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.


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water