Professor Bruce Peter, The Glasgow School of Art
RSE Small Research Grant Awardee
Between the 1860s and the 1960s, the Clyde shipbuilding industry constructed some of the biggest, most technologically advanced and glamorously appointed vessels. During this period, legendary liners such as the Lusitania, the Empress of Britain, and the Queen Mary – and other types of ship with fine interiors, such as the Royal Yacht HMY Britannia, were built and outfitted on the river and Glasgow became internationally renowned for the artistry involved.
While much has been written on the business and social histories of Clyde shipbuilding and on architecture and the decorative arts ashore in Glasgow, little has been published on the creation of the Clyde-built ships’ interiors; their commissioning, design, making, and installation. Supported by an RSE Small Research Grant, this topic has been the focus of research carried out by Bruce Peter, Professor of Design History at The Glasgow School of Art.
Professor Peter utilised his RSE award to access archival materials, to visit surviving interiors from Clyde-built ships of the past, and to publish his latest book: ‘Lusitania to QE2: The Great Clyde-Built Ships and the Creation of their Interiors.’ Newly released, his richly illustrated publication – featuring over 300 images – is aimed at both scholarly and general readerships and, for the first time, throws fresh light on a remarkable craft industry that grew alongside shipbuilding to make the acclaimed interiors and their furnishings.
Professor Peter commented,
As the building of deep-sea passenger liners on the Clyde ceased in the 1960s, the subject is now on the fringe of living memory, and much documentation has long ago been disposed of. Most complete is the documentation of the largest and most famous Cunard trans-Atlantic liners held in the Universities of Glasgow and Liverpool archives. The RSE award enabled me to undertake extensive archival research into this material, which is very detailed and, from a design historical perspective, a treasure-trove of hitherto unexplored correspondence concerning exactly how decisions were made about the decoration and outfitting of very famous and prestigious Clyde-built ships, such as the Aquitania, the Queen Elizabeth, the Caronia and the Queen Elizabeth 2.
Additionally, visits to Clyde-built vessels still in existence have been an essential element of my research. The RSE funding allowed me to visit surviving Clyde-built ship interiors such as the Orontes of 1902, which is now installed in a hotel in Aberdour; the Empress of Britain of 1906, which can be viewed in a Norwegian hotel; and the Queen Mary, which now resides in Long Beach, California. During these trips, I examined the detailing of the interiors and their construction, the level of finish and differences in the approaches between various suppliers. This continues as an ongoing process.”
As a result of his work, Professor Peter has been invited to give a number of lectures on his research findings at the Society of Nautical History/University of Glasgow Business History Scottish Maritime History conference, the Royal Institute of Naval Architects and for the general public at Fairfield Heritage in Govan.
An additional and unexpected outcome of his research was an invitation to give a talk on the historical development of shipboard fire-prevention legislation and its consequences for approaches to ship interior design. In late 2022, Professor Peter was invited to lecture on the subject at the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA) in Copenhagen and subsequently was asked to provide contextual insights for an official enquiry into a historic shipboard fire in Denmark.
Looking to the future, Professor Peter said,
The subject of the design of Clyde-built ship interiors is potentially vast, and in this first overview, I have focused on the outfitting of the ships. There remains considerable scope for further research, for example, into each of the major suppliers who were located the length and breadth of Britain. At present, I am engaged in writing a newly commissioned book by Historic Environment Scotland on Art Deco architecture, design, and craft in Scotland between the two world wars, for which my research on ship interiors will be highly relevant.”