One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head. It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago.
I love this photo. For me, it’s as evocative of the city I arrived in as a student in the sixties as Gerry Marsden’s lyric:
Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way
So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay
I always see the city back then in monochrome, like this image. The ferry in the photo would be either the Woodchurch or her sister ship, the Mountwood, both of which have plied the river constantly since coming into service in 1959 (it was the Mountwood that featured in the film Ferry Cross The Mersey, inspired by the Gerry & The Pacemakers song, and in the opening titles of The Liver Birds.
The Woodchurch had a complete refit in 2003, returning to service as the Snowdrop (all the Mersey Ferries now have flower names; the Mountwood is now the Royal Iris). I like to think it’s the Woodchurch in our photo, since it has now been transformed into a dazzling, colourful mobile artwork which, I’m certain, none of us back in the sixties when Gerry sang about it, or in the eighties when my photo was taken could ever have imagined. Imagine. This:
The hallucinatory paint job is the work of Sir Peter Blake, who was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in partnership with Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW, the World War 1 Centenary cultural commemoration body. Because, behind the dazzling, psychedelic colours, this work is actually a First World War memorial.
The Biennial website explains the ocular principles behind 1WW dazzle ships and their links to contemporary art:
Dazzle painting was a system for camouflaging ships that was introduced in early 1917, at a time when German submarines were threatening to cut off Britain’s trade and supplies. The idea was not to ‘hide’ the ships, but to paint them in such a way that their appearance was optically distorted, so that it was difficult for a submarine to calculate the course the ship was travelling on, and so know from what angle to attack. The dazzle was achieved by painting the ship in contrasting stripes and curves that broke up its shape. Characterised by garish colours and a sharp patchwork design of interlocking shapes, the spectacular ‘dazzle’ style was heavily indebted to Cubism.
Dazzle painting was invented by a marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, a future President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships, later made a series of paintings on the subject.Though the practice has largely (but not entirely) fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.
So, as well as being a moving artwork, those who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War from a display developed by curators from National Museums Liverpool and Tate Liverpool.
Peter Blake has had a long association with Liverpool over the years – most famously with the cover he designed for the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in 1967 – but his Scouse connections go further back. While doing his National Service in the RAF, he would sail from Liverpool to Belfast, and in 1961 his Self Portrait With Badges won the junior section of the John Moores Prizes. He gave the £250 prize money to his dad.
Blake’s self-portrait shows his equal respect for historical tradition (he based the image on Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait The Blue Boy) and modern popular culture (Blake replaces blue silk with denim, and embeds references to his love for American youth culture – his baseball boots and badges, and the Elvis magazine).
Eight years ago, Tate Liverpool hosted Peter Blake: A Retrospective, the largest since an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983, where I was able to see such works as the Self-Portrait and the delightful The Meeting’ or `Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney, painted after in 1983 a trip to California where he stayed with David Hockney, an ironic re-working of Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting or ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’.
Peter Blake’s work has always reflected his fascination with all aspects of popular culture, and the beauty to be found in everyday objects and surroundings. Many of his works feature found printed materials such as photographs, comic strips or advertising texts, combined with bold geometric patterns and the use of primary colours.
Blake’s works capture childhood images from the fifties and the optimistic youth culture of the sixties. His work is permeated with a nostalgia for childhood innocence.
Everybody Razzle Dazzle: short Tate film
Those who take the ferry are entertained by the number that provided the inspiration for Peter Blake’s title – ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley:
A few years ago, we spent a a whole, sun-kissed day on the ferry Snowdrop – taking the Mersey Ferries cruise along the Manchester Ship Canal.
Apart from being dazzled by Peter Blake’s ferry, I continue to be besotted with the magnificent beauty of Liverpool’s waterfront – especially as seen on a day of clear blue skies, when the temperature on the Mersey was the same as at Nice on the Mediterranean.
- Carlos Cruz-Diez: Dazzle Ship: the first of Liverpool’s dazzle ships, Edmund Gardner, situated in a dry dock next to the Albert Dock
- Peter Blake: Dazzle Ferry: Liverpool Biennial web page
- Dazzling on the Mersey: Peter Blake’s ferry transformation (BBC)
- How did an artist help Britain fight the war at sea? (BBC)
- Peter Blake: A retrospective: Tate Liverpool, 2007
- Sir Peter Blake’s Liverpool Portfolio (Art in Liverpool.com)
- Sgt Pepper remastered: this blog
- Cruising the canal: Pier Head to Salford Quays: this blog