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A fine Napoleonic prisoner-of-war built boxwood model of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line L'Invincible  early 19th century

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Tessa Laney
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Published: 12 October 2016

L'Invincible: A Model of Naval Power

A highlight of Freeman's upcoming British & European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction is an early 19th cenutry fine Napoleonic prisoner-of-war built boxwood model of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line L'Invincible.

L'InvincibleL'Invincible was a French naval ship-of-the-line commissioned in 1741, designed by Pierre Morineau and built at the French military port of Toulon.  The result of an especially fruitful period of French naval engineering, L'Invincible and her sister ship, Le Magnanime, were among the largest ships ever built at the time, with a deck length of over 171 feet, following in the tradition of the groundbreaking Terrible, designed and launched at Toulon two years prior and at the time of its construction the most powerful ship on the seas.

The advances in size, construction, and gun power of these French ships far exceeded those of the British Royal Navy in the first half of the 18th century; as a consequence, their capture rather than destruction was extremely desirable in maritime conflicts.  During the War of Austrian Succession, L'Invincible was herself captured at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre on May 14, 1747 while accompanying a merchant marine convoy.  After a valiant eight-hour fight against sixteen British ships, completely de-masted and with her crew decimated, the French Commander Saint-Georges surrendered his sword to the British Admiral George Anson.  The ship was repaired and re-commissioned by the British Royal Navy as the HMS Invincible, serving until she foundered on a sandbar in 1758.

During the Franco-British Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), French prisoners-of-war were held captive in camps along the English coast for the duration of the unusually long conflict.  In order to keep themselves occupied, these prisoners—often naval engineers or craftsmen themselves—developed a camp trade in hand-constructed crafts, objets d'art, and, most notably, models of famous Franco-British war ships, as in the case of the offered lot.  Beginning with found materials such as bone and wood scraps, the models became increasingly sophisticated as British demand for such curiosities grew.  These prisoner-of-war built ships are therefore considered among the very best and most detailed of any from this era, due to the length of the wars and the time these craftsmen spent imprisoned, honing their skills and competing for patronage from the local villages, who also benefitted as conduits of these objects to markets across Britain.

The work coming to auction on October 18 is a particularly fine example of the realism and complexity exhibited in these models, equipped with every cannon, rope, balustrade and fitting of a real ship.  It almost certainly dates to after 1800, by which time the prison camp trades were well established.  This particular model is from the collection of notable ship model collector Malcolm B. Stone (1881-1965).  Upon his death, most of this collection was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.  This prized model was not donated at that time, and instead kept in the family where it has remained to the present day.

View the Auction Catalogue

A fine Napoleonic prisoner-of-war built boxwood model of the 74-gun ship-of-the-line L'Invincible, early 19th century.  Estimate $4,000-6,000.

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