Rule the waves

When set adrift in splendid isolation, boat cabins are intensely personal spaces. They are often built to specification, their intimate domesticity furnished to a standard unmatched within the humdrum compromises of everyday life at home.

Or palace, indeed, as some of the most private royal interiors are in boats. King Thibaw, the shy, last King of Burma (who reigned 1878-85) had a fabulous gilded state barge, its cabin capped by a 30ft-high pyathat (staged roof) hinting at the regal sacredness within. It was adopted by the conquering British army as a more profane “refreshment room, a very necessary adjunct to any athletic sports in the tropics”. However they are used, the canopies of state barges, like four-poster beds sheltering cushions, fine textiles and gilded woodwork, are similar the world over, from Turkey to China to Teddington.

On June 3, Queen Elizabeth II will drift down the Thames in her Diamond Jubilee pageant of a thousand boats. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, explains it as a “glorious homage to the past”. This homage will focus on a newly-made antique: Gloriana, an 88ft row-barge, its design laden with historical allusions and comparisons. And there’s even baggage in its name.

Gloriana was the moniker of Elizabeth I. She was regarded as the English Deborah – Biblical warrior and judge – until Edmund Spenser recast her as Gloriana in The Faerie Queene in 1590, the “greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie-lond”. This royal rebranding came two years after her troops are supposed to have cried “Gloriana! Gloriana! Gloriana!” at Tilbury docks in 1588 at the Spanish Armada’s defeat, in response to a famous speech – albeit one that nobody is certain she gave.

Come to think of it, a Deborah is now more usually a “Debbie”, so perhaps it’s just as well for our monarch that “Gloriana” was readopted at the dawn of the second Elizabethan age. It was the title of Benjamin Britten’s opera to celebrate the Queen’s 1953 coronation, in which Elizabeth I was characterised as a ruler steered by vanity: a questionable tribute by association. Lord Harewood hailed the premier of June 8 1953 as “one of the great disasters of operatic history”. Her majesty must have been disappointed: she would have expected to receive great Britten when crowned.

Although Elizabeth II has the family and consort that her predecessor so conspicuously lacked, her association with Gloriana has had some nautical mileage. In 1967 she knighted the circumnavigator Francis Chichester at Greenwich with the sword Elizabeth I had used in 1580 to knight Sir Francis Drake on board the Golden Hind.

So in myth, at least, Gloriana has some marine overtones, and it has been lent to many vessels, such as a Newcastle ship of 1843 that transported Irish and English emigrants to Australia, and a dry bulk carrier of 52,068 tons, built in 2000 and last recorded off Togo. And then there’s this latest Gloriana, a name to resound across and beyond the Thames, emblazoned on a barge fit for the Queen of England, if not Fairy Land.

Except it won’t carry the Queen in its cabin.

Contrary to much press speculation, it was never supposed to, explains its builder at Richmond, Mark Edwards. He got the job for his rare pedigree in creating fine barges: 20 years ago he built a 45ft shallop (a light, open boat, from the French for “nutshell”) called the Lady Mayoress, and a decade past was responsible for another called The Jubilant, celebrating – no surprise here – the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. It is now used to train disabled rowers for events, ceremonies and regattas.

“It was always the intention to have this boat lead the procession, then leave a legacy,” following in the wake of the Jubilant’s public service.

The Queen will be following in the Spirit of Chartwell, a borrowed private boat whose interiors are inspired by the Orient Express “Pullman Côte d’Azur” railway carriage, created by René Lalique in 1929 with original Lalique details. Ornamental flourishes are being added for the occasion by Joseph Bennett, a film production designer.

Gloriana was designed anew but to an old pattern. “In effect, I designed it myself,” says Edwards, “though it’s from a drawing of an anonymous craft of about 1750.” That pattern-book inspiration came from a Swede, Fredrik Henrik af Chapman, whose Architectura Navalis of 1768 offered a pioneering compendium of boat designs large and small.

“Gloriana is quite large at 88ft. I’ve taken the Chapman design – I just saw the curve and thought ‘that’s the one’ – then added influences from a number of historic barges and combined them. The Lord Commissioner’s barge from the 1760s at Somerset House was useful for the construction details.”

The boat was a privately sponsored half a million pound job: a snip at the price, in part because the chestnut for its traditional clinker construction was ferried from the Duchy of Cornwall estates, while the gilding came in at just £4,000.

A CGI of the completed boat

The long, sweeping style of the Gloriana would be more or less recognised by the Anglo Saxons, who faced Viking longboats in the ninth century, and no doubt also by Elizabeth I in the 16th. But they’d all be strangers to the boldly carved ornament, which more closely resembles that on a surviving barge made for a troublemaker called Griff.

Griff – to his family; more formally, Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751) – was the eldest son of George II and father of George III; he should have been king but for being fatally caught out by a cricket ball to the chest. Having been on the rampage while his parents were on the throne, he was summoned to England from his native Hanover in 1728, whereupon he tacked a new façade on an old house near the Thames at Kew Green, close to the Brentford Ferry. The “White House” was remodelled by William Kent, a Bridlington artist, architect, furniture and landscape designer 22 years Frederick’s senior.

The riverside pad required transport, and in 1731 Kent designed for him a state barge, built by John Hall. The craft with 21 oarsmen billowed with Kent’s trademark Baroque flourishes, carved by Grinling Gibbons’ successor James Richardson. He crafted a great fleur-de-lis on the stern, behind a cabin lined in green velvet and gilded wood by Paul Petit. The ceiling was painted with a design representing the royal coat of arms. It now resides in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich: though it’s tempting to think that it might have been deployed as a piece of living history, Victoria and Albert had it sawn into three pieces for storage at Windsor, which more than compromised its river-worthiness. For decoration, there’s nothing to match it.

Edwards adds: “Frederick’s barge was a one-off, a bit OTT, really. But it provided the inspiration for the carving and fitting out.”

There was one more inspiration from history. The Lord Mayor’s barge of 1807 is represented by a detailed scale model, built by Searle and Godfrey of Stangate, now in the Museum of Docklands. Edwards had an endoscope inserted into the cabin to view the furnishings, and found a wealth of late Georgian detail to draw on. I ask him whether there were any concessions to the modern age. He paused. An FM radio, apparently. And a loo. “Though livery company barges had those by the 1820s.”

On June 3, Gloriana will look spectacular: dazzling, should the sun favour the scene. From the borrowed Spirit of Chartwell, the Queen will gaze at the gift ahead, a royal barge proceeding without her, and reflect on her place in history. Her eyes and ears will be filled, not so much with echoes of the first Elizabeth, but of the miscreant who never became king. It was Frederick, Prince of Wales who inspired the glory of her leading craft, and it was he who commissioned Rule Britannia, who after all “rules the waves”: on this momentous day those words will echo over the water, and across the radio waves.

It remains to be seen whether, in this new age of austerity, the glamour of the deco details in The Spirit of Chartwell or the gilding of Gloriana will set a new trend of opulent interiors on terra firma or afloat, to supersede the bland silver and aubergine hotel style of recent years. Maybe it’s a case of whatever floats your boat.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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