Modern art takes to the waves
In 1933 Cunard commissioned paintings from Edward Wadsworth and other leading British artists for its new flagship liner, the "Queen Mary". But, as Abbie N. Sprague explains, artistic expression had to bend to commercial taste.
Abbie N. Sprague, Wednesday, 23rd April 2008
Spencer was treated slightly better; his submissions were spared last-minute rejection and declined in the preliminary stages. Morris wrote to him that ‘The Committee feels that the requirements for the decoration of this particular space [main dining room] indicate something more conventional in character than the design which you have in mind.’46 Spencer had proposed a 20ft mural showing the Clydeside workers, entitled Riveting. As he later explained, ‘I felt that out of the midst of this wealth and splendour should rise something so remote from the seas as to seem like a ghost of the past, namely the men building the ship.’47 Social commentary was not what Cunard had in mind. Philip Connard’s bucolic Merrie England and A. Duncan Carse’s Birds of the Old World and Birds of the New World, with their muted palette and decorative scenes of nature, were deemed more appropriate.48
Wadsworth was rightly concerned about the lasting condition of his paintings in the smoking lounge of an ocean liner, exposed to damp and the salty sea air. Wadsworth sought Armfield’s advice on how to best preserve the paintings.49 He fretted: ‘Glass is not allowed and yet they must be protected.’50 Moreover, descriptions of the liner proudly describe the large coal-burning fireplace in the first-class smoking lounge, the only one of its kind on board.51 This was hardly the ideal setting for a work of art.52 Tobacco smoke was another concern. However, Morris believed that the smoky atmosphere could have positive affects. While reviewing Wadsworth’s preliminary sketches, Morris worried about the bright colours of the paintings and the draperies designed to accompany them, but reflected that ‘both paintings and hangings will soon be quieted in tone by tobacco smoke, and I think go well in this fine room’.53
Wadsworth, however, was determined to preserve his paintings and an experiment he undertook in the spring of 1935 demonstrates the considerable labours he took to find a solution. He painted a gesso panel in egg tempera and covered the back and sides with red lead and the front with cellulose and then placed it on the roof of a London factory exposed to the sun, rain, frost and the sulphur of the city’s air for five months. It was then put on a yacht in the Baltic to see how it would hold up to ‘doses of sea air and spray’.54 The durability of tempera proved its worth: according to Wadsworth, the colours were ‘perfectly fresh’. However, the whites, the exposed gesso, darkened considerably. Wadsworth wrote to Armfield, ‘The only thing to do is to cover the paintings, when finished, with very diluted egg yolk and then trust to luck. Then after a year or so varnish them. As you say tempera is not suitable for rough usage but if only the carpenters, fitters etc can keep their hands off it – what a quality! On a big scale the luminosity is grand and the colour altogether delicious!’55
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