the cutty sark’s amazing relaunch!

Hurrah!!! After years of waiting, I got to see the Cutty Sark relaunched! I used to work aboard as Ship’s Illustrator, and I’ve spent a lot of time drawing that ship and her cargo. So when I got an invite to a special sneak preview, I grabbed Stuart and we were there like a shot! Look, isn’t she a purdy ship?

As we walked along the river toward her, we could already see the masts stuck up much higher over the buildings than they used to. And when we arrived, work was still very much in progress for the Queen’s official launch day.

And it’s amazing! The ship was rusting, rotting and corroding to pieces, and it’s all spruced up…

…You can even walk UNDERNEATH the hull! It’s kind of magical, having it floating up there above you. Or like, you’re buried with it, in a Viking grave or something. Except that there’s so much LIGHT. Except when you walk into the ship, where there’s the familiar, lovely, womb-like darkness I remember from before:

Oo, look! This is where they used to stack the valuable tea cargo, and they’ve reworked it so you can see some of the different patterns they used to put on the crates. Nice touch!

Now I just read a damning Telegraph article, complaining about the new glass annex, comparing it to a greenhouse and saying that the restoration work was unnecessary. Well, I illustrated an educational booklet about the damage the ship was undergoing, and took lots of reference photos, and guys, that ship was not in a good state. And the dry dock it sat in wasn’t dry, it was dark and muddy and full of starling droppings. Here’s how it used to sit (a Christmas card I drew for them in 2004). It really was open to all extremes of weather.

A lot of people don’t like history messed with, they want everything to stay just like it always has been. But this is a ship, real ships are always being overhauled. If you’ve ever owned a boat, you will know how much work constantly has to go into maintaining her, and you’ll know the horrors that happen to the boat if you just leave her to her own devices. Here’s a picture I drew in the workshop, a bit further down the river, of one of the Cutty Sark guys restoring one of the ship’s old planks:

When you visit, you can see a little video about how they raised the ship from the dry dock, where its structure was sagging. I like how the description is also written in Chinese; it gives a whiff of the tea trade theme, but also could be quite useful as I suspect there will be lots of Chinese people visiting.

Now, I must confess to having a slightly biased opinion about the Cutty Sark, and I WAS prepared to like the rennovations. Here’s the story: I was an illustrator, working at home for a far-off American publisher, not at all stuck into my local community, and quite depressed. But I always loved cycling over to Greenwich and having coffee there on my lunch break. One day, I was having my coffee in Cutty Sark Gardens, overlooking the ship, and noticed a new bit of paper stuck to their noticeboard. They were advertising a new job… for a rigger! Suddenly, I could see it, a whole new career spread out in front of me. I would get super-fit clambering way up there among the masts and become an expert rigger, so much so that I could get passage on any masted ship and go on marvellous sailing expeditions.

(Design I did for a gift shop mug. Click here to see the mug itself… I only have two left, and I don’t know if the shop will still be selling them.)

I met a friend of my web designer, a guy named Dave Floyd, who’d studied astronomy at university, and he’d worked as a ship’s astronomer for a BBC recreated voyage of Cook’s Endeavour from the Great Barrier Reef to Indonesia. The ship had an illustrator aboard, who took on the role of ship’s botanist, and drew samples of flora and fauna they found along the way. HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE, I thought. Here’s a picture I commissioned of just such an adventure from illustrator Douglas Frey:

When I interviewed for the post, I tried to look as strong and tough as possible, to fit in with all the big, brawny blokes they had working with them, and I think the guy interviewed me, Ian Bell, was slightly amused by it. Ian: So, what are your relevant skills, exactly? Me: Well, I’m very good with my hands!… Um, and my friend Eddie said he would teach me how to weld right away if I get the job…! I didn’t get the job, but I sent a nice illustrated thank-you card for the interview, just in case that helped. And the Cutty Sark crew liked my card so much that they called me back and asked me if I’d like to be Ship’s Illustrator instead. Which would mean I could go into the ship after hours, and clamber about and wear cool boots and a hard hat, even if they wouldn’t let me scale the masts. Here was my uniform:

I guess what I’m basically saying is that I fell in love with the ship, and it gave me a renewed sense of hope based on the wonder of living in London, among so much history and places to explore. If you ask me details about the ship’s history, I’ll hem and haw… I love finding out things, but I forget almost everything; I mostly just remember the stories about them, not dates and things. But there was something about coming aboard the Cutty Sark, and getting that strong whiff of tea, then climbing between the decks that was pure magic. My favourite part was the hold full of the world’s largest collection of ship figureheads. I loved the way they were displayed, down in the dark, so you’d walk the length of the ship and look at them one by one. The Cutty Sark’s figurehead, Nanny, has the most hideous face, but I had favourites, who felt a bit like friends.

The figureheads are displayed very differently now; when you walk under the ship, you see a colourful crowd ahead of you, at the end of the hall, and it draws you toward them. When you approach, you see them all arrayed like the saints in Dante’s big rosebowl of Paradise.

I’m nostalgic about the former mysterious dimness, but I don’t mind the change because there are some real advantages to the new arrangement. One is that the light is much better so I can see them clearly, and the another is that I can see them from different angles, including a rear view! That’s a definite improvement:

I think there might even be a few more small figureheads displayed, or perhaps I just didn’t notice them before in the gloom. General Gordon is one of my very favourites, I love the way he always looks a bit put out, but unable to change his situation because he only has screws for arms. Stuart took this photo of me chucking him affectionately under the chin. Aww… Hello, Gordon!

Here’s a picture I drew for one of the Cutty Sark Christmas cards, after the fire, when the figureheads were all packed away in storage. My style has changed a bit, but I still like the thought of the figureheads partying it up on Christmas Eve. Here’s Nanny with Gordon and Lalla Rook. I thought I’d be nice and give Gordon a hand, just for the occasion, so he could flick foam pellets.

And poor Gordon, his new situation made me laugh. Now, I have huge respect for the real Elizabeth Fry and all she did for reforming prisons. But this version of her, looking very formidable, buttoned up and clutching her Bible… I love Gordon’s expression, like Why did you have to put me next to HER?!’ Ha ha.

Gosh, I really don’t draw like this anymore, but here were some drawings I made, ages ago, so kids could turn them into masks. I think they were (clockwise from top left) Lancelot, Lalla Rook, Diana Springcoil, Hiawatha, Thermopylae and Florence Nightingale. Or something like that.

They’ll be great for drawing, I can imagine loads of art students and school groups in there with their sketchpads. I also love the shapes in the glass and the supporting struts on the ship, how it gives so many interesting compositional lines to draw, which change completely if you move just a few feet. Here’s a salty old crew member giving a talk on deck to some visiting kids:

I’ll attach a few more photos, but just to say, yes, there are some things I miss. I miss the beautiful pattern that corrosion had made on the old metal hull. I miss the smell of tea (bring that back, Cutty Sark!), I miss being able to see the ship all at once, and I miss the cheaper £4 admission price; coughing up £12 on a regular basis isn’t easy, especially just if I want to nip in to make a sketch, or down to the lovely cafe for a quick coffee. (I had a very tasty fig and goat’s cheese salad for lunch at the cafe, right under the hull.)

But the good points by far outweigh my sentimental bits of nostalgia: the ship is INTACT (hurrah!). I love walking down around it, I love the light, and the sparkling, sculptural expanse of the new hull covering. I love being able to see the figureheads so well. I love that the dry dock is a useable space now, not just a murky hole, and I can see it will be a brilliant place for events, even in rainy weather. I love that the whole ship is now open to the public, there’s not a big part of it blocked off for office space. And, well, I just love the ship. I’m glad it’s there, and I’ll try not to take it personally if people criticise the work, but well, it feels a bit like family, so forgive me if I get a bit snappy in its defense.

And then we finish with cake. Congratulations, Cutty Sark! You’re looking lovely.

Edit: The Cutty Sark opens to the general public on Thursday, 26 April.

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