What Does It Mean?
Re-making Honour & Glory: Its History and Meaning by Alan St. George
The most famous ship in the world has given us one of the most famous clocks in the world. Yet aside from the fact that “Honour and Glory Crowning Time” dominated the wall of the quarter-sawn, English oak landing on the forward, First-class Grand Staircase of the RMS Titanic, and her sister ship, Olympic, how much do we know? Certainly, it cannot be denied that James Cameron’s epic film TITANIC has made the clock even more famous. In the film, the beautiful clock became, not only an iconic symbol of the vessel, but a deeply romantic symbol at that. Third-class passenger, Jack Dawson, played by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, secretly passed that famous handwritten note to First-class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater, played by Kate Winslet, with the inscribed words: “Make it count. Meet me at the clock." The staircase and the clock, representation of Edwardian upper class civility, achievement, and entitlement, became the meeting place for an act of societal and parental rebellion. This dramatic dynamic, combined with youth, beauty, true love, and the doomed ship, provided explosive romance never-to-be-forgotten. As a sculptor, it has been my joy to reconstruct “Honour & Glory” for the third time now. As a result, I have submersed myself into the historical origins of this masterwork, and the meaning of its symbology, which I am delighted to share. According to the book, TITANIC VOICES: MEMORIES FROM THE FATEFUL VOYAGE:
"Charles Wilson, who carved the central portion of the “Honour and Glory Crowning Time,” remembered that when the Titanic finally set sail from Belfast there had not been time to set a clock into the ornate carved panel over her First-Class Staircase, and a mirror had to be substituted until the clock arrived." Titanic arrived from Belfast in Southampton at midnight, April 3. Therefore the timepiece must have been installed sometime during the week before her maiden voyage on April 10th, 1912.
To discover “Honour & Glory’s” origins, we must travel further back in time to 1800, and the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris. Here in the “Louis XIV Salon,” one could see the beautiful clock by sculptor Auguste-Marie Taunay.
Comparing Taunay’s circa 1800 work to Charles Wilson’s circa 1910 woodcarving, we can clearly see where the woodcarver has taken his inspiration, even in the architectural surround.
The 1853 painting by Jean Baptiste Ange Tissier, entitled “Louis Visconti Presenting the New Plans for the Louvre to Napoleon III,” gives us another view of Taunay’s sculptural clock. Tragically, this work was destroyed, along with the Palace of the Tuileries, by the radical socialist government of The Paris Commune, on May 23, 1871. Taunay’s clock was destroyed by fire in 1871. Titanic’s clock was destroyed by water in 1912. Fortunately, the RMS Olympic’s version of Charles Wilson’s famous clock survives at the Sea City Museum in Southampton, UK.
This is where I began my personal homage to the great Charles Wilson for the third time on April 5, 2017, measuring and photographing this historic and glorious symbol of La Belle Époque. It was a thrill to see this work in person. Fortunately, I arrived at the museum’s opening time, went directly to the carving, and had my time with it undisturbed. Just as I finished my study, a school bus-load of children entered. The perfect moment for a speedy departure!
Taking 79 views of Olympic’s famous carving from many angles was a boon to recreating it, but it still takes some imagination to visualize the crisply carved details beneath all of that thick (and drippy) paint. I have approached the museum with a plea to consider restoring it to its former oaken glory. This is not only doable, but would not cost much compared to the benefits. There is nothing historical about all of that paint, since we are looking at a surface drastically changed after RMS Olympic’s service. If it were returned to the original wood surface, visitors to this iconic symbol of the Grand Staircase would be greeted with a work that matches the c.1911 archival photographs, or the 1997 movie image in their minds, depending on their personal experience with the Titanic/Olympic stories. This can only increase the public enjoyment of the carving, and enhance the museum’s asset. Thomas W. Ward Shipbreakers of Sheffield, Yorkshire, purchased this wood carving, it is believed at the Knight & Rutley auction in 1935. Thomas W. Ward is the facility that did the final demolition of RMS Olympic's hull in 1937 at Inverkeithing, Scotland. Although the clock was already painted in the Heaton, Tabb & Co. Ltd., redecoration of Olympic, November 1932 to May 1, 1933, in “various tones of Georgian green with gilt,” it was during the shipbreakers’ ownership of the carving that it received many additional layers of thick off-white paint.
In a world with camera-enabled phones in every pocket, and the resulting endless photographing, and “selfies,” it is hard to imagine a time when amateur photography was not so commonplace. As no known photographs of RMS Titanic’s Grand Staircase exist, we must rely primarily on the promotional views of it taken by Harland & Wolff official photographer, RJ Welch, c.1911. These were all taken either below eye level, above eye level, or to the right or left of center. Therefore, for my “base” image, I had to depend on a perfectly centered frontal view photo, that I took at Sea City. From this image I developed an exact tracing of the outline and projected a simple version of it onto my wooden work surface. This was merely a guide to the proportions, as all details save the silhouettes would be covered in clay, requiring frequent reference to both the archival, c.1911 photographs, and the seventy-nine, April 5, 2017 ones taken at the Sea City Museum.
I’m not a woodcarver, I’m a modeler. I model in clay, then we make molds, and castings from those molds. To carve in wood, what one would have to call a ‘virtuoso work’ of this kind would take, in my estimation, at least a year. I cannot imagine it taking less than that. The problem then would be that few collectors would be able to afford an entire year of a master woodcarver’s time. My method is to combine genuine oak with resin castings and composition moldings applied to the oak. Then everything is ‘stained and grained’ to harmonize, and look like the real thing. “Graining” is a technique of trompe l’oeil (French: “to fool the eye”), that is to paint one thing to look like something else. In this case, to create the appearance of wood or faux bois (false wood). Some parts of the architectural surround will be all oak. For example: the pilasters. However, the capitals with the cherubs heads on top of those pilasters will be cast resin.
By the way, this is an extremely unusual motif. I have rarely seen a cherub’s head in a capital. Even rarer is that the volutes on the Olympic capital have been turned upside-down. I have never seen this before. Volutes are always the other way around. So now we have a capital with topsy-turvy volutes and a cherub’s head. I can imagine that the cherub motif was to coordinate with the cherub lamp at the bottom of the Grand Staircase. In the end, we have a rare combination resulting in what is likely a one-of-a-kind capital. How appropriate for a ship that has become so special in history.
Figures must always be sculpted first, before they can be ‘draped.” This is the classic method of working. Many corrections continued to be made to both the faces and bodies, throughout the work’s process. Projecting the original photographic outlines onto photos of the new sculpture, provided essential guidance. This process showed me where clay needed to be added or taken away to stay true to the original.
The human body, and particularly the face has many subtleties. Titanic’s clock, of course, would have been Charles Wilson’s second time around making “Honour and Glory.” One thing I have had to remind myself of is that, unless a photo of Titanic’s clock surfaces, we'll never know exactly what the faces on Titanic's looked like. An artist can set out to make the same head twice, and due to the subtleties mentioned, it won't look exactly the same in the end. Even photos of real people can make them look older, younger, thinner, fatter depending on the lighting and angle at which they are taken. In some photos, “Honour’s” profile shows a tendency to a slight underbite. Wood is not a forgiving material to work in. Like carving in marble, once you remove, you cannot add back. It’s possible that a little too much was removed from “Honour’s” upper lip, and this is not a misstep that Wilson would have likely made the second time around when he carved Titanic’s clock.
Much has been made of the ‘supposed’ large feet of the “Honour & Glory” figures. From my measurements with a caliper, however, they appear to be within the usual range of ideal Classical Greek proportions. The length of the foot is approximately equal to the height of the head from the chin to the top of the parietal bone of the skull. Unfortunately, most cameras distort and exaggerate the size of the feet when shooting at a downward angle. We trust that the work of master-carver Charles Wilson has been suitably defended from the Internet detractors!
Close examination of the archival photographs resulted in an exciting discovery: The globe under Honour’s foot is more than a simple polished sphere! The sculpture of “Atlas Bearing the World on his Shoulders” in the city of London, illustrates the kind of etched longitudinal and latitudinal lines, I stumbled upon, fuzzy, but still discernible. Even through the many heavy layers of paint, a latitudinal line remains on RMS Olympic’s globe, along with subtle indications of the land masses. A White Star Line brochure’s artwork with allegorical figures perched upon the globe is a good example of what Charles Wilson was going for in his carved depiction of the atlas.
In art of this period, and the centuries preceding it, each part of a pictorial or sculptural image conveyed a meaning to the viewer. Here we have the allegorical figure of “Honour,” exalted by the palm-bearing “Glory.” Long before the palm leaf became a Christian symbol, it was used by the ancient Romans to represent victory and triumph. In ancient Greece, laurel wreaths were awarded to victors in athletic competitions, including the ancient Olympics. Laurels symbolized victory and in Rome they were used to crown triumphant commanders. It has been imagined that the laurel wreath in the Olympic-class ships’ “Honour and Glory” panels, first crowned Glory’s head, from where she removed it, and laid it down against the pedestal supporting the timepiece, thus in effect, “Crowning Time.” Of course, the laurel leaf motif is found elsewhere on the ship, and in particular it is featured on the handrails of the fore and aft Grand Staircases.
“Honour” is shown here recording on a tablet this important moment in history, when western civilization is literally dominating the world of trade, transportation, and technology. This similarly-robed angelic figure in this Italian Renaissance drawing, crowned with the laurel wreath of victory, is also recording history…perhaps an historical victory over the enemy represented by the soldier’s helmet under her foot.
Simply put, this artwork is a very grand statement about achievement, competence, and success. What one might call self-aggrandizement, another might say is the sort of confidence and enthusiasm that has always moved mankind onward and upward. If symbolic neoclassical art had remained fashionable in 1969, one could well imagine the moon instead of the world under Honour’s foot.
In Victorian and Edwardian monumental sculpture these classical symbols of victory, success, and honour were used so routinely there was no doubt that the meaning was quite clearly understood by a public more accustomed to its symbology than we are today. It was certainly perfectly at home with the First-class passengers of the Grand Staircase, at this moment in time as the sun was setting on La Belle Époque…”The beautiful era.”
Alan St. George is the founder of TitanicClock.com where a 25 minute video presentation of this article can be viewed, or just click the thumbnail to watch: