This model of the French Naval Ship HERCULE, later HMS HERCULE of the British Navy, is a highly detailed and fine example of the artistic craftsmanship of the prisoners, mostly French but some Dutch and British, held during the Napoleonic Wars (1795-1815). These superbly accurate and elaborate models are considered by enthusiastic collectors worldwide as some of the most desirable and important ship models ever created.
The ship was named for the Greek hero/god Hercules or Heracles, subject of art and legend for thousands of years. By the end of the late 18th century, when this ship was built, Europe’s Greek revival period was in full swing. It was common for ships to be named for such legendary heroes whose brave deeds and adventures might inspire the ship’s crew to their own acts of bravery.
The finely carved ship’s figurehead features Hercules, depicted as he was so often in period art, with a lion’s skin over his shoulders, standing over the slain Hydra, a mythical sea monster, and one of the fabled 12 Labors of Hercules.
Carvings on the stern and quarter galleries, one of the best stern and quarter gallery carvings we have seen on one of these models, also depicts some of the Labors of Hercules, including the slaying of the Nemean Lion, stealing the Horses of Diomedes and again, the slaying of the Hydra this time with his iconic club at his side. The multiple depictions of overcoming the Hydra were done likely in the hope that the ship might also overcome any real life monsters of the seas.
Other notable features of the model include very good carving and pierce-work on the quarterboards near the bow and the model’s beautiful original period inlaid base of various woods and bone, inset with maritime and British motifs and decorative flourishes.
Given the history of the ship and the timing of her capture by the British it is possible that this model was made by French prisoners who had been sailors aboard the HERCULE when she was taken.
Genuine period Prisoner-of-War bone models are very rare and available in very few numbers, their historical importance and aesthetic appealing making them desirable. This is a fine model of an intricate scale that would be appreciated in any collection.
HMS HERCULE was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. Built at the Lorient shipyard in Brittany, France She was previously HERCULE- a French naval Téméraire class, Premier Rang (French for First Rank), ship of the line, but was captured on her maiden voyage in 1798, and spent the rest of her career as a British ship. Designed by Jacques-Noël Sané and built at the Lorient shipyard in Brittany, France, she was 181 feet overall and 1876 tons. HERCULE was launched on December 5, 1797.
Less than a day into her maiden voyage on April 21st 1798, HERCULE was captured off Île de Sein near Brest by the British ship HMS MARS during the Battle of the Raz de Sein- a naval engagement of the blockade of Brest during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Just out of port, HERCULE was on her way to join the French fleet at Brest when she was spotted by the British fleet who sent three ships to intercept led by the HMS MARS. HERCULE attempted to escape through the Passage du Raz, but the tide was running in the wrong direction, and she was forced to anchor, giving the British the chance to attack at close quarters. MARS drew alongside under heavy fire from the HERCULE, so close that the ships nearly collided. MARS and HERCULE were of equal force, both of 74 guns, but HERCULE was newly commissioned; after more than an hour and a half of bloody fighting at close quarters she struck her colors at 10.30 pm, having lost — by her own officers' estimate — 290 men killed and wounded. On Mars 31 men were killed, including her captain, Alexander Hood, and 60 wounded. Newly commissioned Captain Louis Lhéritier of HERCULE was wounded by sabre and spike leading his boarding party.
Recommissioned in the Royal Navy as HMS HERCULE, the ship began her British career in 1802. Eventually she joined a squadron that included famed British ships HMS BELLEROPHON and HMS VANGUARD. She would go on to fight in the Napoleonic Wars primarily in the Caribbean with notable actions in Haiti and Curaçao.
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