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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.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:07 pm (UTC)
It's lovely that something you've been watching over for so long is coming to the end / [or start!] of another part of it's journey! ^^
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
Yay! I'm glad you think so, too! :D Exciting times.
Dave Morris
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
Heave ho!
I especially like your Christmas card. That's really lovely.

As for "the greenhouse" - well, to be fair to Andrew Gilligan, I don't think he was saying he was against all change, just that he doesn't care for the aesthetics of this particular case.

I'd better go and have a cuppa there and judge for myself!
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Heave ho!
Thanks! I think you're right, he just doesn't like this particular approach. (Fair enough, but he IS a bit harsh.) I guess I'm also addressing a general attitude toward preserving historical pieces that says things should never change, even if the change is good and preserves the item in question.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:40 pm (UTC)
I can't wait to see it!
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's well worth visiting! :D
Apr. 22nd, 2012 02:53 pm (UTC)
Forgive me, but I had to squeal a little when I saw your photos, and even more for the illustrations. I do hope they'll do your mugs again - maybe a nudge from you in case they've lost the original artwork might help?

I am so glad she's safe now - watching her rot away and then suffer the fire was heartbreaking. I used to love the terrible thrill of stading at the bow and having this great, great ship bearing down on you. Can't wait to see her again :D
Apr. 22nd, 2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, you must visit when you're in town! And I know what you mean about standing in front of the ship, it's quite breathtaking.

Ha, you leaving a comment about the mug is probably a better nudge than anything I could do! XD
Apr. 22nd, 2012 03:19 pm (UTC)
Looks like a fab restoration, will have to try and visit it sometime.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
Yes, do! Bring your sketchbook, I'm sure you'll like it!
Apr. 22nd, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Fantastic Sarah! We LOVE the Cutty Sark! We visited it when we were first married. I can't wait to take Jude! x
Apr. 22nd, 2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Brilliant
Yay! You can celebrate with cake in the cafe! :)
Apr. 22nd, 2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
Wow, I had no idea the Cutty Sark had a metal hull...

Are they going to put her back in the water at some point?
Apr. 22nd, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
The old metal hull was so beautiful, it had this amazing design that corrosion had worn into it, turned it from brass-coloured to a sort of streaky turquoise and orange. But it wasn't long for this world, and the new hull has its own shiny attraction. I'd be curious to know how many nails they hammered into it! It comes well studded.

No, the Cutty Sark will never go back into the water, it's not designed to float anymore, particularly with the doorways cut into its side, and electricity points in non-water-safe places. It's a great place to visit, though, and get the sense of the space and construction of these old ships.
Apr. 22nd, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
ship shape
Beauty of a post, my friend! Can't wait to visit. with love from bridge xx
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Re: ship shape
Thanks, Bridget! :) xx
Apr. 22nd, 2012 06:49 pm (UTC)
I just had to dash to my kitchen cupboard and check my treasured Cutty Sark mug - it's by YOU! It's one of my favourite mugs, they definitely should stock them again.

Anyway I loved this blog. We went yesterday to have a look around and really enjoyed it, even if our toddler did nearly send us up the rigging. I think they've done a great job and Greenwich town centre looks complete again.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's fabulous that you have one of the mugs!!! :D
Apr. 23rd, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
"Ship's illustrator" sounds like the greatest job description imaginable, and all those old illustrations are just hugely charming.
Love the figurehead assembly, too-- I can't say why, but it feels like a little bit of a reflection of the cheerfully pluralistic society that is London at its best. Super delightful! :)
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that! Yeah, I loved that title, too. :)
Apr. 23rd, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
lovely post!
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Helen! :)
Apr. 24th, 2012 09:06 am (UTC)
Great post! (And Andrew Gilligan does not speak for Greenwich, thank goodness.)
I loved this post. We went on Saturday as well, and I found myself getting really emotional and even a little bit teary, and I'm not even a crier! It was just great to see the Cutty Sark back in all its glory. It's one of the many things that makes Greenwich so special.

I disagreed with Andrew Gilligan, but he has a right to his opinion. I do think he has become a self-styled spokesman for Greenwich, though, which is doing my head in.

But the thing I loved most about this post was imagining your rigger job interview. That must have been interesting. But then that experience led to becoming the ship's illustrator-- how perfect is that? I"m sorry that we don't have one of your mugs.

Apr. 26th, 2012 07:56 am (UTC)
Re: Great post! (And Andrew Gilligan does not speak for Greenwich, thank goodness.)
Hi, Maureen! Aw, I got emotional, too, it was overwhelming to see all the care that had been taken to restore the ship we love. And that's interesting about Andrew Gilligan, he did point out some stuff in the article I wasn't aware of, but I thought it was too easy for him to type harsh criticism from the comfort of his desk while all these people had been working their tails off for years to restore the Cutty Sark. Even if he doesn't like it, they still deserve credit, I think. And I can imagine that it must be terribly difficult to budget a project like that, it's not like loads of people are doing it, and each ship will have different problems that need solving.
Apr. 24th, 2012 11:24 am (UTC)
You beat the Beeb to the news
Just listened to a report from the BBC via our local Genevan radio about the Cutty Sark and skipped round the kitchen singing "Sarah scooped you, Sarah scooped you".

I really enjoyed this post. I visited the Cutty Sark just before we left the country with my children and I can remember visiting the Cutty Sark in the 60s with my primary school on a trip up from rural Berkshire. It is a much more emotional event than visiting a museum. Thank you for sharing your photos and pictures and answering a question that has been troubling my son for AGES. Apparently he has always wondered who drew the pictures on souvenir mugs because he didn't think ALL the shop owners could draw that well.

Genevan Jill
Apr. 26th, 2012 07:58 am (UTC)
Re: You beat the Beeb to the news
Oh my goodness, that's so funny that you guys knew about the mug! Ha ha, fabulous. Just found a clip with the Queen visiting the ship on the BBC News site:

Sue Eves
Apr. 24th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
great news and splendid ship illustrations. I just logged on to tell you that I watched the news and the Cutty Sark is back - haha but you ARE the news! I sent someone that Christmas card - wish I'd kept it now. Psst - you shoulda snuck a figurehead of yourself in there :P
Apr. 26th, 2012 07:59 am (UTC)
Hee hee, thanks, Sue! I think I'll have a figurehead made instead of a gravestone, it would be great to think I was sailing around world years after I pop my clogs. And it would just be plain funny to see a masted ship with pointy specs. :D
May. 1st, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
Cutty Sark blog reviewed
Sarah, I just completed reading your blog with comments on the opening of the Cutty Sark. It was super that your were invited the the preview, and fitting as "Cutty Sark Illustrator" that you, through your written, photographed and illustrated review, invited us to come along. I appreciated one reader including a BBC link to the Grand Opening. I was thrilled to see the "ship mates" in the Cutty Sark rigging waving as the Queen and party approached, and the crowed, complete with children, cheering. I appreciated the suspense and emotion shown through the commentary in the clip showing the "Lifting the Cutty Sark into Place".
I am with others in hoping that your Cutty Sark mug will be reissued. I would also hope that cards would be available using the same illustration able to fit in a business envelope, or 11 1/4 x 4 inch (28.5 x 10 mm).The mug wrap-around would make a delightful card, ready to be framed if wished.
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Sarah McIntyre

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