First toys, then models and now works of art | Comment is free | The Guardian

The difference between a toy and a model has always been a vexing question, especially for boys. A common reply is that toys – a toy train, for example – is a simplified or exaggerated version of the real thing, while a model aims for true scale, detail and accuracy. This is fine so far it goes, but it invites the question of purpose, which at least in my childhood was so pressing to a six-year-old. Toys were meant to be played with; did models, like ornaments, simply stand aloof to be admired? As one grew older and clockwork became electric, OO gauge rather then O, the answer turned out to be “not always”. Perhaps “toy” and “model” represented no more than a change in terminology, to spare adolescents the embarrassment of remembering themselves as gullible five-year-olds pushing not-very-lifelike wheeled objects over the lino.

I considered these times on my way to see a new exhibition, Toy Boats, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. At home in the long ago, we had a wooden Chinese junk that my father had made on his workshop lathe. It had anchors and little cannons and could be played with (“Careful!”), though it was never allowed near water. A yacht shaped on the same lathe, on the other hand, should have had water and wind as its natural elements, but it rarely sailed successfully, capsizing in the slightest breeze despite adjustments to the keel and a name (Titania) that with its last letter took pains to avoid the ominous. In the bath, a clockwork tugboat cheerily bumped against the enamel for a month or so, and then its machinery rusted.

My friend the postmistress’s son had more and bigger boats than I did – his three older brothers were all sea-going carpenters – and their persuasive detailing made them more attractive. But HMS Daring, the Empress of Canada and the rest couldn’t be trusted to the sea or even the pool in the rocks. They were confined to the living room floor. The boats we sailed we made ourselves, from a buoyant substance we found on the beach called “black cork” that smelt sulphurous and may have been washed ashore from old lifejackets. A penknife could trim and cut a piece into a reasonable galleon, with stick masts and paper sails. If they were swept away, who cared? There was more black cork to be carved and therefore only a fleeting sense of loss.

That last word was the first feeling to be evoked at the National Maritime’s exhibition, which opens with the rusted remains of an early 20th-century clockwork battleship, the Souvarov, which had been recovered from the bottom of a French pond after many decades. It happened often in the pre-plastic era – toys imitating life by sinking to the bottom or having their hulls and engines put beyond repair by too infrequent oiling or being stored in a cupboard while still damp. When the Round Pound in Kensington Gardens was drained in 1923, about 150 battered little ships were recovered from the mud. So much childish loss, so many tears.

Long before the modern attractions of Grand Theft Auto, these hazards of damage or shipwreck must have told against the miniature ship as a popular toy, at least beyond families rich enough to have houses with baths where children (as an exhibition caption nicely puts it) had the luxury of regular and prolonged bathing. Still, by the later years of the 19th century the workshops of Nuremberg were turning out thousands of tinplate warships for the British middle-classes. The Bing brothers, with the world’s largest toy factory, produced miniature Dreadnoughts flying union flags until the first world war began. To see these and many other magnificent battleships, cruisers and submarines, complete with brass guns and little sailors in blue, is to realise how much fun war must have seemed and how, uncorrected by other images, toys might in some small way, hidden to the conscious mind, have accounted for the public enthusiasm at its outbreak.

France fought back against the flood of German imports and built toy ships equal to the products of Bing, Marklin and Fleischmann. Britain, oddly for the world’s supreme maritime nation, made very few of its own until war cut off supplies. Bassett-Lowke of Northampton then began to produce small navies, clockwork or steam-driven, while what’s known as “Queen Mary fever” led to Cunard liners that could run around the carpet on wheels. But the real British thrust in terms of craft that could actually dip their bows into the water became the speedboat and the model yacht. In the years after 1918, unemployed men set to work to build yachting ponds in seaside towns such as Fleetwood and Gosport, where big crowds would gather to see the little boats race. Even now, Britain has about 100 model yacht clubs – this weekend in a pool at West Kirby flooded by the high tide of the Dee estuary, you can watch the international one-metre championships.

Toys or models, playthings or replicas? Perhaps none of these: radio control and sophisticated sailing techniques have made them more than ever an adult sport. The children’s toy boat, meanwhile, has slipped into the twilight of cultural history, to be remembered by EB White’s Stuart Little (an adventure on the pond in Central Park) or a trip to the Luxembourg or Tuileries parks in Paris, where you can still hire wooden yachts and retrieving sticks by the hour. The rest (or most of it) is primary-coloured plastic made in China, characterless, unmemorable and easily forgotten in the sand.

After the exhibition, I stopped by at a branch of Nauticalia, the mail-order company that has a chain of stores specialising in replica binnacles, ship’s wheels and hurricane lamps, as well as pennants, guernseys and sou’westers: many homes in Britain must look like the bridge of a spanking new 1950s trawler, with inhabitants dressed as spanking new 1950s trawlermen. There was also a section devoted to “collectables”. There they all were: replicas of the Cutty Sark, the Victory and the Golden Hind, plus a few nice old luggers. “Probably made in Asia,” so I was told by an assistant, and fixed to their stands as permanently as a handle to a jug. Completely unsailable; they couldn’t even be pushed like our Chinese junk towards the imaginary harbour known as the settee.

I took the train back to Charing Cross and walked across Trafalgar Square to have a look at the most famous marine model in recent British history. Yinka Shonibare‘s “Nelson’s ship in a bottle” will stand on the plinth at the north-west corner for the next 18 months and may well prove to be the most well-liked of the sculptures and people that have filled that space. It may or may not succeed in inviting us to “consider the relationship between the birth of the British empire … and multiculturalism in Britain today”, but it’s very charming. Questions arise, however. Did the artist actually make the boat? Could it ever be freed from its bottle? Finally, and arising out of so much disappointment from so long ago: Could it be made to sail?