Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Romanov yacht Livadia - Imperial vanity or prototype weapon of war?


There’s an old saying that the last things anyone wants on a yacht are an umbrella or a naval officer, but a fairy fountain decorated by electric lights in changing colours and sitting in a circular basin surrounded by floral displays must come close.


The fountain, built from statuary marble by Messrs Galbraith & Winton, who were later to create the interior of Glasgow City Chambers, was only one extraordinary feature of Tsar Alexander’s fantastic floating palace Livadia II, built by John Elder & Co at Fairfield in 1880.


Shaped like a giant turbot, the ship measured 259 feet in length with a beam of 153 feet. She was probably the biggest and certainly the most expensive ship launched into the upper reach of the Clyde at that time.


For the Glasgow architect William Leiper the commission to design the interior of this extraordinary floating palace was sufficiently attractive to bring him back from his spell as an art student at the Ecole Julian in Paris.  One can only guess at the excitement he must have felt on being given an unlimited budget to indulge his imagination.


The Architect (23 October 1880) described there being on the awning deck the great State Saloon, 70 feet by 40 feet, “in the plan of an elongated octagon of twelve wide-span elliptic arches” with at one end a highly architectural sideboard with Ionic columns, the Imperial arms supported by carved figures and “foliage festoons” with elaborate candelabras The ceiling was richly moulded and carved in white ivory relieved in gold, the seating in the finest French silk tapestry against a backdrop of heavy crimson plush curtains, the whole in the style of Louis Seize. 


Leiper commissioned the stained glass artist Andrew Wells to design the ceiling of a suite in “Crimean Tartar” style and William de Morgan made a minor but significant contribution with tiles of a special artichoke pattern.

image courtesy of the de Morgan Foundation






That the commission to create the flagship of the Imperial Romanovs, one of the wealthiest families in the World, came to Glasgow was a great tribute to the skills and versatility not only of Glasgow’s shipwrights but also her craftsmen and women. There was also a serious purpose, because for some years naval strategists had been discussing what form the battleships of the future should take, given the new technologies that were developing.


In 1868 the Scottish engineering genius John Elder had read a paper at the Royal United Services Institute entitled “Circular Ships of War, with immersed motive power”, arguing that increasing the beam of a warship could enable it to carry heavier armaments. This was probably based on thinking about some of the vessels involved in the American civil war, in which Elder had played a significant role by providing the Confederate navy with many of its fast blockade runners. He would have become aware of the circular monitors that the Americans had developed.


Vice-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov was attracted to Elder’s concept and in September 1879 appointed John Elder & Co to construct the Livadia as a prototype. By this time the yard was owned by the formidable Isabella Elder, John’s widow, who had head-hunted William Pearce to run it. It seems that Popov gave the yard at Fairfield an unlimited budget, the price being on a “cost plus” basis with a massive bonus if the ship exceeded fifteen knots on her trials.


William Pearce, assisted by the Dutch engineer Bruno Tideman, produced a modified version of Popov’s design, reputedly  towing a one-tenth sized scale model about Loch Lomond. The result was a turbot-shaped hull, 259 feet (79m) long with a maximum beam of 153 feet (47m), that was launched before about 10,000 spectators on 7 July 1880, when she was named by the Duchess of Hamilton and blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. Her machinery included three main engines for propulsion and about twenty smaller ones to drive equipment and generate electricity, powering inter alia the fountain.


On 27 September Livadia on her third attempt achieved a speed of 15.725 knots, her engines running in excess of an estimated 12,000HP, earning Pearce a bonus of 414,000 Rubles on top of the base price of about 2.7 million Rubles.


At the end of September Livadia left the Clyde on her maiden voyage. At Plymouth the Grand Duke Constantine joined the ship. On October 19 she left Brest despite warnings of foul weather further south, the Grand Duke insisting that there was no better opportunity to put the yacht through her paces than to have her ride out a storm.


The following three days and nights were a nightmare for the imperial passengers, with the Livadia meeting 27 foot waves. With her shallow draught and blunt entrance she was unable to part the seas, as a narrower ship would have done, instead slamming onto them from above. On the third day the crew found that at least one of the bottom compartments was no longer watertight and it was decided to put into Ferrol in North West Spain, where divers reported that the hull had suffered quite extensive damage. Through the winter, while repairs went on below, the public spaces were used to host numerous balls and high society events.


Tsar Alexander never got a chance to enjoy his eccentric yacht. By the time she arrived in the Black Sea in the Spring of 1881 he had been assassinated. Oddly, Livadia had indirectly saved his life a year earlier, when a bomb placed by one Stefan Khalturin in the basement of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, directly under the dining hall, went off at exactly half past six, but the Tsar, a man of very punctual habits, wasn’t there. He had taken a detour to show his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki the model of the Livadia, a present from her builders, which had arrived that day.

A future post will discuss the building of the model illustrated in the opening image




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