Boating: Tipping the Scales

  • Dexter Van Zile

The aisles of the Lannan Ship Model Gallery in Boston’s waterfront district are as confused and congested as the roads that have been rerouted by the Big Dig construction project taking place just outside its doors. With binnacles (compass cases), engine room telegraphs, life rings, antique diving helmets, old lanterns, and buoys cluttering its floor, the 6,000-square-foot space is reminiscent of an abandoned attic in Gloucester.

However, the clutter fades into the background when you come upon one of Lannan’s 500 or so ship models displayed in glass cases a few feet above the floor. A wooden model of the New Bedford whaling vessel Sunbeam—complete with every sail, rigging, and fitting found on the original ship—provides mariners with a chance to vividly imagine making a two-year whaling trek to the Pacific. A less hardy soul can envision himself aboard the RMS Aquitania, one of the great luxury liners of the early 20th century. The model, which sat in the boardroom of Cunard Line after the real vessel was constructed, is adorned with gold fittings. If it were not for their sizes, which range from 5 inches to 10 feet long, the models would be virtually indistinguishable from the real things.

Like the vessels that they represent, the models are costly. In fact, foot for foot their prices are comparable to those of the actual ships. Take, for example, the builder’s model of the HMS Trafalgar, a 19th-century frigate built in honor of Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory over the Spanish and French in the Napoleonic Wars. The 4-foot-long model, which was previously owned by Malcolm Forbes, is offered at $180,000. It is the favorite of gallery owner Larry Lannan. "It’s the rarest thing I’ve ever owned," Lannan says. "It sat before the Board of Admiralty of the British navy before the ship was built. They would use models like this to show the method of construction before building the ship."

The models come primarily from private and museum collections in New England and England, says Lannan, who purchased the gallery from his father, Joseph, in 1980. Joseph, a veteran of the Merchant Marine, founded the business in the 1960s after buying and selling a few models of his own.

Clients, who come to view or purchase the models as well as the maritime artifacts that Lannan acquires from ship-breaking yards in Taiwan and Pakistan, are allowed into the gallery by appointment only. It is a method of crowd control, Lannan jokes, not an effort to discourage visitors. "We just can’t fill the place," he says. "It’s an obstacle course in here."

Perhaps, but for anyone with an interest in maritime history, it is a course worth navigating.

The Lannan Ship Model Gallery, 617.451.2650, www.lannangallery.com

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