Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Closer Look at the Titanic

Acrylic on gessoed hardboard, 9 x 12''
Painting #210, 2012

I had never considered doing a painting of the Titanic until this past late March. On the same day, I received a copy of National Geographic and Canada Post's Details catalogue in our mailbox, both had the Titanic on their covers. Canada Post was issuing a stamp not necessarily to commemorate the centennial of the it's sinking, but to remember the humane aspect surrounding the tragedy. Of lives saved and lost and to ''How the people of Halifax, NS rose to meet the grim duty placed on them.'' On the recovery of more than 150 of the victims, many of the unnamed, were laid to rest in three of the city's cemeteries as Halifax became the focus of the world's press. This tragic sinking of the Titanic after colliding with an iceberg on April 15, 1912, has become an event in time that has touched so many lives and continues to intrigue and fascinate millions with the passing of time. Click HERE to view related story.

While browsing on eBay, I quickly realized that material was limited. So, I took the approach of exploring the postal service as the ship's full name was RMS Titanic which stood for Royal Mail Steam Ship Titanic. The liner had a extensive compartment for carrying mail overseas. During the crossing, 1700 bags of letters plus parcels had to be sorted out by five clerks which comprised of three American and two British citizens. A total of 6 million mail items were lost at sea, none were ever recovered. Click HERE for a view inside of the Mail Room.

On eBay, I found a green replica of the Titanic's launch ticket that took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland on May 31, 1911. It is reported that 100,000 people attended the launch at sea. For the next year, the ship was docked and a massive crew completed the interior.  I also wanted something authentic from the period, and found it in the form of an original 1912 postcard that had an Art Nouveau flair with lotus flowers. The interior décor of the luxury liner was very much influenced by this style which was in vogue during this period. The postcard had a two cents stamp of George Washington, two post marks, San Francisco and Brussels, and a cancellation ink stamp of the ''World's Pan-Pacific Exhibition 1915''.

For the painting I would manipulate some details to link it in the narrative. Initially I had conjured up the idea that a passenger would have sent a post card to America a month prior to announce that they were boarding the steam ship on it's maiden voyage and were excited at the prospect of seeing each other upon their arrival in New York City.

National Geographic Society, Washington, DC

Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington, DC

In the meanwhile, our long weekend getaway spent in Washington, D.C. during Easter provided me with much more insight. The National Geographic Society was hosting the exhibit, Titanic: 100 Year Obsession, while the Smithsonian National Postal Museum had just opened a new exhibit entitled ''Fire & Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic'',where I picked up the idyllic post card of the ship combining vintage photography and modern graphics.

Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Washington, DC.

I did the photo study in June and started the preparatory drawing in late July. Upon drawing the Launch ticket, I noticed that the lettering had been meticulously done by hand. So, I did an Internet search to see if another variation of the ticket existed and it is at this time when all of the elements came together to create the full narrative. On the 100th Anniversary date of the sinking, April 15, Bonhams Auction House in New York held an auction of Titanic artefacts which included a similar ticket in white, numbered 193, that still had it's perforated admission stub. It fetched a whopping $56,250 USD. A postcard sent on April 6, 1912 by Titanic wireless telegrapher Jack Phillips to his sister Elsie went to a lucky bidder for $20,000 USD. It was inscribed as follows:

 ''Thank you very much for your letter. 
Having glorious weather, went to Cowes yesterday. 
Will write later before we sail.
 Love All Jack''

Using this information and another image of a postcard that was sent to his sister Ethel the previous year, I followed up with an imaginary last postcard for the painting that would have been sent to Elsie as promised by Jack, postmarked on April 11 in Southampton, the day after the departure, which would also have been Jack's 25th birthday.

Jack Phillips was a pivotal figure prior to Titanic hitting the iceberg and the aftermath of rescuing the passengers. He was the senior wireless operator of the Marconi equipment aboard the Titanic. Joined by Harold Bride, they both worked separately alternating 6-hour shifts.  Among their tasks of communicating with other ships sailing the Atlantic, they were also assigned to send telegrams from passengers to the mainland. On the evening of 14 April, in the wireless room on the boat deck, it is suggested that as Titanic had come within range of Cape Race coast station situated in Newfoundland. Jack Phillips was attempting to clear a huge backlog of telegrams for the United States that had accumulated when the wireless had broken down the day before. Vital warning from ships Mesaba and SS California of icebergs ahead were overlooked by the overworked Phillips as the messages received from both had been sent without the MSG prefix, indicating a personal message for Titanic's Captain - which was required by regulations then in force to be personally acknowledge. This is a deleted scene from James Cameron's Titanic for which Phillips would have said to Cyril Evans of the SS Californian ''Keep out, shut up, you're jamming my signal. I'm working Cape Race''

photo taken at Titanic Belfast, May 28, 2018

After hitting the iceberg, Phillips and Bride vigilantly worked at their stations sending distress signals of their location up until water started pouring in the Marconi room and power was lost. The message "CQD" means a general call to all vessels, which indicates the vessel sending is in distress and requires immediate assistance. At the time of the "Titanic" sinking, the Marconi company's "CQD" was still in common use, although it had been officially replaced by the well known "SOS". One hour forty minutes after the sinking, RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene in response to Titanic's earlier distress calls. 710 people survived the disaster and were conveyed by Carpathia to New York, while 1,514 people lost their lives. Phillips and Bride were washed off the ship as the boat deck flooded, but managed to scramble onto the upturned lifeboat Collapsible 'B'.  Bride was rescued by the Carpathia the following morning. Despite being injured, he helped the Carpathia's wireless operator transmit survivor lists and personal messages from the ship. Sadly, Jack Phillips died of hypothermia on or near the same lifeboat, his body was never recovered.

Much can be said about the Titanic and it's place in history and in popular culture. Much of the resurgence can be attributed to James CameronThe film maker has led three expeditions to the bottom of the Atlantic to the site of the sunken vessel. He developed and piloted a new class of nimble, fibre-spooling robots that brought back never before seen images of the ship's interior and was able to shoot actual footage of the ship underwater, which he inserted into the final film.The movie went on the become a phenomenal box office blockbuster and received much deserved critical praise.

photos taken at Titanic Belfast, May 28, 2018

The Canadian stamp in the painting was designed by illustrators Mark Little. I did choose to alter the top section of the chimneys since all source photography I found informed me otherwise. The reference to Cape Race on the stamp was also the instigating factor that lead me to explore the Jack Phillips trail. 

I have affixed both stamps used in the painting along with a postcard of the Titanic on the back panel of the frame. The other Stamp is an English half-penny that features King George V with a killer moustache.   

Noteworthy- On July 12, 1986, American Robert Ballard leads an expedition aboard Atlantis II and dives to the wreck of the Titanic in the submersible Alvin (no, we are not related!).

Update - Oct, 2012 - On Thanksgiving weekend, we visited Halifax and took the opportunity to stroll in the Fairview Cemetery where many of the Titanic's victims where laid to rest. Since the release of the James Cameron's film, it has become somewhat a tourist attraction. One tomb in particular does attract of fair amount of attention, that of J. Dawson. It was revealed that the grave site is attributed Joseph Dawson, an Irishman who worked in Titanic's boiler room as a coal trimmer and not the film's fictional lead character Jack Dawson.

Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, NS
My wife Suzanne with J.Dawson tombstone 

Update - On May 28, 2018, I had the privilege to visit the TITANIC BELFAST in Northern Ireland. A tourist attraction with galleries and monument that opened in 2012 on the location of the former shipyard where the Titanic was built. It became a full-circle moment to just be there and visit the exhibits.  

This painting was exhibited in: 

Saint John Arts Centre
City of Saint John Gallery
20 Hazen Avenue
Saint John, NB CANADA
(506) 633-4870

September 7 - October 27, 2012