The Royal Navy may not be as key to Britain's national identity as it once was but Toy Boats, an exhibition opening on Saturday at the National Maritime Museum, is a reminder of different times. The intricate boats on display, designed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to be sailed on ponds or played with at home, “were all about education and instruction”, says Kris Martin, the curator of the exhibition. Here are his five favourite models:
1. HMS Terrible (1904)
This beautiful steam-propelled battleship was made by the German factory Märklin. The company made luxury toys, finely painted, finely finished and very sophisticated. This particular model would have cost about a month’s wage to buy. It has an engine in the middle, and captures the forms and proportions of real ships of that time.
2. The Dreadnought (1912)
In 1906, the British launched the Dreadnought battleship. People had never seen anything like it and a lot of companies started making toys inspired by it. This utilitarian-looking model was made by Gebrüder Bing, the biggest toymaker in the world at the time. What’s ironic is that it was made by a German company, which added the Union Jack to it and then sold it to the British, while the first world war was looming. Germany produced a lot of military toys at the time because Kaiser Wilhelm II was interested in their value as propaganda. He thought that if there were an abundance of toy boats being sold in shops, people would believe the German navy was invincible.
3. The Hohenzollern (1899-1909)
A version of the Kaiser’s private yacht, launched in 1892 to replace a model he thought outdated. It had new armaments, all the best features, and again it was a symbol of Germany’s intention to creating the world’s best navy as the storm clouds gathered over Europe. This toy boat is a beautiful find, made again by Gebrüder Bing. Such luxury toys were made for the middle classes. After the industrial revolution, there was more wealth around, which increased the demand for toys.
4. Salamandre (late 19th century)
This one was probably created by French company Radiguet, which also made optical instruments and scientific equipment. It made a series of toy boats, which had an educational purpose. This one is 1m long, weighs an absolute ton, and comes with a crew of about 30 sailors. It also has a small clockwork torpedo boat attached, so you get two boats for the price of one. It was probably a one-off for an exhibition, made to show the company’s abilities. I haven’t seen anything like it – it’s a real stunner.
5. The Viking (1933-1939)
The golden age of British toys came later than it did on the continent. This very modest green boat was designed by Hornby for sea boat racing, a very popular activity across Europe at the time. Hornby then offered a range of little, brightly-coloured, elegant-looking speed boats with clockwork. Most toy boats were not slavish copies of actual ships, but rather an amalgamation of elements. These racing boats capture the recklessness of their age. They are very simple, very charming things.
‘Toy Boats’, National Maritime Museum, London, May 1-October 31; www.nmm.ac.uk