Alistair Roach. The Life and Ship Models of Norman Ough. Barnesly, U.K.: Seaforth Publishing, Pen and Sword Books, Ltd., 2016.
Some individuals are so uniquely eccentric — and perhaps so gifted in pursuing their passions, no matter how far off the beaten path — that they give the rest of us permission to be ourselves just a bit more comfortably. As I recently discovered, Norman Ough* (1898-1965), at one time “the world’s most famous ship model maker,” is just such a person for me.
The Life and Ship Models of Norman Ough, by Alistair Roach, brings Ough’s life and work beautifully to light in a volume rich in photographs, drawings, technical detail and personality. Roach begins by helping to explain why people, any people, find varying degrees of interest in models: “[P]eople relate to miniatures for a variety of reasons: for example, they have a personal or intimate relationship with the piece, there is perhaps an illusion of control, or they admire the technical challenges overcome by the maker and are fascinated by the human effort involved” (8). As a hobbyist myself, I certainly find resonance in these reasons, and I can easily imagine that this book’s primary subject, Norman Ough, was fueled by such a spirit in his consuming dedication to the craft of model ship building.
For most of his adult working life Ough, born to a reasonably successful middle-class family in late-Victorian England, made double duty of a small live-work space in London, crafting his ships by day (and probably often by night) and sleeping under his work bench in a fashion that makes me think of nothing so much as a sailor crawling into his bunk or cubby or hammock when not on watch. His models were of such high quality that he was able to make his living from them (as well as from the exquisitely drafted plans he sold), fulfilling a steady stream of commissions for museums, exhibitions, film studios and wealthy patrons with an interest in naval subjects.
Ough was always busy but never rich, and that appears to have been fine by him. When asked once why he had never married, Ough explained, “I’m too much of a model maker; I wouldn’t inflict it on any woman” (9). To me, that is an unapologetic statement of self-acceptance, and it sits at the heart of what I find so liberating about Ough’s example. I may still sometimes gnash my teeth over some of the choices I have made in life and wonder, “Why am I such a nerd? Why do I still build so many models? Why haven’t I made myself wealthier?” while Norman Ough said of himself simply, “I am a model maker.” In the end, it’s not that I see Ough as someone just like me. His achievements and passion for model-making were clearly more intense than mine. I also have a separate profession that I love, as well as a family that I treasure, and I don’t even attempt to make models as beautiful as his. The inspiration lies here: if Ough’s great eccentricity can be said to have worked for him, then perhaps my lesser eccentricities can find room enough in my life to work for me, too.
*Sorry, I don’t know whether Ough rhymes with “enough,” “through,” or “dough” — or even maybe with San Francisco’s Gough [GOFF] Street…