ancestors Royal Marine John Brennan fought and died along with Admiral Nelson on-board HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. Although I am English my father was Scottish but many of my ancestors are from the Irish republic and some lived in and around Shannon, the home town of Royal Marine John Brennan 

As one of the regular more detailed surveys of the ship both inside and outside the hull was due to start during my first week working on-board I was invited along during the survey which started on the poop deck which is on the upper deck at the rear of the ship and eventually examining the ships structure as they went. We eventually worked our way down into the ship’s then empty hull area which was at the time out of bounds to the visitors and was being used as a makeshift gym where much of the interior has been beautifully restored exactly how it would have looked in Nelson’s time stacked up with wooden barrels of all sizes which would have contained amongst other things salted meats with many of them placed into the shingle ballast used to enable the ship to stay upright in the water.

The last part of the ‘tour’ took us back inside the ship via the middle gun deck where the mahogany entrance port I was carving at the time in number 4 boat house was eventually going to fitted. We then continued on down through the various gun decks until we arrived on the orlop deck where I was shown a memorial which had since been replaced by the one shown below which was dedicated to all the ship’s crew who were killed along with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar and discovered the one of the names on the plaque was a ‘Royal Marine John Brennan’. 

 

            

Once again we walked to the lower gun deck this time towards the starboard side bow section where much of the restoration works was being concentrated on at the time; crouching down as we walked knowing every one of the low massive oak beams on the gun decks were  waiting quietly in the dim light to catch you unawares. The constant dull thud you would hear as you banged your head on the low beams was somewhat cushioned by the fact you were wearing a hard hat unlike Nelson’s crew who would no doubt on numerous occasions shared the same experience especially at sea but would not have been so well protected.
 

The darkness of the gun decks was being eliminated as it is today by authentic looking oil lanterns hanging from the beams which were being powered by electricity rather than the traditional oil. All these lamps were strategically placed down the whole length of the gun decks which added not only to the light but also to the atmosphere of the ship. As we continued forward to where the restoration was being undertaken all hidden behind large canvas screens pinned up against the massive oak beams, the eerie silence was suddenly shattered by the sound of a chainsaw starting up. You once again realised you were actually on-board a working Royal Naval warship and not in a museum, although it is fair to say HMS Victory can accurately be described as both.

HMS Victory is basically held together by skilfully well crafted oak beams, clever interlocking joints, huge nails and long iron and copper bolts. It was these copper bolts many of them 2 inches thick and over four feet long which were holding these oak beams fast. If you get a chance to look closely at many of these early copper bolts they are coloured with a green patina which has taken centuries to produce. You can also see the ‘king’s mark’ an arrow shape which was stamped every half inch along the whole length of the copper bolts. Some of these copper bolts apparently also contained a small amount of silver which was added to the copper to harden them. This mark was stamped into these copper bolts and nails as at the time to dissuade the 18th century workforce from stealing them particularly as the copper was the most expensive part of building a Ship of the Line. To try and do so meant the workforce would first have to cut the bolts ever half inch to remove the king’s mark, that’s how the expression to half inch something which over time was shortened to ‘pinch’ something came about.

 

 

Part of a copper bolt showing the ‘kings mark’ and a typical copper nail from HMS Victory alongside a modern day 6 inch nail.

Several of the 32 pounder guns on the lower gun deck had been removed to enable the workforce access to the area with their vital restoration work was being undertaken behind  the canvas sheeting hidden away from the contestant stream of visitors to the ship. It was a privilege to be able to observe at first hand the great skill and expertise of these modem day carpenters and shipwrights as they worked often deep below the decks undertaking such vital restoration work, many using the same tools; adze and axes as their 18th century predecessors would have used when they originally built HMS Victory at Chatham dockyard in Kent.

To the inexperience observer on the face of it most of the timbers which the shipwrights had marked by chalk for removal initially didn’t look to bad, they were obviously extremely old and had seen better days just as you would expect in a wooden warship of that period, but I was told they had to look well beyond the paint and surface timber to try and work out exactly what was really going on at the rear of the beam where most of the decay could often be found. The face of the oak beams you could easily see still exposed to the air would not have been affected so much by any moisture within the ship’s hull as it would quickly be dispelled, however at the back of the beam which was bolted against other similar beams hidden away out of sight any moisture would often remain trapped and slowly over the centuries rotted away these once massive solid oak beams.

The face of these old oak beams had been repainted throughout the centuries and consequently had built up thick layers of white or black lead paint which was used many years ago which tended to mask any such imperfections in the timber. The experience of the ships modern day work force along with a detailed sketch of the Victory’s structure showed where many of the planking and timbers have been previously been replaced which helped to now identify the part of the ship most likely to require their expert attention. The shipwrights made every effort to try and keep the old oak beams which were about to be removed as large as possible which would enable them if found practical to be restore returned back onto the ship.

The massive oak beams were being held to the ceiling by huge iron and copper nails and bolts were being removed by cutting them through with a chainsaw and then despite having a wide display of modern tools being made available it still often came down to the traditional old fashioned ‘dockies screwdriver’; a large lump hammer before the beam could finally be freed from its centuries old grasp. On one such occasion after what must for them felt an age working on one particular stubborn massive beam it then almost without warning fell the couple of inches or so with a loud crash onto the waiting steel supports placed in position directly beneath it ready and waiting for such a moment.

Once removed these old timbers were simply piled up on the gun deck in an assortment of sizes and conditions. Each beam was carefully examined to see if any could later be restored and put back which fortunately many were and as for the rest it usually came down to the final indignity of being dropped through a gaping hole that had been made in the ships side down a ramp into the waiting skip below. Amongst these old oak beams were two 10 inches or so wide beams that were initially larger than the most of the others being removed at around three to four feet long. These particular beams after careful examination were as they suspected also found to be far too badly rotten to be restored and simply followed the others before them into the skips with a load crash. If I only knew at the time both the ‘Battle of Trafalgar scene’ and the ‘Victory Sculpture’ were hiding deep inside these two particular old beams that crashed into the skip, I would have carried them down myself.

Months later all these oak beams were replaced by similar shaped beams which had been skilfully recreated by the shipwrights from teak and iroko inside number 4 boat house which is a large building alongside HMS Victory were most of the beams used to restore the Victory including the mahogany entrance port I was carving at the time were being prepared. Large blocks of Iroko timber were mostly being used rather than oak as it has proved to be more durable over the years in the often large sections required than similar sized oak beams have proved to be in the past.

What didn’t help as way of preservation with these timbers over the centuries was when the gun decks were being scrubbed down particularly after battle, water was thrown onto the decks to wash them down which would slowly seep through the gaps in the decks timbers and eventually lie trapped between the mass of interlocking beams below and slowly over the years rotted the timbers. After the Victory was taken out of service the ship’s crew carried on the tradition of ‘swabbing the decks’ this time using fresh water from a hose which was later discovered to inadvertently been doing more damage to her timbers than good as apparently fresh water caused wood to rot much quicker than sea water.    

 

                       The Battle of Trafalgar scene near completion – The HMS Victory sculpture

I was later asked as some of these old oak beams were obviously not in a suitable condition to be restored and returned to the ship would I like to try and see if it were possible to make anything useful from them rather than the oak being simply wasted. It was suggested in return perhaps I would like to try and carve something from some of them which I would donate to the various charities etc supported within Portsmouth Dockyard, which I was happy to do.

Having only ever used the finest quality timbers to work from in the past I thought it would be a challenge to try especially as it was usually the oldest most rotten and worm damaged oak beams which were deemed unsuitable for restoration which were then made available for such projects, these old beams were literally the bottom of the pile in every sense of the word and most were covered in layers of paint and grime which completely obscured what was potentially hiding underneath with many having old iron and copper bolts still protruding from them like an oversized pin cushion.

Since HMS Victory was originally launched in 1765 these magnificent wooden warships were only expected to be serviceable for 40 years or so and these often massive old timbers were regularly being removed either as a result of battle damage or during her many refits over the years and continues to do so today. It is said around 80 % of HMS Victory you now see in Portsmouth Dockyard has been made from relatively modern timbers but if they were relatively modern timber in which I mean around 100 - 150 years old they were of no real interest to me for such carving projects. I really wanted the oak too ideally be part of the original structure of the ship when she was built in the 18th century or possibly during the early part of the 19th century and particularly was actually part of the ship during the Battle of Trafalgar otherwise what was the point in all the hassle trying to carve the oak in the first place.

Cutting up this old Victory oak beams especially with potential bits of metal often hidden deep inside was not exactly encouraged in the dockyard workshop as these bits of metal if they remained undetected when the beam was being cut up would obviously damage the workshops expensive saw blades. So the plan was quite simple if the protruding nail or bolt couldn’t be removed first which was often the case you would cut down the length of the beam right up to either side of it and then pull the beam back and then simply split the timber with wooden wedges until it parted, not too much to ask you would have thought, so they kindly agreed to try.

All worked according to plan as the beam was slowly and carefully wound into the circular saw blade, the oak was very hard so the blade struggled a bit in places as expected but it was all going well until half way down the length of the beam it sort of twitched and then judder on its steel rollers all of which was quickly followed by a screech and a shower of sparks and instantly the huge circular saw was switched off. It would appear the saw blade had unfortunately found a piece of old metal we had missed in our early search. The beam was pulled back away from the blade and eventually when it was eventually split open you could then see a small piece of iron hiding away inside. It was for a similar reason that old Plane trees which lined many of the streets of London when felled were rarely cut up in sawmills as many of these trunks were found to contain shrapnel from the London Blitz in 1940’s still deeply embedded inside the tree trunks, the potential damage to the massive saw blades often reduced significantly what profit there might have been made in cutting up the logs, so many weren’t.

The next dockyard projects was to be a somewhat larger bas-relief carving of the Victory in full sail which I was really looking forward to starting working on as soon as I could hopefully find a large enough piece of oak in the right condition from what remained from these old beams. As I usually carve my wood sculpture from a single piece of lime wood or walnut including such things as life size eagles in flight, I didn’t really want to have to start gluing small pieces of the oak together to produce something even if it was from Victory oak.  Although as was often the case the outside of these particular beams were often covered in thick layers of grim and paint so it was impossible to see straight away exactly what condition the oak might be in until you got past the layers of paint and all the rotten and worm damaged timber was removed.

The labourer kindly placed some of these Victory beams into the back of my car and after I finished work for the day I drove up to the main entrance to the dockyard stopped at the main gate and showed the policeman my pass for the timber. These tired old beams might appear to some were perhaps just a pile of old grimy misshapen rotten and worm damaged strange looking blocks of wood especially those that still had the nails and bolts which had been impossible to remove earlier, still sticking out of them. I however could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of getting them back to my workshop knowing each of these oak beams contained a unique woodcarving that had been hiding away for centuries just waiting to be released into the modern world. With a four week deadline to create the first of many of these larger bas-relief carvings for the dockyard there was not a moment to lose to try and separate all the off cuts from the wood carving.

As I got out of the car and opened up the back to proudly show off the remnants of these rather special oak beams to the police officer on duty, you couldn’t help noticing the wonderful distinctive aroma of the Victory gently wafted out of the open door of the car; the same aroma which often  greets you when you walk on board the ship all emanating from these amazing old oak beams each of which would have a story to tell having been wrenched away from the very heart of Nelson’s historic Flagship’s great wooden walls. After carefully studying the timbers he thanking me for the pass and said, “I see you have got yourself a nice pile of firewood there!”

In the dockyard for centuries men working on the ships were allowed to take home from the dockyard pieces of timbers, the so called off cuts (chips) which were regarded as legitimate perquisite (perks) for the dockyard workforce; it is said that much of the woodwork of local houses built around dockyards including the Portsmouth area particularly during the 18th and 19th century were built using such timbers salvaged from the dockyard with many window frames found in these old houses close to the dockyard often being a uniform 3 feet high, the average size of the ‘off cuts’. This privilege however could be revoked by the foreman or boss in which the individual was said to have had his chips which is an old expression still used today.

Although some of the beams would initially appear to be in quite a reasonable condition more often than not the moment I got them into my workshop and the thick layers of paint and grime was removed along with great lumps of rotten oak much of which had the texture of soft cork which would simply crumbled away in your hands, you often found in the end nothing useful could be carved from what remained. Ironically enough since I first started working with hardwood over three decades ago including my furniture making days when I was in my twenties I always went to great lengths to use only the finest possible timbers available or not at all, now here I was being prepared and happy to use timbers that were without doubt in the worst possible condition you can hope to find; such is progress.

Even when you eventually more often with luck rather than judgement manage to successfully avoid all the old nails, bolts and assorted pieces of metal and finally manage to find a sound piece of oak to work with and after a few hours finally think you are getting somewhere you sometimes then notice a change in colour of the wood from a very pleasant medium/dark oak colour to a not quite so pleasant black as you then discover the remains of an old iron nail once lost through the passage of time had decided to quietly rot away in situ directly in the path of your latest creation.

With one of the larger oak beams now propped up alongside my workshop the first task was to carry on cutting through the beam which the carpenter in the dockyard now left well alone. Fortunately as he had found the piece of metal hidden in the beam with his saw blade I was now able to avoid it with mine and a thick oak plank was eventually successfully removed with the chainsaw. I have frequently used chainsaws to cut a wide variety of hardwood for almost three decades and on this particular occasion I was using the chainsaw to cut up both a large lime wood log and one of these Victory beams at the same time, the contras between the work rate cutting up lime wood and Victory oak couldn’t be more different. Lime wood cut up without any effort, Victory oak made you work for it. I have found often the hard way both the chainsaws good and bad points but have never had cutting problems with any other timber quite like Victory oak before especially trying to cut down the length of the beam if the saw blade wasn’t long enough. The blade had to be constantly sharpened and re-sharpened or it smoke quickly appears before it starts to wander off line. Worse still if you put more pressure on the chainsaw than you know you should it would often kick back which believe me is always a bit of a wakeup call.

 

The original 'Trafalgar Scene' oak beam, a typical dense Victory oak beam being cut through with a chainsaw - just narrowly missed a typical hidden old brass screw and the remains of an old rusting iron nail which had turned the oak black.

A typical piece of old Victory oak after just one pass through the saw blade on this particular occasion had narrowly missed direct contact with an old brass screw and iron nail so it is hardly surprising that the carpenters in the dockyard were dissuaded from sawing up Victory oak beams in the workshops. The first thing I noticed working with Victory oak is the wood shavings you leave behind, or more to the point the wood shavings you don’t leave behind.  With new oak you end up with a pile of wood shavings on the floor, when you work Victory oak you mostly end up with fine scented dust almost with the same texture as talcum powder.

Fortunately the first dockyard Victory oak carvings were well received and as the Victory’s crew were often raising money for the ‘BBC Children in Need appeal’ it was then suggested that perhaps I could carve a larger 18 inches high relief carving of HMS Victory in full sail and then set it an oak frame also made from the same oak, so somewhat wider ships beam was sort to be used for this particular carving. An hour or so later working on a larger oak beam after all the rotten wood was carefully removed and it was washed down only a 1/3 rd of the beam remaining in excellent condition and a few weeks later the first of these particular bas-relief carving along with its Victory oak frame was completed. A wood finish was then applied which really brought out the grain and dark colour in the carving even without any darker stain being applied and it was delivered to the dockyard.

                       

 

One side of the Victory oak beam –the completed ‘Children in Need’ bas-relief carving

This first larger relief panel was then placed on display in the souvenir shop in Portsmouth dockyard and a few months later was auction off within the Naval Dockyard for the BBC’s ‘Children in Need' appeal which fortunately raised a lot of money for the charity. The word however soon got around the dockyard that I was happy to support these various charities in the dockyard in this way so much so I was subsequently often asked to produce other similar larger bas-relief carvings which were for a leaving present for one of the ship’s crew members. Another similar sized bas-relief panel of the HMS Victory was then produced for the following years ‘Children in Need’ fund raising event however this particular relief-carving was carved depicting HMS Victory from the Stern which was auctioned off on-board the Victory in Nelson’s Great Cabin.

In one such event the whole length of the lower gun was laid out with tables and a hot meal was provided for all the guests, in complete contrast to the lower gun decks original function which to many was deem to be the most provocative part of Nelson’s Flagship and where most of the heaviest fighting during battle took place. Hundreds of men with brutal efficiency manned their row of 32 pounder guns on the lower gun deck in cramped conditions with the headroom was well below 6ft (1.8m). Most of the crew lived, worked, ate and slept in hammocks which were suspended from these oak beams above the formidable guns. At the height of battle up to 14 men were needed to manoeuvre and fire each of these 32 pounder guns which weighed almost three tons each and could fire a cannon ball for well over a mile and could be reloaded and fired once again by a well drilled British Navel crew in 90 seconds, almost twice as fast as that of the Spanish or French gun crews which effectively gave them a two to one gun superiority.

Another worrying aspect using such heavy guns in the heat of battle a shot from an enemy gun which could often penetrate through the sides of the ship’s hull into the gun decks and could then not only kill or injure the gun crews but if it happened to hit one of these massive bronze guns would often result in knocking them off their carriages the resulting carnage was then quickly followed by the dreaded shout ‘loose cannon’. The effect of such a massive dead weight rolling around the pitching gun deck would scythe down both men and the 10 or 12 year old ‘powder monkey’ the boys who kept the guns supplied with powder down with such harrowing consequences. I was once chatting over a quick half during the lunch hour in the crews mess on the Victory talking about these 32 pounder guns and inadvertently called them cannons, much to the mock disdain of a crew member who kindly informed me "Sir, Pirate ships have cannons, His Majesty’s ship Victory has guns" which is fair enough I suppose but you never hear the term, hit by a gun ball!

                             

The lower gun deck on HMS Victory during a fund raising event

At one of these fund raising events onboard the ship during the course of the evening meal around two hundred people were crammed onto the lower gun deck and all the gun ports were closed and the lanterns lit sailors wearing the appropriate 18th century uniform played a sea shanty with authentic looking musical instruments at the centre of the warship. As the music echoing around the ship it must have just as you would expect the Georgian sailors would have experience on board HMS Victory in the 18th century during one of their rest periods, it actually felt you had gone back in time if it wasn’t for the hot beef curry and bread being served along with tea, coffee and biscuits for those inclined for such beverages. Not exactly a square meal in the true naval terms as in the 18th century but as these particular ships biscuits didn’t contain weevils and maggots which infested the biscuits in Nelson’s time we could actually eat the biscuits with our eyes open, unlike the sailors during that period who were advised to do the opposite. The following morning I was back on the ship walking through the lower gun deck with the neat white linen covered tables having been removed and the sounds of the horn pipes was once again replaced by the sound of chainsaws which continued to reverberate throughout the ship.

Normally with most of the wide variety of woodcarving projects I have worked on over the years its quite a simple process, decide on the subject to be carved, select the most suitable piece of quality timber, size it up, work out in your mind exactly where the subject of your sculpture is hiding within it, grab the appropriate woodcarving gouge and away you go, a few weeks or several months later it just appears finished, no big deal you would have thought. Well I can assure you trying to carve original old Victory oak is a whole new ball game; it’s a real feisty bit of rock hard timber it’s been there, done that and has more often than not has actually got the scars to prove it.

When I used to make furniture I usually purchase whole trees and then have them cut through by the saw mills into various thickness boards and then allow them to them to slowly season. When you started to make things from these newly cut boards as the timber was always the finest quality to start with so the actual wastage was only around 10% with most of this being the waney edges of the boards, but even these off cuts were put into the wood burning stove afterwards to heat the workshop, so in the end none of the timber is wasted. However due to the condition of the centuries old Victory oak even if it didn’t have too much metal inside the oak getting in the way then finding a decent piece of oak amongst all the splits, rot and worm damage meant in the end wastage accounted for around 70% of the original ships beam you were given. Any of these so called off cuts from Victory oak however were not put into the wood burning stove but kept in a box and stored away for possible small gifts or to be used for various other carving projects if and when they materialised. 

 

These carvings created from these Victory’s timbers have also included such objects as a small Victory topsail, one of the 32 pounder guns and a typical oak spoon and goblet.

The photographs above are just a small selection of the various dockyard carving projects I produced over the years carved from Victory oak these included one of the several larger bas-reliefs carved panels of the Victory in sail which was carved showing both the bow and stern. A carving also often requested by these charities was the 8 inches long 32 pounder guns on its gun carriage which I usually carve entirely from Victory oak, however as I always try and make potentially similar carvings a bit different when I can, on one of them I again used original Victory oak for the carved gun carriage, but as way of contrast I was asked if this time I could carve the gun barrel from the remains of one of the ships original deadeyes which was being replaced at the time.

Deadeyes are used to restrain and add tension on the Victory’s various standing rigging lines and were apparently originally turned from river gum timber which I soon found was a very different wood to carve than the oak I was now becoming used to. Although the timber was just as old and hard as the Victory oak but it was more pine like in appearance and texture. Half of this particular deadeye I was given for the task was already missing and what remained was so badly split in places and as it was once again deemed beyond practical restoration was consequently replaced by a new one turned from a block of teak.

With these various dockyard carvings now completed for a while anyway I decided to alongside my commissions to now try and carve something very much larger from one of the remaining beams which would eventually become ‘The Battle of Trafalgar scene’. But to reduce the required width of the beam and remove some of the rotten timber, a 4 inch thick plank was first removed from the back of the beam which was then put to one side for potentially another project at some point in the future.

 

The Battle of Trafalgar scene and on display in the Portsmouth Naval Museum and now placed on the middle gun deck

These two particular large oak beams which were removed from the deck head (ceiling) of the lower gun deck had obviously suffered the same fate however they did show a little more promise when the rotten wood was all carefully removed from both of the beams roughly 1/3rds of the remaining oak beam would appeared to be quite sound so the initially idea I had of trying to carve in full bas-relief, a scene of the Battle of Trafalgar looked promising. The first thing I had to do was to work out which one of these two oak beams were the most suitable to be use for the proposed ‘Breaking the Allied Line’ bas-relief carving, eventually out of the two used the longer and wider of the two beams which should enable the relief carving to have a little more height and depth.

Once the decision was made to produce the relief carving of the ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ the first task was to remove both the long copper nails along with the large rusty iron bolt which were both still deeply embedded in the beam. The large copper nail which was used all over the Victory as an essential part of its constructing process of these great wooden ships as they held many of these oak beams together. Although as was often the case trying to remove these old long nails and bolts embedded into the beams was rather reminiscent of the Arthurian legend of a mere mortal trying to remove the sword Excalibur from within the rock, with I have to say similar success with these old oak beams. In the end the only way they could be remove was to revert to the well tried method of cut through the beam with a chainsaw right up to the nail and then use a wedge to split the beam open.

As I felt this old paint along with these old nails and bolts added to the history of the oak I was determined to try to incorporate as much of it as possible in such carvings and would if possible put the copper bolts back into the original position in what remained of the beam after the carving was finished trying not to damage the ancient green patina as it reminds the casual observer exactly where the timber comes from. On one such occasion I had a small piece of one of these 2 inch thick piece of copper which was left over, I cut it in half and gave one half of it to a museum and the other half to a friend of mine who served in the Royal Navy during WW2. It had taken centuries for these pieces of copper to slow build up the wonderful dark green patina and my friend said he would keep it in pride of place on a shelf alongside his war medals. A few days later he brought back his latest keepsake; the small piece of copper bolt and proudly showed it to me, it was gleaming bright just like a piece of copper you would find in a DIY store; he said it took a bit of time to clean off all the green colour, but hasn’t the copper come up well!  

Eventually after many months of work the bas-relief carving of the Victory and the Royal Sovereign about to break the Allied Line at Trafalgar was finally completed. This ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ scene was eventually placed on exhibition in the Royal Naval Museum were it remained for over a decade until in 2010 it was moved on-board HMS Victory’s and was placed on display on the ships middle gun deck where it can be found today.

 


 

HMS Victory ‘Running before the Wind’ carved entirely from original Victory oak.

HMS Victory ‘Running before the Wind’ carved entirely from original Victory oak.  The various stages of the carving process: the whole metamorphosis process from the original old beams being removed from the lower gun deck of HMS Victory at Portsmouth dockyard where it is currently placed in dry dock, to the completed Victory sculpture arriving two decades later at Chatham dockyard where it is currently placed alongside the dry dock were the somewhat larger version was built 250 years ago.

 

Length approximately 47 inches (120cm) x 19 inches ( 48 cm) wide x 32 " (82cm) high

As no other projects from Victory oak were planned at the time the oak was once again stored at the back of my workshop and was just used over the years as a makeshift shelve to put various bits and pieces on. Although on occasions pieces of the oak was removed from them for a various carvings including some of the latest charity projects until I finally stopped ‘playing’ with the Victory oak and got on producing carvings that would actually pay the bills so the oak was once again left to collect dust at the back of my workshop; finally the genie was put back into the bottle.

That was until on Boxing Day in 1993 when my nephew Martyn gave me what remained of the plastic hull of a model of HMS Victory which consistently inspired me to try and carve my own version of HMS Victory from what remained of the Victory oak. Some might say and one or two have, if you wanted to produce a large scale model of HMS Victory the most effective and well tried method would be the traditional way of building a model ship just as model makers have been doing with excellent results for centuries. That was to make it from hundreds of small separately finely honed pieces of quality timber, plastic and metal, assembled it all together and then paint it to enhance the detail. However I decided rather than attempt to try and produce yet another highly detailed model of HMS Victory the traditional way I would instead rather enjoy the challenge of producing a detailed model of HMS Victory from large solid blocks of timber removed from the very ship it replicates and nothing else, assemble it all together, carve in all the detail and then not paint it. I mean how difficult can it be.

To be honest they might have a point as experience working with this timber has repeatedly taught me Victory oak is not really ideal for carving and having seen the original state of the timbers as they were pulled away from the ship’s hull you would have been forgiven in thinking as many did, not much good for anything. But for me anyway that was not really the point to the whole exercise I just wanted to try and make a replica of the Victory from her own original timbers with a real bit of history about it, so I thought it well worth a try.

I also wanted this scale replica of HMS Victory to be more like a sculpture rather than a model as every part of it was to be carved from the largest block of original ships timbers possible. Michelangelo was once quoted as saying for carving a block of marble, which is just as relevant for carving a block of wood "the sculpture already existed inside the block of marble; the stone was just the covering that contained a work of art the sculptor only had to take away the part in excess". This sculpture of HMS Victory had already existed deep within the Victory oak beam for centuries.

The proposed size of the Victory replica I was now planned to create from these old Victory oak beams would obviously depend on the amount of the usable good quality oak remained in the beam after all the rot was removed and as a consequence the size had to adjusted downwards slightly as the beam was cleaned up and the less than ideal oak was removed, but it would still be larger than most ship models. These set of photographs basically show the Victory sculpture both before after two decades of my working on the ship; tied to the mast.

          The Victory sculpture in kit form

The first photograph shows the beam after some of the rot, copper and iron bolts had been removed before a 5 inch deep x 10 inch or so wide plank was cut away from the top of the beam which was then used for some of the earlier dockyard projects including one of the ‘children in need’ relief panels; that was even before the Victory sculpture was even thought about. The 10 inch wide x 10 inch or so thick length which was left over was cut parallel with the base of the beam which was later used to carve in one piece the Victory’s hull and the sea she was sailing in. The remaining off cuts removed from the top of this beam was mainly used to carve each of the long main masts and bowsprit from one piece, some of the yard arms, ropes, rigging and most of the pennants and signal flags.

The second photograph was taken before the worm damaged and rotten oak was removed. Most of this beam was used for the carved bellowing sails, ropes and rigging along with various other smaller objects required including the ships small boats and guns. The third photograph shows the oak beam where all the replacement staysails were carved from along with some new carved yardarms and some of the signal flags.

Although the Victory sculpture was being carved in fine detail I didn’t really want to get too bogged down carving it right down to the last nut and bolt, the actual nature and condition of the very old oak I was using wouldn’t always allow for such luxuries anyway; but instead I wanted to try and get a true feeling of how HMS Victory would have look like on that day in October 1805 at the head of the British Fleet in full sail ‘Running before the Wind’ to join in Battle against the combined French and Spanish Fleets along with her full complement of crew at action stations, including my ancestor; Marine John Brennan.

 

One side of the oak beam used to carve the ship’s hull and the sea still has the original iron hook which once supporting the ships mess table – the other side shows the rotten oak..

These pictures shows a close up of the Victory oak beam used to carve the hull of the Victory and the carved ‘sea’ the ship is sailing in shows how typically extensive the rot and worm damaged was typically found to be on all these old beams and how hundreds of years in such adverse conditions on the lower gun deck had taken its toll and you could clearly see why the beam were removed from HMS Victory’s lower gun in the first place. Half of this particular oak beam was like most of the others simply crumbled away in your hands just like old cork. The remainder of the beam was fortunately more solid although it still contained odd pieces of assorted pieces metal.

It also shows one end of the original iron bolt that had once fixed the beam in position on the Victory’s gun deck along with the old rusting iron hook which once held the mess table still firmly embedded into the base of it which was retained and can still be found underneath the Victory sculpture in its original position. The particular iron hook found were once used to hold the ropes which were then attached to the crews mess table held directly held between a pair of 32-pounder guns. When called to action stations the ropes attached to the end of the gun crews tables were quickly lifted over these hooks which allowing the crews long wooden tables to be quickly stored safely away below.

 

The 32-pounder gun, hammock and mess table on the lower gun deck on HMS Victory – close up showing one of the original iron hooks supporting a mess table and attached to the deck head. – the iron hook still in the base of the Victory sculpture

The plans of HMS Victory I had been given at the time had been carefully scaled up and an outline drawing of the hull was produced to enable the ship’s hull to be made as large as possible so both the hull and ‘sea’ could be carved from one single block. Although there were several small old handmade nails, bolts and screws running along almost the entire length of the beam they were all deeply embedded below the ‘water line’ so they did not interfere with the carving process too much so remained in position exactly as they had been originally been placed all those centuries ago and still do so today. The two large copper and iron bolts however that were still attached towards both ends of the beam had to be removed whilst the hull was being carved and were only replaced in the original position after being cut down to the ‘sea level’ once all the carving had been completed.

 

The shape of the Victory's hull now carved within the oak beam after most of the damaged oak had been removed

 

Two long 1 inch thick iron bolts were roughly 2 inches away from both edges of the width of the beam 33 inches down from on one end which would just enable the potential 5 inches high x 5 inches wide x 31 inches long hull of the Victory to be carved from one piece as they fortunately both narrowly missing the hull and were also found to be offset enough to just miss the potential bow and ships figurehead. 

Due to the oaks great age the well seasoned timber was found to be both tough and stable so  unlike any model ships I ever had seen before decided to add to its uniqueness by then carving all the sheets (sails) again from single pieces of Victory oak rather than use the traditional canvas sails ship models use. But to look correct from both sides when they are finished they would also have to be carved as thin as egg shells to give the desired effect of Lord Nelson's famous Warship in full sail.

The great thing about making a replica of HMS Victory living just a few miles away from where it is situated in the dry dock was if I needed some additional information I can usually be on the ship in 30 minutes to check for myself and if it happened to around Friday lunch time who knows I might bump into one of my old work colleges on-board and just might be persuaded to have a quick half pint in the officers mess which is situated beneath Nelson’s day cabin and I suppose whilst I was there I might as well buy a ticket or two for the ships weekly meat raffle, which I have to say over the years I have had one or two good results. It’s quite strange really travelling the few miles to the Victory seeking both advice and information and then occasionally also coming home with a chicken or shoulder of ham.

 

 

The worst part of the hull to carve without doubt was the aft section of the ship where Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy’s day cabins along with the ships officer’s mess are situated. Trying to carve anything into the end grain of a piece of timber even from a quality piece of modern wood is difficult at the best of times, thus the expression ‘going against the grain’, but trying to carve fine details such as the various mouldings, windows, gingerbreads; which are the ornate decorations and mouldings around the transom or stern of the ship from the end grain of centuries old oak often with various obstacles in the way, in oak which didn’t lend itself for such creativity was rather tiresome at times to say the least. 

 

 

 

 

What also didn’t help too much was that I didn’t want the Victory model to be either painted or coloured in any way which could if required hide any potential flaws in the old timbers which meant I might well have to make one or two compromises along the way with this particular oak. In my ‘previous life’ as a furniture maker when I used to buy English oak from the saw mill the oak logs were sawn ‘through and through’ and each of the oak planks once slowly seasoned the timber was found to be a natural white/yellowish colour. Exposed to air this same oak would very slowly and naturally darken over the years and centuries so much so, you now find the carved medieval stalls in St George’s chapel in Windsor castle where I have created over forty of the carved Royal Crowns, Coronets and Knights Crests during the past quarter of a century in the chapel was built from the same type of English oak in 1348, had over the centuries turned these oak stalls almost black.

 

 

                         

 

It was not until all the fine detail of the hull and the sea had been completed and sanded smooth the rest of the carving which had to be produced separately were then fully assembled; the photographs shown at the early stages with two of the sails added which were later altered when up-to-date information regarding the main sails was uncovered. The 37 sails which the Victory carried were carved in such a way as to represent the historic 18th century warship in full sail approaching Cape Trafalgar in 1805, catching as much wind as possible in the sheets; running before the wind. 

 

Although this particular oak beam shown below had split down its entire length most of it was still wide enough to be used for the carved bellowing sails. You could tell by the size of the remaining long corroded iron bolt the beam had rotted down to almost half of its original size and although not particularly large to start with, what oak remained was found to be in very good condition and was in the end used to carve most of the ships sails. It was once again impossible to remove the original old rusting iron bolt from the beam so the oak was carefully removed right up to the bolt to save as before as much of it as possible. The edge of one side of what remained of the oak beam still had the thick orange/red coloured undercoat that was said to have often been applied to many of the beams during the original building of HMS Victory in 1765.

As each of the sails was slightly different and again so as not to waste any of the timber, paper templates of the proposed sail were first drawn up and then laid out upon the face of the oak beam just like a dress maker might do on a length of material with a dress pattern. This would not only enable me to avoid any potential imperfections in the oak I might find. 

 

 

 

As some of these sails were rather similar in shape, I quickly learnt a technique of cutting up the oak for the sails in such a way which enable me to maximise the amount of usable oak still available by carving two similar shaped sails from a single piece of 2 inches thick piece of oak. Eventually after several months all the wafer thin sails were finally completed and hung on the yardarm which were prepared years earlier and then almost the moment they were in place and the glued had dried, a friend of mine who knows about such things happened to drop into in my studio. After carefully examining the layout of the sails he then gently explained that new research suggested the sketches and paintings I had been using for over a decade showing the layout of some of the Victory’s sails were now found to be incorrect and if I wanted to keep it looking authentic, which I did, they would unfortunately now required changing. Don’t you just hate it when that happens!  

 

Fortunately working on the glass is half full method as I spent much of my life doing, most of the sails were fortunately found to be correct but some of them including the stun sails which are attached to each end of the yard arms along with all eight staysails weren’t. It wasn’t so much all the weeks I had now wasted carving these now incorrect sails as if I didn’t have enough to do, what really concerned me it was would I now have enough of the original Victory oak left over wide enough to make all the replacements. As I didn’t intend staining or polish any of the oak when the ship was finished it meant the oak obviously had to also come from the same batch of original oak as the rest of the replica as different coloured piece of oak would obviously now show up in the finished carving. 

 

 

The two photographs of the Victory carved sails show on the left how they would have looked if they weren’t changed and on the right how they now look. 

 

Unfortunately as it happened after all these years it would appear there was now a real possibility I would not be able to find enough suitable pieces of Victory oak from the pile of off cuts of a similar colour and look about it. Such was the concern at the time I decided to stop working on the ship’s hull which was around 75 % completed until I knew for sure I had enough oak left over to make all the required sail changes. I felt despite all the hours I had already spent in carving the Victory it would have been rather pointless to finish the hull only to then find I couldn’t complete the replacement sails properly, or I might actually have to consider the real possibilities of instead using, shock, horror; canvas sails; there I said it.

 

At this stage most of the objects above the hulls upper deck was carved separately so they could easily be remove if required including the three masts supporting these sails which were then put to one side until I could play hunt the oak sufficiently wide enough to make these new replacement sails. Having now emptied the box of the off cuts of Victory oak onto the bench along with the other larger off cuts I slowly began picking over these rough odd shaped pieces of oak trying to find some, any suitable pieces of oak that could be now be used to complete the carving properly

 

In the end as in all the best movies, although it was a close thing I managed to find enough of the original oak which was the right width, colour and texture to carve all the replacement main sails although the final top sail I carved was made with a piece of oak which still had several holes in it from long departed woodworm, but needs must. These few small old worm holes in the Fore top sail which looked as if they were made from enemy’s cannon shot. As it happened HMS Victory’s only surviving original sail from the Battle of Trafalgar, the foretopsail which is currently on display in Portsmouth Dockyard also had holes in it made from enemy cannon balls and other projectiles during the battle of Trafalgar, although apparently some of the larger holes currently found in this sail were made by 19th century souvenir hunters. So that’s it from now on I will explain to everyone that might possibly be interested that I deliberately carved the top sail that way with holes in it to make it look more authentic; no one will ever know.

 

 

Some of the 32-pounder guns and carronades in position

 

Unfortunately however there was not enough of the original oak wide enough to replace all the staysails without gluing pieces of it together although I was aware this could be done quite easily with the narrower pieces of oak to get the desired width, but that was not really ever the point of the whole excise I always wanted to carve as much on the Victory as possible from solid blocks of oak and that included all these bellowing sails so reluctantly decided to leave the staysails as they were originally carved a decade earlier rather than having to now starting to glue small pieces of oak together.

 

Finally completed these replacement carved stun sails were now placed into their correct position on the end of yard arms and then the masts were once again put back into the deck of the ship and the now  redundant sails were stored away. All that was now required apart from some fine detailing and sanding smooth on the Victory hull was to produce all the Victory’s oh so many fixtures and fittings. Once again some may say an many have, such items such as carving each and every one of the 104 guns the Victory carries along with the many small carved blocks, boats and even perhaps the small anchors, in fact most of the individual things that are found in great numbers on an 18th century Ship of the Line could all be replicated much easier by making one original master copy and then moulding it.

 

This master copy could then be cast in metal or a similar tough pourable material which would save a great deal of time and just as importantly make each item identical just as many ship model makers have been doing with great success for generations. So why go to all the hassle and carve each potential mouldable item individual, especially using such unyielding and more to the point unsuitable carving material as Victory oak and as a consequent make things far more difficult than it already is. Especially when I have other things to do and more to the point when I have not tried to make a model ship of any kind before so I will also be practising on this one, but no if there is a harder more complex way to make a model of a fully rigged warship then rest assured I will find it; it’s a gift you know.!

 

With the Victory sculpture now re-assembled it did for the first time began to look like the real thing as work carving  it now proceeding well. When I first thought about the possibility of carving the Victory replica in 1992  the  idea was to have it completed by the bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 and although I was regular working on average of 60 + hours a week carving the Victory alongside my commissions to complete it in time, however in August 2004 with only a year away from its expected completion the plans I had envisaged for the Victory sculpture unfortunately didn’t quite work out as I hoped. So with the perceived impetus to complete it by this date now gone I could no longer see any real point in spending the additional thousand or so hours that was still required to finish it by this date, so the whole project was abandoned and this rather special bi-centenary came and went.

As I no longer had a reason to continue carving the replica using the correct naval terminology the Victory replica was placed into ordinary or as us landlubbers might say it was mothballed. All the top of the masts and yardarms were once again removed from the replica and it ended up looking rather similar to HMS Victory did in Portsmouth dockyard in 2012 as it underwent its most recent restoration program. The carved replica was then placed under a polythene dust sheet at the back of my studio where it remained untouched for a number of years. On the upside as I was no longer spending all those hours carving the replica I was now once again able to concentrating on my sculpture commissions and as a consequence as the dockyard were promoting a ‘saving the Victory fund’ at the time, I was now able to support the Victory in possibly a much more tangible way instead by making a financial donation to their worthy cause.

 

                                    

HMS Victory replica in 2004, HMS Victory in 2012

 

Although the Victory model was out of sight under the polythene sheet it was certainly not out of mind as the realities I was not getting any younger began to concentrate my mind somewhat and although I no longer had any plans for the Victory sculpture I didn’t really want to now waste the 4,500 hours or so I had already spent carving it. So I decided I would have to start working on it once again alongside my commissions or accept the realisation it might actually never be finished.

Ironically enough as it later turned out having roughed out the oak timbers which were all now cut up in the various basic shapes required to build all the ship’s larger sections i.e the hull and sails and then as a consequence these newly shaped pieces of oak were now being inadvertently allowing to gently settle in my studio and were then left undisturbed for a few years whilst the it was placed in ‘ordinary’ which all helped with the long term stabilisation of the replica. If any faults in the oak were going to appear it would have done so during that particular period and the oak would have been replaced. It was a similar pause in work during the ships original build in the 18th century which also greatly helped enhanced the long term preservation of Nelson’s Flagship.

Although I was now back working on it commissions which always had to take priority over carving the Victory, I initially spent a day here a fortnight there carving it and eventually the real enthusiasm I once had to complete the replica returned again. However the prospect of having to continue working the very long hours required to enable me to complete both the Victory sculpture and my sculpture commissions for the foreseeable future was no longer a sensible option, especially as enquires for my sculpture commissions where still coming in all the time which if accepted would now take well over a year to complete, even without my working on the Victory. Obviously with having just one pair of hands, a difficult choice had to be made, Plan A or a Plan B.

Plan A was to turn down all future commissions apart from the four months of each year I normally spend on producing the various sculptures for the Royal Household until the Victory was finally finished and then not to eat for the rest of each year, or Plan B to once again abandon carving the Victory and take on every sculpture commission I had been offered and get a life. In the end Plan A was adopted and despite the difficult economic times for what felt like an eternity, survive we did when with still a long way to go to complete the Victory, Plan A hit the fan. As a consequence Plan B unfortunately now became the only real option and the Victory was once again being prepared to be placed into ordinary perhaps this time permanently. Then out of the blue and in the nick of time, just like the cavalry of old in 2008 a Plan C suddenly materialised which was the vital support from John Callan an old family friend which no doubt saved this particular Victory from total oblivion, just like the Temeraire did during the Battle of Trafalgar with the somewhat larger version. 

 

As a consequence I once again was now able to continued working flat out carving the Victory alongside these regular commissions for the Royal Household when during this period on St Georges Day I was invited to Windsor Castle and informed by HM The Queen that Prince William; The Duke of Cambridge was to become the 1000 Knight of the Garter since 1348 and amongst my latest commissions for the Royal Household was to now include  sculptures of a Mute Swan, black Labrador along with creating HRH Prince William Royal Crest and Sword

 

Traditionally since 1348, the latest Knights of the Garter  have their carved and gilded Crest and Sword placed above the stall (seat) in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle and since 1989 when I was officially appointed ‘the Sculptor to the Most Noble Order of the Garter and Most Honourable Order of the Bath’ I have been commissioned to create to date all ninety three of the Royal Crowns, Coronets and Crests for the Ladies and Knights of the Garter and Knights of the Bath for the past twenty five years.  Traditionally the swords for the Knights of the Garter were carved from Scots pine which were then painted and gilded before being placed below the Knights Great Battle Helmet in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

 

When I received the commission for Prince William’s Royal Crest and sword as I was also working on the Victory replica I decided to make part of the Prince’s sword from the HMS Victory’s original oak timbers; as Prince William was second in line to the British Throne; the future King and will one day also be the Head of the Senior Service; The Royal Navy. Strangely enough the first sword I ever made when I was eight years old, little did I realise at the time that the next sword I would make exactly 50 years later would be for the future King. 

 

The carved and gilded Royal Crest and Sword for HRH Prince William now placed in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle

 

Prince William: The Duke of Cambridge’s original sword shown before being painted and gilded using 24 carat gold leaf. With the princes newly completed sword now gleaming and resplendent I then spent the whole morning carefully ‘ageing’ it so it would blend in more alongside the other Knights swords many of which were carved during the middle ages. The Duke of Cambridge’s sword having now been completed then almost just like buses I don’t make a sword for 50 years and then four comes along at once, as a similar crafted sword was commissioned for another Knight of the Garter along with two smaller ceremonial swords which were then all delivered to Windsor castle together.

 

 

 St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle  - Prince Williams Crest and sword in the Chapel

 

 

With the three latest Knights of the Garter Crests along with the newly carved swords completed and safely packed into the car I drove to Windsor Castle and spent a pleasant morning at Windsor before returning home several hours later back to the real world. The afternoon was once again spent carving the Victory which resumed with real earnest alongside two latest Knight of the Bath crests which I had just received for Westminster Abbey. In 1803 Admiral Lord Nelson was also installed in Westminster Abbey as a Knight of the Bath. The carved and painted Crests I have also been making for a quarter of a century would have been made by my predecessor for Admiral Lord Nelson when he was appointed a Knight of the Bath. Nelson’s carved and painted Crest would have then been placed in Henry V11 Chapel in Westminster Abbey where over fifty of my carved Bath Crests have been placed within this medieval Chapel in the Abbey.

 

 

 

To enlarge please click here

 

 

With all these various Crests now completed and delivered I could now concentrate working full time on carving the Victory once again and being so different as it was to work on it, was resumed with earnest. All the ships anchors and the 104 tiny little guns which were each individually carved were eventually completed and placed in position on the ships three decks. Whilst we are on the subject of shear tedium carving each and every one of these individual items separately, along with carving all the main sails just mm thick, all without too much trouble it suddenly came to me, why not now also carve all the potential hundred feet of thin ropes and rigging from the same old oak.

Proper model ship makers use cord and the like for such things which is obviously a quicker and more practical way of rigging a model ship. In the end it must have taken around two hundred feet of long thin strips of Victory oak from between 2 to 4 mm thick to carve all the ropes and rigging. Some of these ropes were also carved in tight curves in such a way to give the impression the ropes were curled up or sagging under their own weight just as they would at sea. The bellowing sails on the replica were all held firmly in position by joints, wooden pins to look as if the carved ropes were held under tension just like the real thing.

After ‘experimenting’ if that’s the right word with different ways of carving long strips of oak perfectly round from these thin strips of oak, consistently in diameter down the entire 24 sometimes 30 inches length required a rather different approach than I would normally use for carving thicker strips of timber. I soon found holding the roughed out mm thick long lengths of square pieces of oak on the bench even on a well padded surface carving them perfectly round down the whole length didn’t work to well, as the thinner the carved ‘ropes’ got the more chance they would break at some point during the process, usually just when you thought you had just about finished it. In the end the only way I could carve the strips of oak parallel down the whole length that worked most of the time was using the calf of my leg as support. You could not only support the strips of oak whilst you carve them using a scalpel blade but you could also feel how the carving was going although admittedly over the weeks I still managed to wear out the legs of some work jeans and overalls in the process along with several strips of sticking plasters.

 

Some of the hundred or so feet of carved ropes with blocks and one of the carved oak guns alongside a 5 pence coin and dime.

 

Rigging the Victory correctly with my huge pile of newly carved ropes of assorted lengths and widths was another thing. There are quite a number drawings around that show the correct way to rig the Victory but as it is a short drive away to see the real thing close up to look for myself I was able to take some photographs showing exactly what the rigging looks like without the sails unfurled. The problem I had I was rigging the ship with all the sails fully unfurled. As far as I knew anyway there was no such information as to exactly how a ‘Ship of the Line’ like HMS Victory was rigged under full sail. In the end some of it the information I obtained from observing films of fully rigged ships under sail including the Russell Crow film ‘Master and Commander’ and some of the scenes from the equally superb Jonny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies of how the ropes and sheets of the fully rigged ships behaved at sea were very helpful. With such vital information now gleaned it was then once again mulled over by those in the know as I proceeded to carve and glue in place all two hundred feet or so of carved ropes, rigging and blocks which was I have to say was rather tedious to put it mildly.

 

Even gluing Victory oak together however wasn't quite as straight forward as I thought as most of the glues I have been using with great success over the years in my furniture making days didn’t always work out so well with Victory oak. Although it glued the oak together perfectly well modern water based glues more often than not turned the oak black if you couldn’t get every bit of overspill of glue off the oak which was sometimes so difficult to do in every nook and cranny on the ship and non water base glues although worked equally well often made the joint too shiny. The trouble was you couldn’t always tell if it was going to happen until it dried properly. Obviously not a problem if like most ship models it was going to be painted but this one wasn’t as I always intended to leave the carving a pure natural oak colour exactly as it had slowly matured over the centuries without any sort of artificial finish being applied. It took quite a lot of trial and error before I managed to stumble on a bit of a comprise solution that was both strong but also didn’t turn the oak black.

 

The gluing problem now more or less done and dusted it was time to look for another potential problem which soon showed up, as I decided as I had now carved all the sails, ropes and rigging which worked out well I might as well now go the whole hog and carve all the ships pendants, ensigns and signal flags especially those depicting the famous signal Admiral Lord Nelson flew at Trafalgar, ‘England Expects that every man will do his duty' all to be hanged from the newly carved thin oak rigging.

 

  

 

  Nelsons famous signal flown at Trafalgar ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’

It was the middle of October at the time so I once again drove to Portsmouth dockyard which was on the 21st of the month ‘Trafalgar Day’ which the Royal Navy commemorates each year on board with a special service which is the only time of the year all the signal flags that Nelson flew at Trafalgar are flown which happened to be 204 years ago to the day of the Battle. It was a bright sunny day and I was able to get many good photographs of exactly how the flags would have been flown on HMS Victory. A week or so later all the signal flags were carved in bas-relief from the tiny pieces of Victory oak and were individually hung from the yardarms and rigging.

As the Victory replica was carved ‘running before the wind’ these signal flags and pennants although blowing about in the wind have to be carved for the most part shown blowing about in the similar direction as the ship which to me anyway looked a little odd at first as you might possibly expect the flags would be trailing behind despite the ships forward motion just like they would look on a modern ship at sea. It is not until you see or more to the point carve the mass of sails, ropes and rigging do you begin to understand how complex a fully rigged First Rate Warship like HMS Victory would have looked like at action stations in full sail it is then you then begin to realise why it took out of her complement of 850 men, 250 to sail her and some 600 men to fight in her. 

 

 

 

The Victory was depicted carved with the lower gun deck gun ports having just been opened and the guns run out at the same moment some of the sails were in the process of being trimmed for the impending action. The spritsail due to this forward pitching of the warship has been carved not fully unfurled as if it would have been set in choppy seas as this particular sail would often dip down into the sea in the swell. The sprit topsail is shown to be also dipping down at an angle slightly on the port side as if the tension in the corresponding ropes and block to that particular sail has slackened off slightly. I wanted to try and capture exactly what HMS Victory would have looked like in full sail in a desperate attempt to gain more speed to engage the French and Spanish Fleet. 

 

Once the actual carving of the Victory was completed a wooden base had then to be made to raise it up the several inches of the ground to allow the original old iron hook which once held the Victory’s mess table to be retained in its original position beneath the oak beam. A mahogany base was initially produced as show above; however as this base was made out of a relatively modern timber I felt it was just not in keeping with the centuries old timbers use to create the actual Victory replica so something more appropriate had to be found. I was reminded that somewhere in my stack of seasoning timber I should still have the remnants of an original deadeye from the Victory I was given from twenty years ago which I eventual found buried underneath some huge blocks of lime wood and walnut. Why is it when you are looking for something it is most likely to be found underneath everything else.

Two hundred and sixteen deadeyes were originally required to set up the standing rigging on the Victory and I was given part of this old deadeye which I made an eight inch long 32 pounder gun for a dockyard charity twenty years ago with some other bits of timber and with a bit of modification thought might just be suitable for the proposed new base. Although only around half of the damaged deadeye was there when I received it even before the piece for the gun barrel was removed. The rest was also badly split in several places but it didn’t have any signs of rot anywhere and as only a very small part had been attacked by worm which was an added bonus. Although what now remained was perfectly sound the centuries on board the Victory had however taken their toll on both the original 30 mm iron bolts that once held the two halves of the deadeye together, as  2/3rds of the iron bolts had completely rusted away over the centuries so only 6 mm of relatively sound metal remained; as can be seen below.

 

HMS Victory’s original deadeyes’ in position on the ship and the remaining section of one of the deadeyes used for the Victory sculpture’s base.

  

The two deadeye bases were now quickly completed although attaching them to the base of the sculpture was another thing. When I was working in the dockyard workshop all those years ago trying to cut a piece of the Victory oak beam for one of the first dockyard project, I was handed a nail and a hammer and was asked “want to try banging a nail into a piece of the oak” each attempt as they expected resulted in my bending the 2 inch steel nail against the rock hard oak to the amusement of all who had gathered to watch. Lessons learnt you would have thought as I carefully placing the two pieces of deadeyes under the Victory’s oak base and lined up the holes and with an electric screw driver in one hand substantial brass screw in the other I quickly proceeded to shear off the head of this and every one of the screws in turn despite drilling a thin pilot hole in the oak first.  In the end I gave in to the inevitable trying to screw into this oak and turned to my container of good old ‘Gorilla’ glue which fortunately was man enough for the job.

 

What remained of the ships original old paint has been retained on the beam along with the handmade square nails and old copper screws and iron bolts along with the green patina which had gradually built up over the centuries on the copper bolts and screws. Although the oak would obviously look splendid after sealing and polishing as was normally the case with my other sculptures, I had always thought this would be rather inappropriate to cover the historic oak with an artificial finish so I decided to leave it just as it has been for many centuries hidden deep within the old oak beams on board HMS Victory’s lower gun deck.

 

Another rather compelling reason not to apply any finish to the sculpture is if you ever have the opportunity to visit Nelson's Flagship HMS Victory in Portsmouth which I recommend the first thing you will notice on entering the ship is the strong smell of old oak, rope and tar which per mutates throughout the 18th century warship. Traces of this rather distinctive ships aroma could sometimes could also often be found in my studio if the windows had been closed whilst I was carving the Victory, so I thought it would be a shame to seal in this centuries old history and aroma under an sort of modern day wood sealant which would make an unnatural barrier to the historic oak.

This oak is seasoned and certainly appeared tough enough to withstand the various changes in ambient temperature even when it hasn’t any finish added as I have found over the years when the oak in various stages of work was left inside my workshop in one form or another for two decades. From being often left overnight during the winter months in well below zero temperatures after the heating went off, to well over 30 degrees centigrade in the summer months when I inadvertently left it unattended from early morning during a particular hot summers day with all the windows and doors firmly locked. Although the Victory replica survived perfectly well in the stifling sustained heat in the studio unfortunately the virtually full size realistic hollow wax ‘Mute Swan protecting her Cygnets’ sculpture which was rearing up with its wings high in the air I had been working on with great care for several days didn’t

The hollow wax casting of the Mute Swan which was finished and about to be deliver to the art foundry to be cast in bronze a few days later didn’t fare to well in such hot house conditions and ended up upon my return in the evening as a huge distorted green blob on the work bench in which the swans long hollow neck and once highly detailed wings had rather bizarrely drooped down over its now flattened once hollow wax body, which had once again hardened up during the cooler evening and was now bizarrely frozen in time its new unique art form. It looked like a weird green waterfall flowing right over the edge of the work bench towards the workshop floor and was rather reminiscing of Salvador Dali's fascinating ‘Soft Watch’ painting.

 

 

        

A green wax casting in the mould - the original woodcarving – the Florida bronze Swan

 

The perverse distorted and now rather tragic looking Swan and its young was now rather more reminiscing of road kill than a potential work of art, but no doubt if it were to have been cast in bronze exactly as it transformed itself into and was spotted by an art world aficionado it may well have been short listed for the annual Turner prize, but tragically as the loss might well be to the un-expecting art world the wax has to do what wax has to do and it was quickly melted down to pour into the mould to make a replacement Swan, just like the client had commissioned. With lesson learnt and weeks lost casting and detailing its replacement I haven’t push my luck again leaving any of my work unattended.

As a matter of possible interest the original woodcarving ‘master copy’ of the Mute Swan which was originally moulded to make the green wax and cast in bronze versions was once again put to work and was flown to Florida and then digitally enlarged and replicated first in foam, than clay and cast in wax by a Florida art foundry and eventually the ‘Mute Swan protecting her Cygnets’ was cast into bronze and is now placed on its elevated nest and this twelve feet high Swan can now be found alongside Mirror lake in Lakeland Florida.

I digress, back to the Victory sculpture if past experiences are anything to go by the Victory oak shouldn’t require any artificial finish to be added for preservation reasons as the oak has lasted for many centuries in far worst conditions it is expected to have to endure in the future without having any form of artificial finish being applied so why change things now. However as an experiment just to see what the colour of the sculpture might look like if some form of artificial finish was applied; I put a ‘wash’ of clear white spirit to the carved ‘sea’ the Victory is sailing in immediately the wonderful rich medium oak colour of the oak stood out before the white spirit quickly evaporated and the oak once again returned to its natural dark oak colour as it remains today. Just applying the white spirit to the sea did however not only make the grain and the choppy sea stand out but also made it look as if the Victory was totally separate and actually sailing in the sea. 

 

 

 

Although the Victory with all the carved ropes added might look fragile it is however much stronger than it looks as all the masts and spars are supported each side by oak ropes all of which are then glued under tension by the carved oak blocks. It was possible to carve more of the ropes a bit thinner in places than I have done for some of the ropes, but resisted the tempting by making them all too thin as the model has to be practical for normal handling and cleaning over the years without worrying some might break. Although if you think about it trying to break a matchstick takes a little effort despite a matchstick being made from much softer pine wood, the rigging although often thinner is made from old well seasoned hard oak which has proved to be so much stronger than a matchstick. 

 

I would prefer when it does go on display it will be unrestrained and free so to speak but obviously behind some sort of rope like you do so it is kept far enough away from the preverbal ‘swinging handbags’. It has been deliberately carved in a way far removed from the normal ships models to try and give the feel almost of an impressionist painting to be viewed at almost arm’s length so it was not designed for the nose flat up against the glass type of viewing. As I didn’t want it to be displayed trapped in a glass case meant it might get dusty over the years so the carved ropes in particular had to be made just thick enough and therefore strong enough to enable the model to be dusted over the years. However just in case of damage by either friend or foe over the decades I have also carved dozens of spare lengths of oak ‘rope’ some with the small blocks attached which I intend supplying with the Victory along with a few of the small turned gun barrels and various blanks of the original Victory oak it was carved from to enable possible running repairs to be made just like the full size version in its heyday would be prepared for.

On something as complex as this Victory there is always something you can tweak so I feel it’s best I am kept as far away from the temptation as possible as there was always a risk with too much fine tuning it might well lose the rough carved look about it I always wanted for the Victory sculpture. It was after all created from centuries old original ships timbers which had mostly certainly seen better days and wanted it to be carved in keeping with the more practical rawness often produced by the original ships carvers in their carved scroll-work, gingerbreads, mouldings and ornate figureheads which adorn such warships of that period.

 

Towards the end of 2011 the HMS Victory sculpture was for the first time finally wrenched from my grasp and away from the temptation of this incessant tweaking and driven by my son Scott around the streets of London, past St Paul’s Cathedral were Admiral Lord Nelson’s lies at rest beneath the magnificent dome of St Paul’s. On through the City of London to the Carpenters Company which is a City of London Livery Company where it was on display in the reception area for six months. Although for over thirty years created a wide variety of detailed and often elaborate wood and bronze sculptures which includes over one hundred and fifteen wood and bronze sculptures commissioned by the British Royal Household I have to admit this sculpture of HMS Victory for many reasons must surely rate as the most irreplaceable wood carving I have ever produced. Whilst the Victory was on exhibition as people gathered at one of its private functions, I overheard a conversation between an elderly couple looking at the Victory when the lady said, "this is probably the closes thing you will ever get to owning the real thing. The man replied "Yeh ok it look great, but will it float."

 

Towards the end of 2011 the HMS Victory sculpture was for the first time finally wrenched from my grasp and away from the temptation of this incessant tweaking and driven by my son Scott around the streets of London, past St Paul’s Cathedral were Admiral Lord Nelson’s lies at rest beneath the magnificent dome of St Paul’s. On through the City of London to the Carpenters Company which is a City of London Livery Company where it was on display in the reception area for six months.  Whilst the Victory was on exhibition as people gathered at one of its private functions, I overheard a conversation between an elderly couple looking at the Victory when the lady said, “ this is probably the closes thing you will ever get to owning the real thing. The man replied “Yeh ok it look great, but will it float.”

 

 

The reception area of Carpenters Hall in the City of London

 

After the Victory’s return to my studio, the temptation to make a one or many more than one adjustments resumed once again. Reworking the Victory sculpture yet again was something I had told myself before the exhibition would simply not happen, although quietly it was something I feared might. I know I am made of stronger stuff and will be able to resist such temptations easily. I mean I am strong willed, I gave up smoking thirty year ago the hard way without the patches, I found it easy I did it lots of times so I know it’s in me to stop making these adjustments to the Victory any time I like. It was just finding the right moment, yes I decided I would definitely stop tweaking it that very day or if not the weekend which will be a good time, I just knew it.

 

However before I did stop tweaking the Victory it I thought I might adjust a few things here and there perhaps sharpen up some of the detail a little, or maybe a lot; make some of the ropes a little thinner and whilst I am at it why not change other bits of the rigging in a few places; alright quite a lot of places, you know the sort of thing basically, gilding the lily. OK I admit it I did spent more time re-carving it in the end but it doesn’t make me a bad person. So I decided the Victory just had to go into storage. On the 7th May 2012, exactly two hundred and forty seven years to the very day after HMS Victory was launched at Chatham in Kent work on the Victory sculpture was finally completed, yet again.

 

Whilst we are on the subject of not changing anything else on the ship what I really wanted to change and had done so for ten years, the so called ‘elephant in the room’ as far as the Victory sculpture was concerned, was to replace all eight of the ships carved staysails (the sails which catch the wind towards the side of the ship hanging between the main masts). When I first started carving the victory I wouldn’t have know what a staysail was if it fell on my foot but I began to realise once the mainsails were carved and hanging quite happily from the yards arms, the original staysail I carved all those years ago just didn’t look quite right and if I did change them this would become the Victory replica’s third and probably the most visually and significant refit of them all. But in the end as I wasn’t able to find enough suitable Victory oak to replace them all I didn’t so resigned myself with the realisation it just wasn’t too be.

 

 

 Photo 1: The original staysails on the ship remained that way for over a decade until they could be replaced as shown Photo 2:

From the information I had available to me at the time the staysails I had carved were accurate, admittedly not carved with enough movement in them but they were carved as per the drawings I was using as way of a guide. These particular staysails were also my first attempt at carving wooden sails, not an excuse mind as most of the things I carve are for the first time and you have to get them right first time regardless and fortunately for the most part I usually manage to do so, but unfortunately not in this case so they just had to go, the real problem was once again finding enough pieces of original early piece of Victory wide enough to carve them all from.

 

Although since I stopped working on-board HMS Victory at Portsmouth dockyard in 1992 the restoration process was still ongoing and as such oak and copper was still occasionally being removed from the ship during the process so it was still possible for me to purchase some more Victory oak to potentially carve these new staysails so I could finish the replica properly. Unfortunately a quick phone call confirmed as I had suspected it was almost impossible to find good sound early pieces of Victory oak, certainly in the width and quality I required for these replacement staysails as most of the ships timbers being removed from the Victory were relatively new timbers; that is oak which was only a hundred or so years old which although were still once part of the restored Victory they were nowhere near old enough to be part of this replica, so regrettably the staysails I carved a decade before had to remain as I originally carved them.

However being like the preverbal ‘dog with a bone’ armed as I was with this new information in the form of a drawing by my friend and the former curator of HMS Victory Peter Goodwin which showed exactly how these staysails would have looked the thought of replacing them all once again returned, despite the replica now being in storage. The Victory oak off cuts were once again spread all over the bench in the forlorn hope of finding enough of the right quality colour, texture and look about it and more importantly wide enough to carve all these replacement staysails. It was like trying to make a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle from these pieces although at least it looked like I had the correct picture on the box to go by, but to no avail. There was however some nice pieces of oak amongst the pile for two perhaps three of the smaller staysails but unfortunately not for the much larger ones so as I didn’t want a mix and match the sails so once again decided I would just have to get over it.

A few weeks later which you sometimes find happens when you’re looking for one thing you can often find something else you need. I stumbled upon a long forgotten rather grubby looking 24 inch x 12 inch old Victory oak beam which had been placed on the bottom shelf in my workshop which had been buried for over twenty years underneath a pile of paperwork. I than remembered I was given this rather battered Victory beam by the ship’s crew to produce an 18 inches high HMS Victory bas relief panel set in a Victory oak frame similar to the first ‘Children in Need’ relief carving I was also working on at the time. The finished relief carving was then presented as a leaving present to the Victory crew member.

 

Fortunately finding this piece of long forgotten Victory oak was a 'Eureka moment' tantamount to finding a twenty pound note on the pavement so it was eagerly examined to see if it was suitable to carve these rather elusive replacement staysails and then who knows perhaps some of the signal flags and possibly a new yard arms I also wanted to replace along with a few other bits and pieces I might as well carve whist I was at it. So in the end this particular long forgotten beam had a lot resting on it in more ways than one. Although it was like many of the others used to build the Victory model caked in years of grim which covered most of it so it was difficult to tell at this stage, but potentially it looked wide to be used for all the replacement staysails.

 

On one edge of the beam the three thinner split pieces of oak which were left over after the original Victory panel itself which was carved two decades ago was found at the time to be too thin to be used to finish the crews bas-relief carving so it was put on the shelf and subsequently forgotten about as another more suitable thicker piece of Victory oak was used to complete the carving.

 

 

The original ‘carpenters marks’ oak beam before and after it was cleaned up, along with a potential oak staysail

 

The oak beam was carried down to the bottom of the garden and was washed down with white spirit to try and clean it up, basically the oak beam three deep splits ran down the entire length and width of the beam and each piece of oak that surrounded these splits were around 1½ inches wide at best and ½ inch thick at worst and appeared to be only held together by grim, strands and fibres. As the grim was being washed away I discovered the face of the beam had deep scratch letters and numbers all along rather like 18th century graffiti inadvertently as it turned out having been protected under years of thick grim.

 

 

The staysails drawn into the oak beam – roughed out and then several days later completed

 

The oak beam which contained the 8 inches high carpenter’s marks carved into the face of the beam was used to produce all the replacement staysails along with various other smaller parts of the Victory carving. A new staysail cut to size just awaiting the normal carving process which was mainly involved with avoiding or simply removing all the damage from the long departed worm and rot until good quality sound oak remained.

 

   The original carved staysails and the new replacements – before and after

 

With most of the Victory oak beams you often found one side of it was in a far better condition than the other side so as a matter of course to try and save as much of the sound original timbers as possible I usually start by carefully nibble away the most rotten/worm damaged part of the beam first and gradually work towards hopefully the far better quality timber often found towards the face of the beam as these were usually the part of the beam exposed to the air and not hidden deep within the actual structure of the ship’s hull and therefore more prone to rot. 

 

Over a decade ago when I originally attached the first staysails it was so very significantly photographs below, however trying to remove them without damaging them and replacing them with these newly carved staysails without damaging anything else around it was somewhat trickier. It was now just a case of removing dozens of feet of thin carved ropes and rigging, all the old staysails and replacing them with the newly carved versions and then simply putting all the rigging back again without damaging anything else in the process so it ended up just like a rather elaborate 3 D version of the game pickup sticks you sometimes played as a child. Fortunately I found this piece of oak was not quite so hard and as such a little quicker to carve so without too much effort all these new sails just mm thick were now finally onboard the Victory sculpture and after an additional 70 hours of carving the Victory what was its third and final refit on the 20th February 2013; so after twenty years the Victory sculpture was actually his time finished at last.

 

Once all the staysails were completed the oak was also found to be very slightly lighter in colour than the other oak used for the rest of the model but as it they were being placed in the middle of the ship in the great scheme of things as it was still early Victory oak it wasn’t a problem. So these newly carved oak sails which were once an integral part of the original Victory was now an integral part of this one, a chip of the old block in every sense of the word. 

 

The original staysails both in position and after being removed; the original newly carved replacements in position.

 

The Victory replica finally completed I returned to the beam once again intrigued by these recently discovered markings and after one or two enquires discovered some ships carpenter’s during these old wooden ships original build or early refitting centuries ago had been known to occasionally leave their mark, literally scored into the hull into the ships oak beams. These marks were sometimes also used to identify where certain pieces of timbers were going to be fitted on the ship during the build when they were being shaped in the workshops alongside. So subsequently I made sure none of the surface of the beam was damaged in any way so it could be retained intact in this face of this particular old Victory oak beam which keeps on giving. It is now hoped that this old beam with these unique carpenters’ marks etched onto them after being hidden for so long having now seen the light will now be placed on display in the appropriate setting.

 

Both sides of the new staysails and the Victory sculpture with the remains of the ‘carpenters beam’ alongside

 

When I first started carving Victory oak the wisdom and enthusiasm of trying to carve anything useful from these once discarded original ship timbers from Nelson’s famous Flagship and to preserve them all in this rather unique way, oh so quickly began to diminish and the realisation perhaps there was properly a very good reason why not many things are created from original Victory oak. Although working on the Victory replica on and off with these two further refits in the end took 20 years to complete which was around three time longer than it took to build the real thing. Although in fairness I was also working on many other totally different sculptures at the same time as the Victory sculpture but even then I was on occasions still often tempted to call out, are we there yet.

The challenge of building the Victory entirely from her original oak timbers started as a labour of love but ended up almost like a battle of wills; was it worth all the effort especially as the original reason I wanted to carve the Victory model had over time had inadvertently changed somewhat, I like to think it was. But there were many times in between I thought it was possibly ‘a boat to far’ especially when I neglected other things along the way including having to turn down the oh so many well paid commissions to being able to concentrate working on it. All I really wanted to achieve with carving this replica of HMS Victory was to try and preserve some of her old tired once discarded ships timbers in a way that has not been done before, no doubt for obvious reasons to everyone else but perhaps lost in translation to me.

Although I appreciate in the ship modelling world; it’s a model ship but not as we know it and I may well have gone off piste in the way I made this one, but I just didn’t want it to be like so many other model ships superb as many of them are. I intended it to be as much as possible simply hacked out from solid pieces of rock hard old oak removed from the very warship it depicts and if the odd old rusty iron nail, possible shards of shrapnel, fragment of rotten oak or the various traces of long forgotten woodworm who once tireless bored into these ships very timbers all just happen to get in the way during the carving process, then sobeit.

Despite my perceived moaning about the poor condition of the original oak used for the Victory sculpture or indeed any of the projects created from these old ships timbers, after all these anomalies or impurities in the timbers which were either avoided with the chisel or remove with the chainsaw, eventually what oak remained used for all the various carvings projects was simply superb, quality, rock hard yes, without doubt the hardest material I have tried to carve for any extended period before, but superb these ruminants of old timbers turned out to be. After the laborious and intensive sifting selection process only the finest quality pieces of Victory oak that remained was ever used to create the Victory sculpture and the other various carvings projects. The natural untreated dark colour and wonderful grain of this well seasoned oak clearly shows through as can be seen in these two photographs shown below, on the ship’s hull and sails even without any artificial finish being added.

           

                 

The pod of dolphins on the starboard side ridding the bow wave and the natural colour of the old oak with no finish having been added

One of the last things I detailed on the carving was the ‘sea’ and at the same time decided to also carve a pod of dolphins riding HMS Victory’s bow wave just as dolphins would have done all those years ago in that part of the world, which my daughter Emma thought was "rather cheesy" whatever that means. In the end this whole carving exercise was not really about making a model of HMS Victory, or even about the many clichés I have managed to squeeze in to this particular chapter endeavouring to describe the process, it was only ever about carving a replica of HMS Victory entirely from her original centuries old oak ships timbers and nothing else.

 

The final piece to be added was two small copper plates one etched with information about the sculpture and the other with my signatures. 3,923 4 feet x 1 feet copper sheeting were added to the Victory's hull below the water line in March 1780 which not only protected the hull from the Toledo worm; which are not worms at all but a group of unusual saltwater clams with long soft, bodies often found in tropical waters; but was also found to very significantly reduce biofouling of the hull which gave ships a great advantage of speed. The copper cladding also kept warships in commission at times when others had to be dry-docked for hull scraping which significantly enlarged the effective strength of the Royal Navy and subsequently led to the expression for such ships like the Victory being ‘a copper bottom investment’

 

 

Although I have spent such a long time carving the Victory model I do not class myself as model ship maker and don’t particularly wish to be classed as one, as this was only my first attempt at producing such a thing and will certainly be my last. Also a rather cautionary tale if you needed one of how trying to make something from nothing can age you. When I first started carving the model Victory twenty years ago which was shortly after I completed the somewhat larger versions starboard side entrance port, I had a full head of dark hair.

 

               

Despite the challenge of trying to carve something from these old ships timbers as far as I was concerned, if it wasn’t for its glorious past it would have had an inglorious future and would have remained in the skip from whence it came and whilst we are on the subject of from whence it came in March 2013 I was invited to exhibit the Victory sculpture at Chatham dockyard where it will be on exhibition in the museum’s new 'Hearts of Oak' gallery within the historic dockyard. This will be the first time the HMS Victory sculpture has been on exhibition which is open to the public and it will be just a stone's throw from where HMS Victory was originally built from within these very timbers all those years ago.

This Victory which for centuries was hidden deep within HMS Victory’s original oak beams on the lower gun deep deck, just feet away from one of the Victory’s formidable 32 pounder guns, is today at Chatham Dockyard once again between a pair of 32 pounder guns. It has been said the Victory sculpture which was once part of the very structure of Lord Nelson’s Flagship will today be the closest thing to having HMS Victory back at Chatham dockyard from whence it came where it will most likely remain on loan until such time as the Victory sculpture finds a new owner.

 

Please click to enlarge

The 47 inches (120 cm) long Victory sculpture at Chatham dockyard in March 2013

 

The Historic Dockyard, Chatham in Kent; ‘Heart of Oak’ gallery - http://www.thedockyard.co.uk

 

 


 

This ‘Creating the Victory sculpture’ is the rough draft excerpt from Chapter Ten of a new book I have written which is near completion. ‘The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes’.

For further information; please click here.

 

( Could you link to a new page I will send when its ready.)

 


 

 

 

On that historic and momentous day in 1805 off Cape Trafalgar within the cramped dimly lit lower gun deck amid the noise and confusion from the fierce battle being fort all around, the Victory sculpture although yet to be released by the sculptors hands was protected from the battle and the elements deep within the oak beam directly above the fearsome 32 pound gun which was being used so effectively by the ships well drilled crew just inches below.

 

Throughout the long hours the deadly battle raged, the exhausted gun crews anxieties and eventual exaltation as the battle won was being absorbed into the very fibre of these historic oak timbers. The Victory contained within the massive oak beam had managed to survive both the Battle of Trafalgar and the following two and a half centuries. Although Ian G Brennan has for over thirty years created a wide variety of detailed and often elaborate wood and bronze sculptures which includes over one hundred and fifteen wood and bronze sculptures commissioned by the British Royal Household, this sculpture of HMS Victory 'Running before the wind' must surely rate as the most irreplaceable wood carving he has ever produced and as a lady once said "it’s the closes thing anyone would have to owning the real thing".

 

Who would have thought that with time and a great deal of care and imagination so much could be produced from a ‘pile of firewood’ these once discarded old oak beams full of corroding handmade iron bolts and assorted pieces of metal would eventually be salvaged into something quite so remarkable. The Victory sculpture was eventually delivered to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham on the 18th March 2013 and was placed on display just yards away from where 250 years ago the oak beams that once contained the Victory sculpture were being bolted directly into the deck head of the lower gun deck by the ships carpenters working on what was to be Nelson’s Flagship. These beams were indeed an integral part of the very heart and structure of HMS Victory's great 'wooden walls'. If only walls could talk.

Every part of this replica of HMS Victory, the ‘sea’ masts, guns, ropes, rigging, bellowing sails and flags signalling Nelson’s famous signal ‘ England Expects every man to do his Duty’ have all been carved from original centuries old oak ship timbers rescued from a skip, which makes the HMS Victory sculpture totally unique and the like will never be repeated, another Victory that was at Trafalgar albeit hidden deep within oak beams removed from the very Warship it depicts; a true chip off the old block in every sense, a stunning piece of both English and French history…... the completion of the ultimate recycling project.

 


 

 

 

 

If you would like further information regarding the HMS Victory sculpture, please contact either Suzanne at suzanne@suzannecavill.com or Ian at ian@iangb.com