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Cunard White Star Line, RMS "Queen Mary" C-1936, G.T. Rackstraw First Class lounge tables restoration & history.

by Jonathan Quayle |

A photo essay on a brief history of the furniture, fixtures and fittings from the First Class Lounge on the RMS "Queen Mary", featuring the furniture produced by G.T. Rackstraw and others now in my collection.

Resplendent and together again, after an absence of over fifty years, three articles of furniture from the the Queen Mary's most important public room, her First Class Lounge, all C-1936.

In 2015 I was lucky enough to buy the entire archive of G.T. Rackstraw, relating to the work the firm completed on behalf of Cunard White Star line, from the RMS "Queen Mary", under consultation with her interior architects and designers. The venerable firm, first established in the late nineteenth century, was unfortunately forced into receivership in 2003. known for its quality solid wood furniture, the firm simply couldn't compete with the burgeoning trends of the likes of Ikea, who effectively make disposable furniture, the way to go. 

Amongst this treasure trove of an archive was this unique catalogue, proudly listing the firms achievements in their production of specialty furniture, made for ships. Furniture produced for a ship, by its very nature, has to be bespoke. Due to a ships architecture, pitch and sheer etc, you simply couldn't install a standard chair or table. Tables for instance, due to rough weather, would need a low centre of gravity, usually be weighted or have a mechanism to be bolted securely to the deck. Chairs likewise would have to be reinforced, often having cross stretchers to cope with the unbalanced weight of someone sat within it countered with the pitch and roll of the ship itself, these chairs would often have a 'rough weather' bar underneath to attach it to the deck it sat upon.  Rackstraw become leading figures of ships furniture from the late 1920's right up until the early 1960's.

Four examples of ships tables produced by the firm, three of these being exclusively made for the Queen Mary.

A photo from the book, within the company's headquarters, proudly displaying a selection of furniture all intended for the Queen Mary. There are two variants, with an under tier, that I have never seen in situ onboard the ship. Its possible they were trail pieces, in any case it appears they did not stay on the liner for long, if indeed those particular shapes were ever installed.

From left to right, we have tables for the following public rooms onboard:-

1. 1st Class Drawing Room, Prom Deck.

2. Two examples (one variant) 2nd Class Reading & Writing Room, and other 2nd Class spaces.

3. 1st Class Starboard Gallery, Prom Deck.

4. 1st Class Observation Lounge, Prom Deck.

5. Two models of the same table, (one variant), These small coffee tables could be found in both the 2nd Class Lounge (A Deck), as well as the Smoking Room on the Promenade Deck. 

6. The larger table in the centre, 1st Class Lounge Gallery, an identical example now resides in my collection.

Also of note are the selection of ships desks around the outside of the showroom, all of which were designed for the Queen Mary. These desks could be found throughout both 1st & 2nd Class. Similar desks were installed within the alcoves/private space within the Drawing Room and Library. Similar examples could also be found within the 2nd Class main lounge. The firm was also one of several who produced wastepaper baskets, those shown are the larger examples that could be found throughout the ship, but likely to have been produced for the larger staterooms and suites. Some public rooms also sported similar examples such as the Reading & Writing Room on Promenade Deck.

The firms main workshop, filled with Queen Mary furniture, dating, one assumes C-1935/early 1936. Various iconic pieces of furniture can be seen being worked on, including, tables for the Observation Lounge, Long Gallery, Starboard Gallery and Desks from both 1st & 2nd Class.

In 2016 I was lucky enough to be offered this table from a friend in Long Beach. It had been sold off by the city years previously, and although complete, needed some TLC. A couple of years later, another friend sold me a matching example, so I now had a pair. All that remained was the little task of getting them home from Long Beach California, to Sandown, Isle of Wight!

Although the table had been well used, the original bakelite top was in great condition, original to the ship in 1936, it was certainly built to last!

One of the tables after I had unpacked it back on the Isle of Wight, having shipped it home along with other pieces I had bought out in the US. I was very fortunate to have two very understanding and kind friends that kindly looked after the furniture in two locations in California for several years, without their help this would not have been possible. 

Once home, and as beautiful as both tables were, it was clear that both would need extensive restoration. 

The following pictures show the tables fresh from being picked up at my restorers. The transformation was extraordinary.

The table as it would have appeared, when new, in May 1936.

The pair of tables reunited after over 50 years of separation.

Shown here is the removable top, on one side is a bakelite type material, this side was used for drinks in the evening. The especially designed top was not only waterproof but burn-proof. In an age when everyone smoked, furniture being damaged by a stray cigarette butt was a very real problem, especially onboard the an Ocean Liner. G.T. Rackstraw designed these surfaces to withstand cigarette damages, as well as being aesthetically pleasing, matching the rich and fine rare woods of the lounge itself. This material could be found throughout the liners staterooms in all three classes, although great swathes of it were replaced post war within and 'ice white' design in an attempt to brighten up spaces in the changing fashions of the late 1940's and early 1950's. The other side sported a soft caramel shaded felt baize for card and game play. 

The interior of the table, complete with original felt pad to protect the underside of the removable table top. 

A beautiful detail that Rackstraw installed on pretty much all furniture that the firm produced for the liner, a builders plaque. That this little celluloid plaque survived for over 80 years is nothing short of miraculous.

This repair is an interesting feature, obviously completed onboard, probably by the ships very own carpenter. It most likely the top was expelled in rough weather, the soft wood hitting a hard surface and denting it during a classic transatlantic storm, the damaged section was skilfully cut out and and a new section added, all displaying the rich story and history of the tables.

The duck egg blue rubber base, as close to the original finish as was possible. This colour and finish was original to the ship in 1936, it remained unchanged until the end of service in 1967. Also of note are one of the two large bolt holes, originally two machine spun bronze pins, would secure the table to the deck below to stop the table tumbling over in a storm or rough weather. 

One of the tables during restoration, with original scribbled marking by one of the craftspeople at Rackstraw. It was unclear how we would attempt restoring the original rubber infill, but my skilled master craftsman came up with a brilliant solution. First he cleaned off the residual dirt and varnish, then he sanded back the rubber to a uniform colour. The rubber had over 80 odd years dried out, as a result cracking. With the excess rubber that had been sanded away, my restorer mixed that with a clear compound and filled the cracks, then sanding it back. This task was repeated multiple times until a near full restoration of the original material and finish was achieved, the tables now appearing much as they did in 1936.

The original gilt bronze bands that protected the outside extreme edging were removed and sent to a professional metal worker. They were cleaned and polished back to bare metal, then gilded and lacquered to return the bands to how the appeared when new in 1936.

The restored gilded bands shine bright once more.

Before and after, the maple burl, the tables woodwork had to be stripped right back. After 30+ years in constant use onboard then decades of use on dry land, the tables had seen some action. All the original woodwork was preserved, very little needed to be added, but in a few spots there were some losses, these being filled with like for like veneer.

The restored finish shines once more.

A stripped back section, showing how the veneer was originally laid in section, beautifully displaying the skill that went into the smallest details, earning the ship her nickname, "The ship of beautiful woods".

The two large lounge tables return from my restorer and are reunited with another classic Queen Mary table, also from the 1st Class Lounge. Commonly referred to as a 'U table' for obvious reasons. It is thought these table were produced by Waring & Gillows or Bath Cabinet Makers. Original to the ship in 1936, they were dramatically rebuilt and altered post war, being reinforced with internal lead weights to keep them in place, and infilling the central space within, to stop articles sliding straight through in rough weather. 

One of the 'U' tables, in situ, within the 1st Class Lounge, c-1950's.

The two tables now residing within my guest bedroom within my home, surrounded by period art and other fixtures and fittings from the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

An artists impression of the ships 1st Class lounge, c-1936. Although this artists impression shows the rug that was installed post war, it was in fact designed in 1936 by Agnes Pinder Davis, after the controversial dropping of Duncan Grant as the spaces artistic designer. Cunard White Star scrabbled around to get the space finished with new art work replacing Grants work over the main fireplace, decorative mirrors over the Port & Starboard fireplaces, but the rug was not completed in time for the trials and maiden voyage. Templeton's, the firm whom produced the majority of public room rugs onboard, Produced a variant of one they had provided for the 1st Class library, but in differing tones. This rug would remain in place for her entire pre war service. This illustration was used both pre and post war, to advertise the work of Templeton's, the new rug would not be installed until her post war maiden voyage in 1947.

The rug and tables seen within the space from a Cunard brochure dating from the 1950's. Several of the tables can clearly be seen dotted around the room, they were also produced in a round version. They were designed to complement two large central tables, both produced by Rackstraw (pictured above), a large round example with a planter at its centre, and an end table, all within the same rich warm woods.

The rug was one of originally four main parts, equal in size, that could be rolled up and placed in a cupboard underneath the main stage in the lounge, when the dance floor below was required. There were further rugs along the spaces on the outside edge of the lounge as well as runners sited between the rooms columns. The rugs remained in the room, unchanged until 1967, an amazing feat of survival. In 1967/70 during the ships conversion from Ocean Liner to static attraction, the rugs were discarded on the quayside. Part of the demolition crew working on the ship were offered the rugs for free. Sadly as the rugs were huge in size (each section measured 12' x 27') only one worker managed to arrange to get two rugs, one smaller example from one of the main landings, and one of the 1st Class Lounge rugs, into a truck with the intention of cutting them up and furnishing his bungalow. Later that day the heavens opened and soaked the remaining rugs, after this they were deemed to have been ruined and were thrown away. The worker placed the two rugs within his garage, and there they sat for over 30 years, thankfully never getting around to chopping them up for his home. His widow finally decided to sell them on eBay, from where I was lucky enough to purchase it. I flew out to pick it up, the home was less that 30 miles from the ship. It was then crated up and shipped back to the UK to my home. Shown here prior to being cleaned and lightly restored. If you look closely you can see a series of brass lug holes, these are where the tables would have originally sat, the brass bolts passing through the carpet onto the deck below.

In 2022 an extraordinary chance auction turned up a sofa and three arms chairs from the ships 1st Class Lounge, in Norfolk, UK, of all places. They had been sold off by Cunard as surplus after one of her final refits to a Cunard employee, where they remained in the same family ever since. I was lucky enough to secure them and bring them home. I sold one of the chairs to a collector in the US, but the other pieces will remain within my personal collection.

The set of chairs and sofa, as shown at the auction.

And advertisement from Newsweek, showing the beautiful lounge in glorious technicolour, clearly shown are the sofa, armchair and large and small tables in situ. The chairs would undergo at least five upholstery changes from 1936 until 1967. The current material shown on my set dates to the 1980's.

A rather disgruntled looking Winston Churchill within the 1st Class Lounge, along with his wife and the ships captain. To the extreme left you can see one of the lounge rugs/carpets rolled up to reveal the dance floor below. Authors collection.

It is my intention to one day have a space were I can display both the rug, tables, sofa and armchairs all together again.






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