Honour & Glory: Crowing Time!

Titanica!

WE KNOW well the allegorical figures of Honour and Glory…

They appear as heraldic supporters to the clock located in the alcove atop the Titanic’s Grand Staircase.

Are they just pleasant carvings, or could the whole panel actually symbolise – encapsulate, even – the White Star Line’s corporate attitude?

It may be worth a moment’s pleasant pause to survey the scene depicted. Because for nigh on a century, ever since the same creation was installed on the Olympic, it has stood as an emblem of the class of super ships that was once new, but became ever associated with loss.

Titanic had the same carving. What does it mean? This is just the first of many questions that could usefully be asked.

What is it about Time, that it should need to be honoured and glorified?

Old Father Time, stooped and wizened with scythe and sand-glass, was certainly never attended to, never fussed about, in such a manner…

The two supporters on either side of the clock we see are angels. Angels come in thrones, powers and dominions, all shapes and sizes, but they are also enumerated in Virtues. Honour and Glory are two such.

Glory wafts a palm frond over Honour’s head, but Honour seems almost to have a frown of concentration. We see that she is busy taking careful note. She is inscribing on a tablet. How very curious.

This then, is not the Honour bright of the virgo intacta. This is Honour with her annals, recording great deeds, those that shall live forever more. With such great work in hand, no wonder Glory fans her brow.

Why would Honour be recording Time? What has Time, rather than itself being extolled and praised, got to do with Honour and Glory?

But now we look at Glory. The laurel wreath of Victory is at her admittedly generous feet – particularly the left one, wide as a shovel and seeming to have six toes. Even our heroes have feet of clay, and luckily her diaphanous garment cloaks what must be an elephantine ankle…

More seriously, consider that wreath of Victory. It lies propped against the newel post that supports Time itself. Is this then nothing less than the glory of victory over time?

To the First Class passengers in the Olympic class ships, the only passengers who would see it, this panel may be taken as a message and reassurance. Yes, time is important. And the scroll of victories over time is hourly being updated.

This panel would give a First Class passenger to understand that fast crossings are of the utmost importance. And if you doubt it, look to the globe beneath Honour’s left foot.

Here the world itself is firmly under heel. This orb and everything in it is with Honour mastered. It is easy to imagine her heel in the New World and toes in the Old. Behold, it almost appears that we walk on water…

Time, Honour and Glory are thus united. Everything about this work breathes the superlative – and more importantly, supremacy. The hours are known and logged, and the angels bestow Heavenly approval and benediction. This is the challenge that man was set to do, and under the benevolent gaze of the Creator himself.

How very different it is to all that we have received about the Titanic. The Angels came over the water in Bamforth commemorative postcards, not to walk upon it, but to summon souls up a starlit (ungrand) stair to Heaven… to a God that did not approve the glorious capture of time, but ranged icy vengeance against the speed racers.

And an angel that came not to log the miles elapsed in every day, but to bitterly display that dread scroll… the awful roll-call of the needless dead.

Is this to make too much of a harmless carving? After all, the clock is necessary, and what may go beside it can be empty decoration…

Perhaps – except for the very salient fact that it is the White Star Line that has called this panel Honour and Glory Crowning Time. The meaning is inescapable, and the shipping company itself draws attention to its ‘crowning’ philosophy.

The fact that the Olympic class liners were not the fastest afloat is, in this respect, relatively unimportant. For all their opulence, these are still very fast steamers and the representation is a recognition of the importance of celerity to the better-paying passengers.

After all, consider the alternatives. White Star did not call this work Prudence and Patience Husbanding Time…

It was obviously open to them to call it anything they liked. They could have selected the winged virtues of Care and Vigilance, or even caryatids of Wealth and Splendour if it were mere luxury to be celebrated. A bushel of wheat, for commerce, could have replaced that victory wreath. But instead they deliberately chose Honour and Glory.

This seems like a statement of corporate vanity, possibly chosen to reflect the self-importance of the cream of their customer base, but vanity nonetheless.

After the accident, no-one would point to the Honour and Glory of White Star, which had instantly been rendered a ridiculous concept. Instead heavy emphasis was laid (in the company’s evidence) upon its standing instructions to Commanders, which repeatedly underlined the need for prudence and safety.

Officer Lightoller said the speed of the Titanic at night in the reported presence of ice had been “ordinary navigation, which embodies careful navigation.” If this were truly the case – and if the standing instructions really did hold sway above all other considerations – then why was the showpiece entablature at the top of the staircase not supported by Care and Caution?

The reality, evidently, is because Care and Caution were not the guiding spirits. Honour and Glory were!

Subduing the surly oceans is one thing, and Honour’s foot upon the globe can be seen reflected in another context with the decision to crown the Imperator at her bow with a glorious German eagle, talons implanted in the planet.

Mein feld ist die Welt ran the legend below, needing no allegorical interpretation. It means, literally, My field is the World, but all it demonstrates is that hubris at the time was not confined to one nation. Instead great powers contended for blue ribands and mythical garlands – size and speed being the leading contests.

Pride goeth before a fall… and White Star, in the nomenclature not just of the Olympic-size ships but also of their staircase carvings, was dolloping on the pride with a ladle.

Here, for the sake of fun, is what the centrepiece might have looked like, if White Star – actually keen to embody their supposedly most cherished concepts - had asked Charles Wilson to carve Prudence and Patience Husbanding Time instead of Honour and Glory crowning it.

Hey presto! The laurel wreath of Victory disappears. So does the palm frond. Honour’s anxiety to record every new achievement vanishes with her scroll and stylus.

Instead the laurel wreath is replaced with an anchor, which is sympathetically a symbol of patience, but which also dovetails with function and setting.

Patience, to the right, holds an orb, a symbol of peace and goodwill to all. A sceptre is also associated with traditional representations of Patience, but its meaning is authority. Sceptre and orb go together, but the latter is preferred for its globe-girdling resonance.

On the left hand side, Prudence holds a lamp – or it would be seen as a lamp if the author’s carving in the notoriously difficult medium of Photoshop were in any way comparable to that of Charles Wilson. The lamp symbolises both vigilance and conservatism – recalling the Biblical vestal virgins who chose not to squander their oil. The same might apply to coal-burning ships.

Prudence also holds a snake, a symbol of prudence itself – reflected in a million medicinal signs on druggist and pharmacy shopfronts. The fact that the snake in the hand of woman or an angel might also recall the Fall of Man is surely also to the good. That pride-that-goeth-before should be its own warning.

Finally, Prudence rests her foot on books of knowledge and wisdom. World domination has been dispensed with in favour of firmly-rooted experience. And as a last squiggle of faux philosophy, the word ‘CAVE’ has been inscribed on the exterior of the book in our sight – which translates from Latin into the singular watchword ‘Beware.’

Safe and staid, this admittedly dull and insipid carving might have suited the Titanic better - but only if she had been called something else, something to chime with steadiness and beauty instead of contention and domination.

Instead, Titanic is to Honour and Glory as the latter were intended to grace and garland the Titanic. The very motifs are insisting that this ship will be no slouch.    

And then came ouch!

POSTSCRIPT

The symbols of Honour and Glory and Time that looked so handsome in the flooding sunlight of the Titanic’s stairway lie crushed into unrecognisable shapes and splinters beneath the tonnage of two thousand fathoms of ocean water.

Time is no more for the fifteen hundred souls who perished with them; but Honour and Glory, by strange ways and unlooked-for events, have come into the their own.

It was not time, nor the creatures and things of Time, that received their final crown there; but things that have nothing to do with Time, qualities that, in their power of rising beyond all human limitations, we must needs call divine.

 - Filson Young, Titanic, London, Grant Richards Ltd, 1912. Chapter XVII, page 191.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Copyright Senan Molony 2007

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