Step by Step:
Restoring Shep Paine’s Gundeck of the HMS Victory
By Jim DeRogatis
By far one of Shep’s most celebrated boxes, The Gun Deck of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar, 1805 was purchased at auction in 1977 by the famous financier, publisher, and collector of toy soldiers, Malcolm Forbes. From that point until recently, it was on public display in the free museum/gallery that Forbes created for his collection on the ground floor of his offices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. (When I visited in 2008, what struck me most about seeing the piece in person was the two visible hand prints that had been worn into the walls on either side of the box, evidence of countless viewers over the years standing in front of the extraordinary diorama and moving in for a closer look.) Eventually, following Forbes’ death, his collection was liquidated, and the diorama was sold at auction again and purchased by Shep’s friend and fellow member of the Military Miniatures Society of Illinois, Dan Bird.
During its years on display at the Forbes Gallery, one modification was made to the diorama: the removal of the dead sailor at the far right, presumably for matters of “taste” (though, as with all of Shep’s work, the figure was subtle and exquisite). Where the figure wound up, no one knew. Several of the old automotive light bulbs also had burned out, the arm of the powder monkey in the foreground had been damaged, some of the buckets, pistols, and wads of grapeshot had broken or come loose, a few of the figures had fallen over, and the gentle motion effect that Shep had designed for both the French and English warships no longer worked. So a restoration project was in order, much like the one that would follow a few weeks later on three of the boxes collected by Andrew Wyeth (see Darryl Audette’s article on that project here).
Once Dan had the box in hand, he turned it over to Shep, who strengthened the outer casing in his guest bedroom/workshop and began tinkering with the motion effect. The job of casting replacement wads of grapeshot went to MMSI member Tony Bialas, and fellow club members and F.O.S. (Friends of Shep) Joe Berton and Mike Cobb painted those, the pistols, and the buckets. Shep trusted me with the difficult tasks of sculpting a new dead sailor and repairing the powder monkey. Step one in the former was to position a new figure as it had been in the original box, using the cast white metal parts which, thankfully, Shep had saved from the original construction (though it took some looking to locate them!). Here are the basic parts for the new dead sailor positioned in the box at Shep’s place.
Here, the dead sailor has made his way to my workbench, and the pieces have been further secured with epoxy after the rough positioning that was done with wire and CA glue at Shep’s.
Below, gaps in the body having been filled and the required sculpting done with Aves Epoxy Putty (my favored medium, better than the old standard A+B), and the figure has been primed and is ready for paint. The painting was the biggest challenge for me in this project, as I had to match the original style as close as possible, and Shep, in addition to being a great painter (which I am not), worked in oils, while I favor acrylics. It would take me three passes to get close, and I eventually had to borrow Shep’s original tubes of Windsor & Newton colors, as the newer ones I had on hand of the exact same shades were just different enough to matter! The bottom shot shows the figure base-coated in acrylics before the application of the oils.
Below: The oil painting in progress, and then the figure completed and ready for insertion in the box.
Here, work progresses on the repairs of the powder monkey.
Meanwhile, back at Shep’s place, the two of us were working on replacing the old automotive bulbs he used to light his scenes with new warm white LED fixtures, sold for under-cabinet kitchen lighting, but ideal for these circumstances as well, and guaranteed to last much, much longer. (See the links page.) This work allowed me to take some additional pictures of the box and pieces therein from perspectives the viewer never could see without the work opened up and unassembled. Below are the French ship in the background, removed from the box; a view of the Victory from above (much of the light in the scene will come through these grates); a look at the inner scene removed from the box and with the powder monkey and dead sailor still on my workbench; and the outer box under repair (which by no means is a piece of masterful carpentry, but, as Shep always says, if people spend too much time looking at your outer box, you haven’t done your job inside!).
Below are some of the new pulleys that Shep made for the motion effect, which was not completed in time for the Victory’s triumphant return to the 2012 Miniature Figure Collectors of America show in Valley Forge (where it was first seen nearly three decades earlier), as part of a special celebration of all of the club’s Grand Masters (Shep was the first). The new owner of the box, Dan Bird, is however an accomplished model railroader, so finishing the motion effect is on his to-do list!
Some last looks at the Victory at Shep’s place, photographed with available room light and the roof propped open before the whole scene will be permanently sealed again and placed in the outer box. The dead sailor and the powder monkey are back in place, as are the wads of grapeshot, though the pistols and buckets still are to come. It was at this stage that we noticed that the sailor carrying the bucket, whose reflection in the mirror at the right serves to create the illusion of him having a partner in the hauling, also had been damaged, and work was done to fix his arm with the figure, the bucket, and the mirror still in place (no easy task!).
Here’s an interesting shot I took of a pensive Shep as reflected in the mirror at the end of the inner scene.
And, finally, here is a proud (if somewhat goofy) Shep in front of the restored Victory on display at MFCA (photo by Dan Bird).