Seven ship painters spent 10 days in March 2015 covering a Mersey ferry in the reds, oranges, blues, yellows, pinks, greens, blacks and whites carefully specified by Sir Peter Blake and the one obvious thing now is that no one’s going to miss it.
“It is a crazy concept,” said Blake on board the ship he has now “dazzled” with wild colours and patterns. “They’ve done it so beautifully and it looks fantastic. It is very exciting to see it.”
The Mersey ferry Snowdrop has become the third vessel to be painted in this way in homage to the artists 100 years ago who painted British ships in “dazzle camouflage” to mislead German U-boat captains.
The organisation 14-18 Now, responsible for five years of art commissions marking the first world war centenary, estimate that 8 million people haveseen two contemporary dazzle ships that were unveiled last year on the Thames in London and on Liverpool waterfront. The Snowdrop is now the only one that will actually go anywhere.
Blake was chosen in part because of his long association with Liverpool, one that extends beyond his design for the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band in 1967.
Earlier this month, Blake recalled his first visits to Liverpool 63 years ago when he was stationed in Belfast for his national service:
“I used to get the ferry from Liverpool. It was an old cattle ship and one had recently sunk so people were nervous, obviously. I remember coming back from Belfast on a New Year’s Eve and it was really rough – it was full of Irish Guards, all very drunk, and lots of nuns terrified of the soldiers.”
In 1961 Blake won the prestigious Liverpool-based John Moores Painting Prize – “junior section”, he stressed – ahead of artists including David Hockney and Lucian Freud.
“I’m very proud of it,” he said. “I remember coming up on the train and having a party in my room at the Adelphi and meeting the Liverpool poets. It was pre-Beatles, they hadn’t broken yet, but there was a definite vibe in the city and great music going on.
The artwork, called Everybody Razzle Dazzle, is the biggest of Blake’s long career, but creating it was similar to doing a small watercolor, he said. Working on a computer, he initially planned it all in monochrome but quickly realised it needed colour. “It has to be cheerful: it would have been dour in black and white really.
“I was slightly nervous that there might be some diehards who’d think I’d messed it up, they preferred the old livery. But I was very respectful of it: I checked things like whether I was okay to change the funnel.”
The plan is for the Snowdrop to have its Blake livery for two years. It set off for its first newly dazzled journey on Thursday with Bill Haley and the Comets’ Razzle Dazzle playing on a loop. Not far away from its setting-off point is is a static vessel, the Edmund Gardner, dazzled by the the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez last year.
Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, said the city was proud to have great things in pairs: two great cathedrals, two great football teams. “We’ve got two ferries and I hope the other one will be painted as well … I was told not to say that.”
The dazzle ship project shines light on a story largely forgotten today. During the first world war, professional artists would paint wild patterns on British ships to confuse the enemy. The idea was that U-boat captains would spot the ship but have no idea of what class it was, or if it was coming or going.
It was, Blake said, the invention of optical art and he had a great time following in the original dazzle artists’ footsteps.
Blake praised the painters at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead who had done the hard work. “We came up about a month ago when they were still working on it. To see it today when it’s all beautifully cleaned and polished is terrific.”
Arthur Hardacre, who led the team of painters, said it had been a bit like a very big paint-by-numbers exercise. “It was no big problem really, it’s all paint.”
The result is magnificent though. “It is absolutely fantastic and it’s great that visitors to the Mersey will see such a colourful ship.”
The project was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial, 14-18 Now and Tate Liverpool.
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