l’Hermione: seduction and discovery

French replica frigate Hermione, pictured in build by Philip Plisson
French replica frigate l'Hermione, pictured in build by Philip Plisson

A couple of years back, when IPC Media moved into its Blue Fin building on London’s South Bank, I wound up in an office with a blank expanse of wall that was crying out for a picture. A few weeks later I found the solution…a Philip Plisson picture of the near symmetrical skeletal innards of a large wooden ship. The geometry of the picture seduced me each day I walked past the.gallery@oxo and eventually I weakened and bought it. My walk to the office was rather odd after that, somewhat hampered as it was by hugging the five foot or so of substantially framed purchase.

When I left IPC the Plisson print left with me; which was a story in itself as my earlier pedestrian efforts suggested the need for a car collection and I forgot to pay the congestion charge the day I picked it up; an easy way to lose £60.

In the year or so I had possessed it I had not even looked at the name of the ship, let alone thought about what it was.

The replica Hermione in the Corderie Royale at Rochefort, September 2009
The replica l'Hermione in the Corderie Royale dry dock at Rochefort, September 2009

Fast forward another month to the point where Michelle and I grabbed a few days in France. Visiting Rochefort we happened across a covered over dry dock with just enough of a glimpse through the sheeting to see that something interesting was happening inside. Parting with five euros each we found ourselves looking at the partially constructed replica of l’Hermione, a 26-cannon frigate.

The original was built in the same location in 1778; she entered history books two years later by transporting 21-year-old Gilbert Motier, Marquis of La Fayette in a 38-day Atlantic crossing to Boston. It was there that he met General Washington to announce the commitment of French forces against the British in the American Revolutionary War. As things went it was a bit of a tipping point for us Brits, a touch ironic given more recent relations between the three countries.

The view of Hermione's gun deck from aft, September 2007
The view of l'Hermione's gun deck from aft, September 2007

The reconstructed l’Hermione was commenced in July 1997 by the Hermione-La Fayette association. The original took 11 months to build but progress this time around is much slower and more considered. The “100 carpenters, blacksmiths, drillers, caulkers and convicts” originally employed not being available in such quantities this time around.

If you look at the ends of the dry dock l’Hermione occupies you see a large earth bank separating the ship’s timbers from the waters of the Charente beyond. But the plan most certainly is to sail away one day; perhaps even to cross the Atlantic.

The new capstan for the replica of the Hermione
The capstan for the replica of l'Hermione

The association has done a great job of getting you as close as possible not just to the ship but also the workshops alongside where all of her iron and oak components are being formed, painstakingly, one by one. In all a gargantuan Airfix kit of 400,000 pieces, mostly formed using traditional tools.

Of course you know where this is going. A sneaking suspicion permeated thinking that the vessel in front of us was a more fully formed iteration of the ship that Plisson had captured a while before. My first act on getting home was to check the picture inscription, which confirmed my suspicion. It seems we were destined to meet, one way or another.

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