Uncovering the forgotten art of Glasgow's Clydeside shipyards

·5-min read
New book celebrates the heyday of Clyde-built design <i>(Image: Bruce Peter)</i>
New book celebrates the heyday of Clyde-built design (Image: Bruce Peter)

In the century spanning the 1860s to the 1960s, the shipyards that lined the River Clyde constructed some of the world’s greatest passenger ships.

Liners such as the Lusitania, Aquitania, Empress of Britain, The Queen Mary and The Queen Elizabeth were internationally famous due to their size, speed and luxurious interiors.

But the Clyde shipyards also built many other less prestigious passenger ships, ranging from colonial liners and passenger-cargo vessels to packet ships, coastal excursion steamers and ferries.

Now a new book is telling the story of the creation of these celebrated ships, while shining a light on the remarkable craft industry that grew alongside shipbuilding to make the acclaimed interiors and their furnishings.

READ MORE: Historian calls for national museum to honour Clyde glory

‘Lusitania to the QE2: The Great Clyde-built Ships and the Creation of their Interiors’ looks at the work of famous architects such as James Miller and decorators like Wylie & Lochhead, alongside styles from variations upon the Neo-classical to Art Deco, Moderne, Contemporary and Modernist, as well as eclectic thematic treatments.

The richly illustrated publication - featuring over 300 images - is based upon extensive original research by Bruce Peter, Professor of Design History at Glasgow School of Art.

Through the book, Prof Peter, who was an expert consultant on the hugely successful V&A exhibition ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’ exhibition, hopes people can immerse themselves in a fascinating span of interior design, craft and social history, whilst also revisiting Glasgow’s lost industries.

HeraldScotland: The interior of the SS Conte Biancamano
HeraldScotland: The interior of the SS Conte Biancamano

The interior of the SS Conte Biancamano (Image: Bruce Peter)

The author told The Herald: “I’m very pleased with how the book looks; it’s a big and detailed history of how the splendid interiors of Clyde-built passenger ships were  chosen, designed, made and installed, covering the period between the latter 19th century and the 1960s.

"This is an area of Glasgow’s manufacturing and craft history that has never been examined before and the work achieved was of a superbly high order and relates to what was done inside the grand buildings in the city centre, involving the same architects.

“Clyde shipbuilding has been written about from a variety of angles. There’s a lot of work on the social and business history and there’s a lot of work on the engineering history. A lot of the sides that are also important have been covered. But the interiors, which are the part of the ships that meant most to the general public and to the passengers, hasn’t. As a design historian working in Glasgow, I felt there was a big gap in understanding about the city’s past. We tend to think about Glasgow as a place of heavy engineering, which is quite correct, but it’s also important to consider that Glasgow was very important in the decorative arts.”

READ MORE: Work to begin on massive new Glasgow shipbuilding factory

The book details a significant aspect of Glasgow and the Clydeside’s design and making creativity, but it also shows how the building and outfitting of passenger ships was often a national effort.

Prof Peter said: “People will know about Charles Rennie Mackintosh. They will know a little bit about Alexander Greek Thomson and maybe James Salmon junior and William Leiper and some of the other architects but the amount of design work that was done was quite colossal. It involved supply chains stretching the length and breadth of Britain. Drawings might have been done in Glasgow architect firms’ offices, but then a lot of the furniture was supplied by companies by Waring & Gillow down in London, H.H Martyn in Cheltenham and there were various different suppliers all over the UK who specialised in making components that were used in buildings ashore and in ship interiors.

“There was really a great big system involved in creating all this material, and it was a system that was disrupted twice, first of all by the First World War but then by a much greater extent by the Second World War. The stories of the craft industries is one that was affected by political and economic war situations. And I guess as well there were big changes in taste.”

HeraldScotland: The Empress of Britain
HeraldScotland: The Empress of Britain

The Empress of Britain

Prof Peter also hopes readers will also get a sense of the civic pride felt by those involved in supplying the material that lined the interiors of the many famous ships that left the Clyde.

He added: “People who were involved in supplying the material for ships’ interiors lived quite humble, working-class lives. But if you worked in James Templeton’s carpet factory you would have seen carpets for these liners coming off the looms. I think a lot of people in the supplies industries; McGeogh making hinges; Shanks in Barrhead making toilet sanitaryware, all of the people working in these manufacturers would have been aware of where what they were making was going to go. The work was beautiful. What was made in Britain and Glasgow for ship interiors was handcrafted. Craftwork of the very, very highest order.

“What Glasgow once produced - the sheer skill, the quantity and variety and quality and ambition - was tremendous. They thought big. When thinking of something like the Lusitania, this was one of the biggest man-made objects in the 1900s, but it was a 'tiddler' compared with The Queen Mary. The Queen Mary was pretty much the biggest man-made object ever constructed when it left the Clyde in 1936. But they could do it. There was this notion that ‘we could do it, and we must do it, and the world was watching us’. I think they had a tremendous self belief.