A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04

Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.   Read more

September Artifact of the Month – USS Leviathan Eagle Ornament

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Eagle decorative ornament from the SS Vaterland, courtesy of The Mariners' Museum.
Eagle decorative ornament from SS Leviathan, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

When asked to work on this collections blog, my supervisor asked what artifacts in particular drew my attention. It’s a little awkward to say, but I’ve always been a fan of wartime histories and I may or may not have responded with a jubilant “WAR,” which sounds worse when you excitedly exclaim it in front of people. Regardless of my intern embarrassment, my declaration has ensured that I often get to focus on war relics, such as this month’s artifact, a metal eagle ornament from SS Leviathan. The eagle is a decorative metal piece that would have been displayed on the interior of the ship following its renovations. It’s two toned in color, with a blueish colored body, and gilt accents on the feathers and legs. It’s pictured twice below, once in color, and once in black and white so that it is easier to see the detailing on the piece.

Leviathan was originally SS Vaterland, a passenger liner built at Hamburg, Germany. In 1914, she was the biggest ship in the world, but only made a couple of trips prior to the outbreak of World War I.  Vaterland had just arrived in New York when war was declared, and was therefore unable to return to Germany. Prior to this, she had made only three round trips between New York and Europe. Instead she remained in a terminal in New Jersey for three years until the United States entered the war in 1917. At that point, Vaterland was taken and turned over to the U.S. Navy, who renamed her Leviathan and kept her in service as a troop ship until 1919. Following the conclusion of the war, Leviathan again found herself in limbo, until she was sent to the Newport News Shipyard in southern Virginia to undergo a complete overhaul and renovations to turn her back into a passenger liner. Her renovation was actually supervised by William Frances Gibbs, the naval architect who would later design SS United States, and the owner of two of the baseballs that were featured in our April Artifact of the Month.   Read more

A Pressing Issue

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The Leviathan. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Library blog. The Daily Press just printed an article by Michael Welles Shapiro reviewing the new book by Steven Ujifusa, “A Man and his Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and his Quest to Build the SS United States.”  The book explores the tenacity displayed by SS United States chief designer William Francis Gibbs in his efforts to get the ships he designed built over the years, with great emphasis given to the SS United States. In order to highlight Gibbs’ determination Ujifusa covers an incident early in his career, when a great deal of friction erupted between Gibbs and the shipyard president Homer Ferguson over the redesign of a ship called the Leviathan after World War I.

Ferguson made a below-cost bid on the shipbuilding rights to the ship and wanted to make up his deficit by charging money for a boatload of design changes to the ship specifications. Gibbs would have none of that – he designed the Leviathan with a specific set of specifications and refused to allow any alterations to her blueprints that would increase her cost. Ferguson ended up getting in trouble for losing money on the Leviathan, but his resignation was not accepted. As for Gibbs, his determination in getting his ships built paid off for him when he designed the SS United States.   Read more