Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Modelling Admiral Popov's Battleship

Last November the Riverside Museum launched their publication celebrating their wonderful model collection. It’s a beautiful work of art and a great tribute to the museum staff such as Emily Malcolm, who spent years on it. We heard Professor John Hume speak of his childhood visits to the ship models in the old Kelvingrove Art Gallery. I was another of those Glasgow children taken there at weekends in the days when much of the ground floor was devoted to the city’s enormous collection of ship models, a tradition that continues nowadays in a rather restricted form at the Riverside.
Among the sleek racing yachts and the ocean liners some real oddities stood out, none more than the almost circular Russian Imperial yacht Livadia, her mystique enhanced by her constantly being referred to as Admiral Popov’s battleship. That isn’t exactly true. As we have seen, Vice-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov was attracted to the idea of circular battleships that John Elder had floated and in September 1879 appointed John Elder & Co to construct the Livadia as a prototype. We can see that it was convenient to test the design as a yacht; a battleship that didn’t perform would be embarrassing.
By 1879 John Elder had died and his widow Isabella had taken over the yard with its workforce of a couple of thousand men. The city of Glasgow owns her portrait and we see one strong, dynamic industrialist. She had head-hunted William Pearce from the Royal Dockyards as chief architect. Popov gave them an unlimited budget, the price being on a “cost plus” basis with a massive bonus if the ship exceeded fifteen knots on her trials. On 27 September Livadia on her third attempt beat the fifteen knots target and won Pearce a bonus of 414,000 Rubles on top of the base price of about 2.7 million.
Thanks to the new book we know that the model at the Riverside was built to the order of William Pearce. For many decades it sat in a case in the boardroom at Fairfields. A second, perhaps more elaborate, model was built and sent by Pearce as a present to the Tsar. It sits today in St Petersburg.

Looking at these models one can see the major features that were important to the Victorians. The model would enable the Tsar’s dream to be shared with an audience who would otherwise have had little opportunity to see the ship in real life. The 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 one 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. 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.
So, what’s the connection to Livadia? In 1879 Leiper was having a gay time with his artist friends in Paris when the Tsar brought him back to Glasgow to create a Gothic interior in his new yacht. Being a bit mad about model ships, this was all the excuse I needed to get hold of a model.
I considered but quickly discarded asking the Riverside Museum for a loan of the Pearce model. There would be very obvious practical, insurance and security issues. A new model could show what could be done with modern technology.
I’m glad that we decided not to go with Virtual Reality. In theory we could have portrayed the spectacular interior, but it has to be done well and the cost would have been enormous. Doing it at a basic level, such as can be seen at the Museum in Irvine, does nothing for me. We also wanted something visual to draw people into the gallery, rather than something they would only access once already inside and perhaps have to queue to see.
Also, I simply like physical models. They are easy for the viewer to explore and can convey a sense of romance that technology doesn’t.
Of course this leads to adults and children alike wanting to examine not just visually but with the fingers, the sense of touch adding another perspective to understanding. As a result we lose some magic by protecting them behind glass. The Riverside Museum has solved this in a way that works at a superficial level, but has deficiencies. Livadia is immured at a high level, so you only see her from below, making it difficult to appreciate her remarkable design. We decided to put our model under a glass bubble.
To funding. We had put in for a grant towards the cost of the exhibition from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, but of course had been awarded a tiny fraction of what we asked for. At meetings of the steering group for the Festival of Architecture I had met the representative from the National Lottery. There was encouragement to go ahead and we needed a legacy destination. I spoke to Fairfield Heritage to find out if there might be a home for the model in the longer term and they was supportive, but had no funding to buy it.
At this point James Pierce heard about the project. He had just returned from Russia with a wife. I was still investigating sources of funding when I discovered not only that James was keen to go ahead, he’d already made a start, perhaps partly with encouragement from his new in-laws. We allocated part of our grant to reimburse the cost of the materials, but warned him that he was proceeding at his own risk.
Starting work ruled out any prospect of Lottery funding, but looking back it’s obvious that James had to make a start, to meet the exhibition date. Going through a tender process and waiting for an answer would have left no time for actually building the model.
In the event James built the model in his evenings, after a day spent building the spectacular model of the racing hydrofoil Britannia that today sits in the foyer of the British America’s Cup Challenge headquarters in Portsmouth.
We wanted to ensure accuracy and had a problem finding the original drawings. A set on deposit at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow had mysteriously disappeared, as had all the best of the photographs taken by Queen Victoria’s photographers when Livadia stopped in Southampton during her maiden voyage. There was huge disappointment when we untied the ribbons on the lovely leather bound album and found it almost empty. This problem was resolved when James found that a fellow in the States who sold model kits of various historic ships had somehow got copies of the originals and was willing to send him images of them.
Regarding the style of the new model we opted for simplicity with no colour and no attempt to replicate all the features of rigging etcetera. We also decided on a waterline model that could be displayed easily in the gallery window and internal lighting, given our location on a busy street with a lot of evening traffic.
Our exhibition was a great success in terms of numbers, with lots of people attracted purely because of the model in the window. Among the visitors were the organisers of the James Watt Dinner, a major annual event in the shipbuilder’s calendar, and Richard Pierce and I were invited to show it there. Sadly none of the industrialists present offered to buy it.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water