Star ship troupers

11 May 2009 by Stephen

A gold-coloured piece featuring figures sitting around and on globes

The silver centrepiece

Beautiful gold and silver items are always a joy to the eye but I think they are much more interesting if there is a story behind them. This particular piece of gilded silverware is linked to a very famous story indeed.

The White Star line – which later included the Titanic among its fleet – was founded in Liverpool in 1869 by shipping mogul Thomas Henry Ismay. Known also as the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, White Star eventually led the way in building prestigious luxury liners such as Titanic and her almost identical sisters Olympic and Britannic.

When Ismay died in 1899, White Star was the most successful transatlantic passenger line. In 1902 it was bought by the huge American firm, the International Mercantile Marine Company.

Ismay’s son, Bruce, became the first president and managing director of the new company. He remained in control of White Star and its ships continued to fly the British flag. J Bruce Ismay, as he was known, continued his father’s close partnership with the Belfast shipbuilders Harland & Wolff which led to the construction of Titanic and her sisters.

Thomas Henry Ismay’s original home can still be seen at Beach Lawn, Waterloo. He later built a huge mansion called Dawpool at Thurstaston, Wirral, but this was demolished many years ago. J Bruce Ismay – who survived the Titanic sinking by escaping in one of the last lifeboats – lived at a large house called Sandheys in Mossley Hill, Liverpool.

In the Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum there are parts of the magnificent Ismay Testimonial silver.  This parcel gilt dinner service was presented to Thomas by the company’s shareholders on board the White Star liner Adriatic in 1884.

The service, made by London silversmiths Hunt & Gaskell, is one of the finest of its kind. It was intended to “illustrate the progress of the art of navigation from the earliest times to the present day”.

The centrepiece (which there’s more about on our main site) depicts commerce on top of the world with figures of the legendary navigators Jason (of Argonauts fame), Vasco de Gama (first European to sail to India around the Cape of Good Hope), Christopher Columbus (New World explorer) and British naval explorer Captain James Cook.

There are beautiful models of tiny vessels used for fishing and hunting – a kayak, canoe and coracle. Most of these pieces could be used for condiments such as salt, pepper and mustard. A large sweetmeat dish is flanked by two contemporary (1884) seafarers – a merchant navy officer and a sailor.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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