by Guy Inchbald
The Golden Age of aviation lasted from the early 1920s until the outbreak of World War II, coinciding almost exactly with the Art Deco period. It was an age of high glamour and high adventure as the great pioneers such as Amy Johnson opened up the world. Art Deco could not help but be infused with its spirit, as the static symmetry of the twenties gave way to forms that celebrated speed in the thirties, the so called ‘ streamline’ style of Art Deco.
The passage of the Comet
For a few of those brief years, from 1934 to 1939, one of the most beautiful aeroplanes of all time flared across the sky, carving its way into the record books and into the heart of Art Deco. Most significantly, it embodied the pivotal moment in the transition from the biplane to the monoplane.
Before 23 October 1934, the biplane dominated the world of aviation and also the Art Deco vision of fearless speed and adventure. But on that day a sleek, low-wing monoplane, de Havilland Comet G-ACSS Grosvenor House, won the MacRobertson England–Australia race, the greatest air race of all time. In doing so it beat off the race favourites Amy Johnson and her then husband Jim Mollison in their own Comet, G-ACSP Black Magic. From that moment on, the age of the biplane passed into history and the monoplane ruled unchallenged.
Just five Comets were built and for the next five years they flew into one glamorous and daring adventure after another, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. They became a supreme cultural icon of the Golden Age of Aviation and of the Art Deco era, as much so when examples were bought by France and Portugal as in their home country. Almost every book on aviation seemed to want a picture of a Comet on its dust cover, regardless of what lay inside. Silver Comets poised above Art Deco ashtrays, while other memorabilia proliferated. The Comet was soon to be found everywhere. Below, I offer a few highlights of that heritage.
Origin story: photoshoot at the Grosvenor House Hotel
Property developer turned hotelier A.O. Edwards had not long opened his new Art Deco styled Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London, when in 1932 Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson announced their engagement there. The happy couple were photographed on the roof. When the race was announced, Edwards responded by placing the second order for a Comet, hot on the heels of Mollison. Named after his hotel, its winning performance brought both plane and hotel instant fame and iconic status.
The hotel survives today under new management, with many of its Art Deco interior features still intact. The plane too survives, but more on that below.
Streamlining the Comet Hotel, Hatfield
At the time of the MacRobertson race, de Havilland had just moved to Hatfield and Benskins were building an inn next to the airfield. Their previous one, the Nags Head at Bishop Stortford, had been the country’s first ever Art Deco inn and architect Ernest Musman had planned it out in the shape of an aeroplane, literally with wings on either side. He took the same approach at Hatfield.
During construction the entry of the Comet in the great air race was announced, and Benskins pounced on the opportunity to name the new inn after it. They commissioned well-known sculptor and war artist Eric Kennington to design the freestanding inn sign. He produced a 9ft high carved stone column, with a model of the Comet flying above and entwined with an astronomical comet and its long tail.
The hotel was opened on 23 December 1936 by the race winning pilot of Grosvenor House, C.W.A. Scott. Much de Havilland business would subsequently take place there. Famed architect Sir Hugh Casson sketched it in one of his own notebooks; the great architecture historian Sir Nicholas Pevsner declared it to be “easily the best-designed pub in Britain.”
Over the years the Comet Hotel fell on hard times. The glass lantern which surmounted its roof disappeared, as did most of the original Art Deco interior. By 1966 the model in flight was in a poor state and was replaced with a fibreglass copy. The embracing crescent had gone, stolen one year, it is said, by students during rag week. Fortunately, the latest owners have restored the lantern and the model, and something of the original glamour along with them.
Thus, two Art Deco hotels have become inextricably bound into the Comet mystique. One had a Comet named after it while the other was named after the Comet.
And the legacy beyond
The Comet’s legacy continued on in the postwar era. Grosvenor House was rescued in a decrepit state by de Havilland and put on display indoors. For the 1951 Festival of Britain it was hung from the ceiling of the Festival Hall, and after that from the ceiling of a de Havilland boardroom. It eventually passed to the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, where it has been restored to flying condition and today takes pride of place as the crowning centrepiece of their historic air displays.
When Hatfield was redeveloped in the 1980s, the Galleria shopping centre was built over the entrance to a road tunnel for the new A1(M) to pass under the town. Built largely of glass with a curved roof to look like an aircraft hangar, it was the largest shopping mall and largest single-span steel roof in Europe at that time and completely redefined Hatfield. The developer sought the iconic symbol of Hatfield’s past as a showpiece, and came up with the same old answer – a Comet hung from the roof, albeit a 7:8 scale replica. It was removed in 2006 when new owners took over the centre, and is now awaiting restoration at Derby Airfield, alongside the part-restored Mollison/Johnson Black Magic.
It is unsurprising that De Havilland chose to draw on the original Comet’s high public profile when naming their innovative DH 106 jet airliner in 1947. The De Havilland Comet airliner should not however overshadow its streamline speedster predecessors, the Comet racers, just as innovative in their day and as beloved by the public.
About the author: Guy Inchbald trained as an architect, before turning to engineering and technical writing. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Comet Racer Project Group which is restoring Black Magic. More of his interests may be found on his website, www.steelpillow.com
More about the Comets can be found in: