On Thursday the 2nd of April the commuter ferry Snowdrop made her debut voyage across the Mersey in full dazzle design. The vivid chequered pattern is the work of the eminent pop artist Sir Peter Blake and was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14-18 NOW: the First World War Centenary Art Commissions and Tate Liverpool. The ferry is the third in the series of contemporary dazzle ships to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Dazzle camouflage was designed not to blend into the landscape but to stand out with such ferocity that the opposition had no idea which direction the ships were going in or how far away they were.
Anna Ratcliffe talked to Rosie Cooper, head of programming at Liverpool Biennial, about the project from conception to launch.
Anna Ratcliffe: Let’s start at the beginning – in the summer of 2014 two other dazzle ships were designed by contemporary artists: one by Carlos Cruz-Diez, which is in Liverpool dock and another by Tobias Rehberger which resides on the Thames. How did the third dazzle ship project with Sir Peter Blake come about?
Rosie Cooper: So those two dazzle ships that you mentioned were also under the same umbrella of commissioning which was in partnership with Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW: the First World War Centenary Art Commissions. The idea for all three was really to commemorate and acknowledge the dignified role that artists played in the First World War. Dazzle camouflage was inspired and generated by Edward Wadsworth and Norman Wilkinson, of the Vorticist art movement, which used bold, graphic, shapes, colours and designs that created optical effects which were quite confusing and baffling to the eye, Norman Wilkinson, who was a famous marine painter, had the idea to roll that out onto ships between 1914-15. Unlike traditional forms of camouflage, what they do to be more useful in terms of ship camouflage was actually to make it harder or impossible to ascertain the target speed, direction and the type of ship it was, so it was really about confusing the eye, rather than disguising the ship. Also there’s this really long history of dazzle in Liverpool, quite a lot of the ships were dazzled in Cammell Laird’s docks – there’s an amazing Edward Wadsworth painting called Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool – so that was a really big inspiration for us and the entire project. And obviously Sir Peter Blake’s got this amazing connection with city, he did his national service here in the 1950’s, he’s got a great connection through, of course, the Beatles, so we felt that he was a really appropriate artist to invite to make such a big new public commission for the city.
AR: Sir Peter Blake has previously done large designs, for example for a double decker bus, but never quite to this scale. What was the process in turning Peter’s design into the actual Dazzle Ferry?
RC: Yeah, this is the largest artwork he’s ever made, which is of course incredible but then it’s also not surprising because it’s so huge, I mean how much bigger are you going to get! So it was amazing for him to be able to work on that scale. Peter worked with a designer who he has collaborated with a lot before: Dan Faine at Dark Matter Studio. They spent quite a lot of time with these flat graphic images of the boat, overlaying patterns and designs on to it, but to transform a flat design into a 3-dimensional vessel is a really major challenge. So that part of it was left a lot to the painters at Cammell Laird who’ve been painting ships since 1828 and Cammell Laird is where some ships were dazzled as well. It was left up to them to interpret that design in 3-dimensions and they did it using really traditional methods like holding a piece of string with a rock on the end in order to get a straight line. They did a lot of it by eye, there wasn’t some kind of magic scanning laser technique or anything like that and when you actually get up close you can kind of see that a lot of it is done by eye. It hasn’t got that kind of smoothness that for example the Tobias Rehbeger ship does, which is done in vinyl, but it has got that painterly quality about it which I think is really appealing, but no they did it the old school way.
AR: The Dazzle Ferry project is a public commission and piece of art. What are the key factors when creating public art and who do you design for when you’re commissioning for the public?
RC: That’s a good question, I think it really depends, I mean the sort of scale and scope of the public art that we have commissioned has been incredibly different from this, which has obviously got a strong historic context. There are very definite reasons we commissioned Sir Peter and that we decided to make something within the particular context of the World War One commemorations, but it’s a big sculptural object that’s very visible, it’s fun, it’s all these sorts of very appealing qualities, as well as history that people can get involved with. But there are other public projects that I would also consider being public art, like for example the Jeanne van Heeswijk bakery project. So we worked with Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk over a number of years on a socially engaged project that took place within the community of Anfield in north Liverpool. Through discussions with young people and the community there, they decided to open a bakery, Homebaked Community Land Trust, in order to address problems about issues around housing, nutrition, community meeting places and things like that. So I would also talk about that as a public art project, in a way it’s about what the context is, what’s necessary and what we can bring to the city that’s actually useful.
AR: The other two dazzle ferries are mourned; am I correct in saying the latest dazzle ship will be carrying on its commuter service? How often does the ferry take this route and is it possible to ride on the ferry?
RC: Yes, so it runs as a commuter ferry, the thing to do is to check the Mersey ferries website, it’s £2.50 to go on. It also does the River Explorer Cruise which takes 50 minutes, where it cruises up the Mersey. It will also do a number of canal cruises, going up the Manchester shipping canal, and what’s really nice about that is that we are working with the Imperial War Museum North in order to keep the museum open late for a few evenings because normally the ferry gets to Manchester just as the Imperial War Museum’s closing. Of course because there is such a strong connection, with the histories and the narrative we’re talking about within this commission, it would be great for people to extend that: they have an exhibition that has some images of dazzle ships and things like that in it so it is a chance to go and find out more.
AR: What happened on the day of the launch?
RC: Maybe to backtrack a little bit one of the excellent things was that Merseytravel decided like us that it would be best if as few people as possible got to see the ferry before the first commuter service. So they swapped the ferries over at night, they don’t usually bring the new, freshly painted ferry in at night since they usually do it in the morning but they wanted it to be a big surprise so they moved the ferry out at about 10pm and parked it up at the ferry terminal. Then at 7am that morning there was the first commuter service so you had all these people coming down expecting to go aboard a ferry that had its normal black, white and red livery and it was this bonkers ferry. So that was really exciting and BBC breakfast covered it for about two hours and the press were there. So it kind of did its normal commuter service for awhile and then we had a public moment where we went on a slightly longer journey all together as the public celebration at about 11am. Lots of the people who painted the ferry came down with their families which was terrific, because it was really important that they were part of the whole event and then we had a lunch and everyone went home.
AR: What have been the reactions of people to the ferry? Have you heard any of the comments from the public?
RC: Yeah, it’s been generally incredibly well received, I think people love how playful it is and how Peter has responded to this historic technique with his own interpretation and I think a lot of people understand and respect Peter’s relationship to the city, which is great. It’s been overwhelmingly positive; somebody said that they couldn’t understand it because it’s supposed to be camouflaged but you can see it a mile off! But they seemed to like it anyway. The response has been fantastic 10,500 visitors over the first weekend so yeah, it’s been really, really great.
AR: Thank you.
Sir Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2015. Photo: Mark McNulty
Anna Ratcliffe is a writer based in Leeds and Liverpool.