It takes a lot to get me excited these days, but I am sitting in my workshop surrounded by my ‘O’ Gauge layouts and an assortment of model dioramas constructed by me.  However, it is not these that have caused this rare excitement!

Before me I have, what can only be described as, a masterpiece.  Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect, but it’s as good as it gets.  It’s the diorama of Water Street in Manchester made back in the middle of the last century by Jack Nelson.  Would I describe him as a master modeller?  Probably not.  A genius at creating an awe inspiring perspective diorama?  Absolutely!

Remember, in those days, some 60 years ago the materials available to the modeller were limited – bits of hardboard, card and paper, all held together with fish glue.  His later models incorporated the use of lino and styrene.  What is probably more remarkable is Jack Nelson had a serious accident on his motor bike, sustaining serious injuries to one arm.  It is difficult to imagine how he coped and managed to create these marvellous models.  The question you may be asking therefore is what is this diorama, one of about a dozen remaining, doing in my workshop?  Well, Jack Nelson was a London & North Western Railway enthusiast, who not only modelled the ‘premier line’ but recorded photographically and in an extensive series of drawings, the L&NWR in its dying days.

As a member of the L&NWR Society I was approached by some members to ascertain if I would be interested in cleaning and restoring these models.  At present they reside in the fascinating Conwy Valley Railway Museum at Betws-y-Coed, owned and operated with great enthusiasm by Colin Cartwright.

I must confess, and am somewhat ashamed to admit it, I had not heard of Jack Nelson or indeed seen any of his work until recently when the diorama depicting the approach to Lime Street Station from Edge Hill landed on my doorstep.  This was the first diorama that I restored, it having arrived very dirty and slightly damaged.  I could see instantly this was something very special and indeed unique.  The second diorama, the subject of this article, sits before me as I write this.  The accompanying photographs show it in all its glory, but perhaps a brief description, prior to my cleaning it, may not go amiss at this stage.

It measures approximately 45” wide, 24” high and 26” from front to back at its widest point, since the background panel curves from the front in an ellipse.  It is within this concave space the diorama is constructed.  The scene depicted is dominated by the Victorian arched iron railway bridge spanning Water Street in Manchester, the bridge itself being in the forefront, some 3” from the front of the model.  Continuing down this street, we leave Liverpool Road to the right, and in the distance can be seen a railway girder bridge about 17” from the front of the model.  A third bridge spans the street in the distance some 22” from the front.  The eye naturally follows Water Street into the distance where some industrial buildings can be seen in the background, all unbelievably ½” tall!  Following Liverpool Road round to the right, the grey building is the L&NWR Company’s goods office.  The red brick building on the corner would appear to be a solicitor’s office, a brass plaque being set to the right of the impressive doorway.

Passing over the first bridge are three wagons and a goods van which is just appearing from behind a three-storey building with ground floor shop, (that of Messrs L Kershaw?), selling valves and hydraulic steam machinery with offices above.  In the first floor office can be seen a notice board and in the top floor office hangs a large picture, a copy of an L S Lowry.  Rather appropriate really.

In the foreground, going from left to right, can be seen a tradesman carrying a green canister of some description, and next to the curb an L&NWR Company flat bed wagon drawn by two horses, which appear to be being calmed down following the passing of the No. 17 tram, now receding in the distance down Water Street.  On the opposite side of the road, and heading towards us, another Railway’s owned covered van -this one collecting parcels.  To the side of this van various workmen, possibly Railway staff, are to be seen.  One sweeping, the second carrying a sack, and a third appears to be a bill-poster.  The L&NWR notice board carries notices advertising jobs on the railway.  Between them and the organ grinder and a man posting a letter, a dog!  Over the second bridge and heading to the right is a saddle tank locomotive and wagons.  In the distance the street is lined with commercial buildings.

Now to the model itself.  As mentioned earlier, construction is from very basic materials and Jack Nelson’s genius, apart from creating a wonderful perspective model, is his skill in utilising these materials.  Courses of brickwork in some instances are lined in ink onto paper previously coloured with watercolour paints, which are then stuck to card carcasses.  Other examples, particularly the brickwork on the shop and office building on the right is created by scoring and cutting through light card, previously painted with watercolours, thus giving a fine representation of individual bricks.  The cobblestones are scored into wet plaster and duly painted and weathered.  The majority of the road and railway vehicles are scratch built, and most are only painted and detailed on the visible side.  Similarly with the buildings.  Why waste time detailing something that will never be seen?  But let us not kid ourselves that Jack scratch built everything.  Most of the figures and animals are proprietary items, skilfully altered and repainted.  These vary in scale as they ‘disappear into the distance’.  Note the black and white dog centre of right under the first bridge.  If I am not mistaken – a model cow!

What of the state of the model?  Well, at some time in its life it has been clumsily restored.  For example, the tram rails have been repainted, the silver paint carelessly applied and coating some of the adjacent cobblestones.  The sandwich board man has been stuck down using a huge lump of what appears to be modelling clay.  Other figures have been glued down with great dollops of adhesive.  Jack drilled a small hole up the leg of his figures and used a piece of wire to act as a spigot to attach them to the base.  Other areas of the diorama have been carelessly touched in with differing coloured paints to that of the original.  Another question that arises is, ‘Was the model ever completed?’  I suspect not.  There are some visible unfinished areas such as that through the opening in the hoarding on the left of the tram.  Also, under the arch behind the post box the paving appears unfinished.  Perhaps like most of us he decided to move on to the next project.  After all how many of us have unfinished kits lurking in a cupboard?

Now to the restoration itself.  In the main, I believe it better to do as little as possible.  Yes, clean it thoroughly, repair any obvious damage, but as to the botched previous restoration, I am in two minds as to  whether this should be left or rectified.  After all, these incongruous eyesores are a part of the model’s history and should possibly be left.  I would, however, hate to think that future generations thought it to be my botching!

As a footnote to this article it would appear the dioramas have had a chequered career since the demise of Jack Nelson.  Prior to his death, he lived with his sister.  Her patience must have been sorely tried, for reports from those who visited him conjured up a house full of his models.  Apparently in the end, she ‘requested’ their removal, and it is from this point in time the location of the dioramas appears somewhat hazy.  Some were to have gone to Liverpool to be displayed in the care of the ‘Liverpool Transport Museum Trust’.  This Trust never came to fruition despite of much effort on the part of a group of enthusiasts.  Some of the dioramas apparently appeared at a Manchester school as a part of an exhibition.  Sadly, a number of them have been lost.  Fortunately however twelve or so survive and are a lasting memorial to an amazing modeller.

The finished results of the restoration can be seen in the accompanying photographs.  However they cannot do justice to the work of this modelling genius.  Jack Nelson must rank with the great pioneering names associated with railway modelling, the likes of John Ahern, Roye England and G Iliffe-Stokes et al.

I rank him as one of the greats and if you get the opportunity to see the dioramas at the Conwy Railway Museum you can make up your own mind.  I’m sure you will not be disappointed.


I wish to thank the following in the preparation of this article: Members of the L&NWR Society, Colin Cartwright from the Conwy Railway Museum, and Marion Robinson.

John Mileson

January 2015  

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