WATCH: Decor from Titanic's sister ship to set sale at Dublin auction
The Shipbuilder Special Edition of 1911 was full of praise for the passenger accommodation on the White Star Line's luxury vessels.
"Full advantage has been taken of the great size of the Olympic and Titanic to provide passenger accommodation of unrivalled extent and magnificence," they wrote. "Everything has been done in regard to the furniture and fittings to make the first-class accommodation more than equal to that provided in the finest hotels on shore."
The author waxed lyrical about the first-class lounge: "A noble apartment in the Louis Quinze style, the details being taken from the Palace at Versailles. Here passengers will indulge in reading, conversation, cards, tea-drinking, and other social intercourse… The walls are covered with finely carved boiseries in which, without interfering with the symmetry of the whole, the fancy of the carver has shown itself in ever-varying detail."
The interior architecture of three sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, was made by the artisans at Harland & Wolff in Belfast. The boiseries, or carved wooden panels, were designed by Arthur Henry Durand (1875-1958), an architect and interior designer who worked on several of the White Star vessels and assisted with the design of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The White Star Line didn't have the best of luck with luxury vessels. The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage in 1912. Glamorised in legend and film, it's now the most collectible shipping disaster of all time.
The engineers at Harland & Wolff made some hasty modifications to the design of its sister ship, the Britannic. The hull was altered to make it resistant to icebergs, more lifeboats were put in, and the name of the ship was changed from Gigantic (which smacks of hubris) to the humble Britannic. This last point is unsubstantiated, but you can see how the story arose. At 50,000 tons, she was larger than both the Titanic and their sister ship, the Olympic.
The Olympic was the survivor of the trio. Known as 'old reliable', she was retired from service in April 1935 and her fixtures and fittings were sold at auction in the same year.
Because the Olympic didn't sink, her memorabilia lacks the cachet of disaster, but the English hotelier Algernon Smart, who had travelled on the Olympic, saw that the fittings of a luxury liner would work in a hotel. Elements of the ship's interior, including the ceiling, panelling, mirrors and stained glass window, can still be seen at the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, Northumberland.
Like her sister ships, the Britannic was designed as a luxury transatlantic liner and built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast. Her launch was planned for 1914, but the First World War intervened. The ship was requisitioned by the admiralty and re-fitted as a hospital ship, her fancy fixtures and fittings were removed and put into storage.
The Britannic made several trips as a military vessel, retrieving wounded British soldiers from various ports and bringing them home. Then, in November 1916, she hit a mine off Kea island in the Aegean Sea and sank within the hour. The vast majority of the medical staff and crew were rescued.
Meanwhile, the luxurious fittings languished in storage. In June 1919 - almost exactly 100 years ago - the Belfast Newsletter advertised the auction of the "Complete Magnificent and Costly Unused Interior" of the SS Britannic. The hardwood panelling from the first-class and second-class lounges travelled to Dublin, where they were installed in La Scala Theatre and Opera House on Princess Street. It later became the Capitol Cinema.
The theatre's Oak Room was lined with the oak panelling from the first-class lounge, designed with the same detail as the surviving panels from the Olympic; the Maple Room was panelled in maple sycamore, carved in a neo-Classical style. The panelling remained in place until the cinema was demolished in 1972, to be replaced by the building that is now Penneys. The panels were salvaged and installed as a bar in a private house in Dublin. At the time, it was thought that they had come from another White Star vessel, the Celtic, which was dismantled for scrap in 1933.
"A friend of mine said to me there's a man in Dublin who has these fittings…" says Niall Mullen, antique dealer and auctioneer. This casual remark led to a process of discovery, during which the identity of the panels was revealed.
Crucially, the Britannic's Harland and Wolff yard ship build number, S-433, is found on the reverse of most of the panels, either stamped or written in chalk. The panels are coming up for sale as part of a two-day auction at The Heritage Hotel, Killenard, Co Laois, on May 1 and 2.
Here, the second-class lounge (Lot 433: est €200,000 to €300,000) has been taken out and reconstructed in its entirety, including a copper-fronted mahogany bar. "You'd think you were looking at the Titanic because it's the exact same design," says Mullen.
In terms of size, the lot comprises 25 square metres of maple panelling along with five metres of mahogany. But when it came to the first-class lounge (Lot 433a: est €250,000 to €350,000), he extracted a section of the oak panelling.
"Look, lads," he said to the vendors, "this might not sell and I don't want to be wrecking your house for nothing."
Potential bidders can make an appointment to see the rest in situ.
See victormeeauctions.ie and titanicsisterauction2019.com.