Thermopylae: An Idea of Perfection

Half-hull model of the clipper ship Thermopylae built in 1868 by Walter Hood & Co, Aberdeen, acquired by Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums in 2015 with an NFA grant of £6,820. Meredith Greiling writes about the significance of the acquisition while Jason Finch has some useful advice gained from his experience of bidding for the model at auction.

She is in every respect a fine specimen of naval architecture, a model of symmetry and beauty; her sweeping lines and exquisite proportions, her graceful outline and general compactness, conveying an idea of perfection.

The Melbourne Argus, 13th January 1869

This quote comes from an Australian newspaper account of the maiden voyage of the new Aberdeen-built clipper ship Thermopylae which had just completed the fastest recorded voyage for any sailing ship from the Port of London to within sight of the Australian coast in just 59 days.

Watercolour of 'Thermopylae'

Watercolour of ‘Thermopylae’, 1886, by J E Cooper

Clipper ships were fast sailing vessels, built at a time when steam technology was beginning to dominate sea travel. Based on a design by the Aberdeen shipbuilders Alexander Hall & Sons, the distinctive sleek shape of the clipper ship’s bow became world famous as the ‘Aberdeen Bow’. Their size and speed meant these ships were ideal for carrying compact but valuable cargoes such as tea from China. There was a prize for the first ship back to London with that season’s harvest and very soon the ‘Tea Races’ became front page news around the world. The ships and their masters became household names and the phrase ‘Aberdeen-built’ was a mark of distinction.

Thermopylae was built by the Walter Hood shipyard in 1868 at the peak of the China tea trade; a year later the Cutty Sark was built on the Clyde to compete with her. In 1872 the two ships raced from Shanghai back to London. Thermopylae won by seven days after the Cutty Sark lost her rudder.

Shipbuilder's model of 'Thermopylae' by Walter Hood & Co, Aberdeen, 1868

Shipbuilder’s model of ‘Thermopylae’ by Walter Hood & Co, Aberdeen, 1868

The original shipbuilder’s model of Thermopylae, in private ownership since it was made and therefore unavailable to academics and enthusiasts, has now been purchased at auction with the support of the National Fund for Acquisitions and Friends of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums. The model will soon be on permanent public display at Aberdeen Maritime Museum; a tribute to Aberdeen’s shipbuilding heritage and the city’s most famous ship.

Meredith Greiling
Curator of Maritime History
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums

Thermopylae and Telephone Bidding 101

12th May, 4pm. I put the phone down having spent £11k at auction buying a half-hull model of Thermopylae used by shipwrights to plan the ship’s design. I found bidding nerve-wracking and based on my experience I drew up a check-list for next time which may be useful to others:

  • Expect the unexpected. Charles Miller, a London-based maritime auction house, had asked if a model of Thermopylae on our website was part of our collection? They were selling the half-hull model and were checking what others were out there. Although we had a chronometer associated with Thermopylae, purchased with a grant from the National Fund for Acquisitions in 2003, we didn’t have anything relating to its construction so decided to bid for this model at auction, something we hadn’t planned to do!
  • Sort the finances. To bid we needed financial help so we submitted an application to the NFA. The Fund offered to meet 50% of the cost and we would match that with support from the Friends of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums. Remember when bidding at auction that buyer’s premium and VAT will be added to the hammer price (ie, your final bid).
  • Explain yourself. I know what a half-hull model is and why Thermopylae is important but not everyone does. Explain the significance of the proposed acquisition in any grant application.
  • If you’re unsure of the telephone bidding process, ask! Charles Miller was very helpful and ensured I knew what to do. Also, make sure they understand your procedures for paying to prevent misunderstandings later.
  • Be calm and ready. I was extremely nervous on the day, not sleeping well the night before, and was caught off-guard by the speed of the initial bidding, having to wait for it to slow down before joining in.
  • Shout about getting it. After our successful bid we put out a press release and got a lot more coverage than we expected, including requests for radio interviews.
  • Collect it! It’s easy to get caught up preparing for the auction but remember to arrange to collect your acquisition … and factor that into your costs.

Jason Finch
Curator of Maritime History
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums | Aberdeen Maritime Museum

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