In Rochefort on the banks of the Charente an extraordinary project is nearing completion, the reconstruction of Major General La Fayette’s frigate ‘Hermione’
Her original mission – To free the oppressed in the New World.
“From the first moment I heard the name of America, I loved it, from the instant I knew it struggled for freedom, I was consumed with the desire to shed my blood for her” La Fayette.
It’s a long day’s drive from Le Havre to Rochefort to visit the old naval dockyards and site of the reconstruction of the 18th Century frigate Hermione. I was looking forward to meeting up with a friend and seeing his latest work the Lion figurehead. After a quiet first night I awoke to find my van had been tagged, an act of repression? A cadeaux de Rochefort. As I entered the dockyard, the promise of fresh coffee and croissant in mind, I saw an animal slip through the wire fence guarding the public from the steep sides of the écluse that had been Andy’s workshop since May. Peering over the edge I could see him crouched over the figurehead. An animal scuttled along the terracing, disturbed by my descent to where the lion rested at the foot of the stem head, the only part of the ship not clad in scaffolding and covers. It had come a long way from the laminated sections of wood I had helped load into the van back at his workshop in Oxfordshire.
At first sight the Lion was awesome, regal in pose and stature, his countenance posing a threat of considerable force. Pleasing to the eye the sculpture delivered in every sense, the artist had done his job.
Breakfast arrived so we adjourned outside to a makeshift table, the sun strong, the rigging crew were already seated, the smell of Stockholm Tar permeated all. Jens appeared with the coffee. Jens Langert in partnership with Bjorn Ahlander had designed and fitted the rig for the Goteborg, together they form J.B. Riggers. He had spent last winter working with a Dutch team overhauling the rig of the windjammer ‘Viking’. Woody had travelled from the States where he had been involved with the replica ship Kalmar Nykel, the first ship to bring Swedish immigrants to America. They were joined by two French volunteers Niko and Jean-Micheal others from the Goteborg arrive regularly from Sweden. Jens picks up the jam and tips it straight on to his bread, they talk of ropes, fibres and tar in a mixture of French, Swedish and English, the coffee invigorating, hunger satisfied the riggers return to their work
Back in the dock the shipwrights have the day off, Andy works alone in a vast cathedral like space. The tourists like seagulls on a cliff pass over the high walkways and in the constant clamor I hear people comment, “Superbe” “c’est chouette” “il est Artiste” camera flashes and camcorders. Placing some more cards for the visitors I heard him say, “it’s like feeding the birds”. Despite the noise Andy picks up from where breakfast intervened and by evening, the fine adjustments of the day are underwritten by the growing pile of wood shavings and a coat of turpentine and linseed oil to make the grain stand to attention ready for tomorrows session. As night falls, thoughts of the final fitting to the stem head and unveiling in November. With some Acetone and a rag I attempt to remove the graffiti from my van – success!
Rochefort. November 2011