Monday, 18 November 2019

The Imperial Yacht Livadia

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. 

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 at the Ecole Julian in Paris, where he'd spent two years having a gay time with his artist friends.  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. 

Courtesy 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. 

My native city is currently coming to terms with a dishonourable part of her history, her involvement with the slave trade. Elders were just one of several shipyards that grew very rich building fast, paddle-driven blockade runners for the South.

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 from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham to run it. 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. 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. 

Of course the yard had their builder, James Cameron, make another model, which for many decades it sat in a case in the boardroom at Fairfields. In the early years of last Century the yard was persuaded to deposit it with the city.

Today this model sits as part of the main wall display at the Riverside Museum, among a whole array of models of all sizes. There's no doubt of the impact on the casual viewer, but I think it's a great shame that much of the individual detail is lost in the crowd. Also, for the viewer with a technical interest the radical hull shape, which was the whole point and mystery of Livadia, is lost.

Such a builder's model would ideally be a demonstration of the modelmaker’s skill and by implication that of the actual shipbuilders. Victorian modellers sought total accuracy, a “good” ship model being expected to show every screw and rivet, even where it was impossible to produce this truly to scale. Sadly the effect of doing this could be  distortion and a loss of the viewer’s ability to appreciate form. Elaborate gilding and paintwork further confuses the picture. 

In 2014 I opened a fine art gallery in the city centre. We were on the ground floor of what John Hume describes as Glasgow’s Jolly Red Giants, the enormous red sandstone commercial towers that sprang up in late Nineteenth Century Glasgow and still dominate the cityscape. Our building featured a Sixteenth Century French Renaissance exterior, with external statuary that includes a replica of the tomb of the Medicis, lots of mythical green men and other oddities. 

It was designed by the extraordinary Scottish architect William Leiper. I started to research him. To describe Leiper in one sentence, think the Scottish Branch of the Gothic Revival, throw in some Scots Baronial, season with Sir Walter Scott and you’ve got him. I decided to put on an exhibition dedicated to Leiper as part of the Festival of Architecture 2016.

The connection with Livadia meant that we had to have a model. We decided to commission a new, Twentyfirst Century one, rather than try to borrow an existing one. 

As anyone with experience of the various grant awarding bodies will know, there's no point in any private individual, however well-intentioned, even thinking about applying. After wasting a lot of time and effort we at the gallery and our chosen builder, the talented James Pierce, accepted that we were on our own.

The result was delivered on time and attracted lots of visitors to what turned out to be one of the very few truly informative exhibitions taking place during the Festival.


Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Mariota's First Season

I'm pleased with my first season with Mariota, although we've only been out a few times due to it's having been a fairly dreadful summer here. Above is one of the better memories.

An early excursion with Richard demonstrated that with a decent wind this little boat can really shift, but also that early reefing is going to be essential, as she has plenty of sail area to move her along.

I've also realised that at my age I shouldn't be out single handed in a blow of wind, but I've also discovered that having an extremely pretty boat ensures that there's no shortage willing crew members. 

Marianna at the helm

First Mate Margaret

Vicky takes the helm

Anchoring for a picnic on a wee island


The final trip of the season
The first four images are courtesy Richard Pierce

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Sweden Revisited

I hadn't been in Sweden since 2005 and can't really explain why I left it so long, since it has to be my favourite country. Perhaps it's because the last time I returned with a restoration project, and you can't cope with too many of those, see An Expedition to Stockholm

Seriously though, finding Juni was a truly good thing, which got me interested in Swedish designs and designers. Coincidentally Juni is on the point of leaving for a new home, in good hands to be looked after by someone with much greater skills than I have.

I was very sad to learn that Sonja Herlin had passed away in July, just ten days short of her 102nd birthday. I had been indirectly in contact with her from time to time through my Swedish friends at the Herlin Society, but had never met her. I think she was pleased that I had rescued Juni and I'd love to have heard about her exploits in her.

Sonja had enjoyed an incredibly full and interesting life and stayed very competent mentally to the end. There's a nice video of her sailing one of her father's creations here: Sonja sailing, aged 93

Isn't that the nicest wee cruising boat of your dreams? Tore Herlin was a genius.

We were picked up by my old friend Petter, who immediately plunged us into boat porn.

Then into town, where I had to meet up with Evert Taube, possessor of a unique singing voice and style to match, a saint to Swedes and of course inspiration to ABBA.

Stockholm is as interesting and lovely as always, a great example of a well run Northern European country that should be an inspiration to all of us Scots. The monarchy has been turned into rather a nice tourist attraction without too much baggage and just enough theatre.

At night the city, especially the old Gamla Stan, where we were lucky to be staying, is full of life and interest.

Further afield the city lights are magic on the water.

Great use is made of the water for urban transport via countless ferries.

Here's Petter and me in 2005,

And here we are, with Birgitta and Paul in 2019,

back at our favourite Pelikan. Hope to get back before long.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A Wild Journey round the Isle of Mull

Birthe Marie is a Danish fishing boat, built in the 1930s and rebuilt and refitted for charter work by Mark Jardine of Iona.
Mark in his element.
This Summer hasn't been great for sailing in small boats, with days without wind and others when there's been too much, meaning I haven't been out much in the Mariota. Signing up for a Wild Journey on the Birthe Marie seemed a good idea to get in some serious sailing and also to explore the wild Atlantic side of Mull and the various islets and outliers in safety.

On a Wild Journey you'll be spending the entire time out of doors, something I hadn't done since childhood and, to be honest, never for as long as a week. It was challenging at times, but undoubtedly better than sleeping in a confined space with a crowd of folk.

Our only contact with society was a couple of hours in Tobermory half way through the week and strangely it was nice to get back on board and across to pitch tents on Calve Island.

Dusk on Calve Island
We were lucky at the start of the week, with Caribbean conditions, white sandy beaches in little coves and water warm enough for some (not me) to swim.

Our Captain

Having on board Emma, our own dance mistress introduced an element of gentle exercise and hilarity.

Gymnastik auf der Strand

Nice weather meant little wind, but in the second half we got conditions that made me happy to be aboard a sound ship with a wonderful, caring crew in Mark, Neil and David. We had a couple of days when the rain battered the tents all night. On Mull several roads were closed by landsides.

What sounded like a fleet of heavy lorries revving up turned out to be the thundering of a nearby waterfall. Stranger than this was the sound of singing during the night, a magical watery choir of grey seals.

On Ulva, looking across to Gometra
We left Ulva just after this photograph was taken and a couple of hours later were doing eight knots past Staffa in a big rolling swell, wonderful sailing in a boat strong enough to take it.

Looking West to Little Colonsay, gale setting in

Of course the week was about the landscape and sailing, but far more important was the human element. Our group of very disparate people quickly found all sorts of common ground and bonded  into a happy band of semi-competent sail hoisters, rope coilers and even helmsfolk.

The other human dimension was the Isle of Ulva itself. We camped near one of the numerous cleared villages and also made some excursions along the island's remarkable little tracks.

In 1835, when Francis William Clark, a lawyer from Morayshire practising in Stirling bought the island there were about 600 residents in sixteen villages, mainly crofters, but also including boatbuilders, shoemakers and numerous other trades. Many worked in harvesting kelp, which was sheered along the shores, dried in the sun and then carefully cooked to produce alginates that went on to numerous industries elsewhere.

On right a boat noust, on left what's probably the remains of a fish trap

Bracken shows that this land was once in cultivation

From about 1841 cheap imports from the South Atlantic put an end to the kelp industry and Clark responded by progressively clearing "his" land of the tenants who had been there for centuries. Even among the landlord class of his day Clark stood out for his exceptional brutality, personally throwing people out of their homes, burning the roofs off and destroying furniture and effects. Part of the island became known as Starvation Terrace,

"...Where the old and feeble folk cleared from their crofts were placed by Clark, to exist as best they could on shellfish & seaweed till they died."

By 1889 he had reduced the population to 53, by which time he had bought Gometra and Little Colonsay and cleared them as well.

In contrast to elsewhere in Scotland, where ruins of the cleared houses have often been cannibalised for use in dry stane work, the walls of the little houses often still stand, also remains of nousts and fish traps around the shores. The tracks are in remarkable condition, many sections surfaced with smooth stones as a reminder that most ordinary people wore no shoes; the whole an infrastructure representing millions of hours of hard toil by countless generations.I felt a profound sense of grief and anger, tempered by the knowledge that the island has been secured  and hopefully such suffering will never again be inflicted on those who live there.

Photo credits Neil Harvey at Wild Journeys by kind permission

To learn more visit Wild Journeys

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water