Most people who approach the Calvert Marine Museum’s diorama showing
Solomons Island, Maryland, as it was in about 1890 study it from above. Jimmy
Langley, though, drops right into a squat. “I like this view,” he
says. “I get down here, and it’s just like you’re in a real
boat and you come around the island and look all the way to Strathmore Farm.”
He’s right. From down here, you’re pulled right in. A forest of
bugeye and skipjack masts tangle the busy harbor’s skyline. Neat, white
clapboard houses perch along the slight spine of land poking into the Patuxent
River. Hauled upon the ways of Thomas Moore’s thriving shipyard, workboats
await their call to the booming oyster harvest.
Jimmy Langley built this diorama, carved the houses and boats and tiny cows
and outhouses—everything but the steamboat. That came from the hands of
his late father, LeRoy “Pepper” Langley, who learned his art with
wood and a lettering brush in the Solomons’ shipyards, and who passed
the crafts to his son. Now curator of exhibits at the museum and for seventeen
years its model-maker, the younger Langley does not consider the detailed rendition
of his home town his best work; that honor he reserves for some of his models
of Bay-built boats and his carvings of birds. But it captures his long romance
with his community’s history, a recurrent theme in his life and work.
|This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman
Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
Jimmy Langley’s brushwork is striking…but his models are his true
calling. Each one he builds to exacting accuracy. If he lacks the designer’s
drawings, or if he’s building a boat like a skipjack, which never had
drawings, he measures the actual boat himself, draws the plans, makes the patterns
and builds the model. …He makes everything in or on the models; working
blocks as small as corn kernels, a yacht’s wheel the size of a Ritz-Bitz,
each needle-thin spoke clearly delineated. Each model is built precisely as
the boat was: Keel up, frame by frame, plank by plank, using the wood specified
in the builder’s plans—mahogany, pine, teak, cherry, oak. Even the
grain in the wood Jimmy chooses is to scale. “Rather than three or four
grains in a piece of quarter-inch wood, there might be twenty grains, real fine.
So it looks like an actual piece of wood that would have been in there….”
His favorite is a Hooper Island draketail, an indigenous Chesapeake design
that’s narrow as a stiletto and notorious for eluding police during the
rum-running years. His model, half-inch to the foot, is built of cherry. It
looks so light and quick, you expect it to fly from its stand.