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Ocean Liners exhibition: great speed and stunning style

I am passionate about two aspects of early C20th history: ocean liners and Art Deco. In 2018, a V&A exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed & Style had my name all over it. It rekindled the era’s gorgeous Art Deco glam­our of ocean liners.

Speed & Style was the first international exhibition devoted ocean liners; strange, given that maritime disasters, public romances and the bright poster art of shipping companies have been part of popular culture for decades. In their Inter-War heyday, rival Brit­ish, French, German and Italian ships dashed across the Atl­antic.

As the largest machines of their age by far, ocean liners became powerful symbols of progress and modernity. No other form of trans­port was so romantic, so impressive. From the late C19th to the mid C20th, the ocean liner revolut­ionised ocean travel. So the exhibition wanted to explore the design and cultur­al impact of the ocean liners.

Model of the Queen Elizabeth
5 ms long

Beginning with Isambard Kingdom Brunel's steamship, the Great East­ern ship of 1859, the exhibition traced ocean liner design - from the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic, to the floating Art Deco palaces of Queen Mary and Normandie, and the streamlined SS United States & QE2. It examined all aspects of these ships' design, from innovative engineering and fashionable interiors, to the lifestyle on board. Plus it examined the impact on art, architecture, design and film.

The exhibition displayed the golden age of ocean travel with 250+ objects eg film clips, publicity posters, branded crockery, haute couture dresses and luxury luggage. Children loved the engine-room telegraph made of teak and brass that the P&O ship Canberra installed in its nursery, and the small captain’s wheel.

Especially clothes! The exhibition showcased one of the most imp­ortant flapper dresses in V&A's collection, Jeanne Lan­v­in's Salambo dress, displayed at my all-time favourite Exp­os­ition Internat­ionale des Arts D√©coratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Also the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950. And there was a handsome Lucien Lelong couture gown worn for the Norman­d­ie’s maiden voyage in 1935.

Maison Goyard luggage and Dior suit, 1950 

Publicity posters
from shipping companies

A precious Cartier tiara, recovered from the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915, was beautiful, as was a lacquered wall from the Smoking Room of the French lin­er, Normandie, and  Stanley Spencer's painting The Riv­eters from the 1941 series "Shipbuilding on the Clyde". The display also feat­ured works by Modernist artists, designers and architects inspired by liners including Le Corbusier – and revealed the largely forg­ot­ten history of leading artists and designers who contributed to their design eg William De Morgan and Richard Riemerschmid. Be still my beating heart!

The 5 ms-high lacquered gold panel was part of the art deco int­erior on the French ship Normandie and was loan­ed to the V&A from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. It was 5 ms high and was the lat­est expression of French luxury design.

A golden wall panel from The Normandie, 
1935, 5 ms high

Decorated doors, panels and furniture
The SS France, 1912

Speaking more architecturally, the Ocean Liners exhibition explored how the structures on board changed as the requirements of new markets shifted attitudes, as well as the democratisation of travel and development of leisure activities in the C20th. It also considered the shrewd promotional strategies used by shipping companies to re­position the on-board experience, as emigration gave way to asp­ir­at­ional travel, and highlighted the political shifts and the int­ernational rivalry that developed over 100 years, as liners became floating national showcases.

No wonder the objects being displayed were expensive. Curator Ghislaine Wood said the Normandie, which travelled between Le Havre and New York in the 1930s, was “luxury beyond the means of most people. A ticket for two passengers on the Normandie in 1935 was about £17,000 in today’s money”. Unsurprisingly, the 1st class decks were full of royals, actors, society beauties and magnates.

It was less luxurious in the lower decks. More cramped and less decorated, few migrants would have described their experience as attractive. And yet, far more than the stained-glass ceilings, libraries and string quartets on the upper decks, the ships on which the migrants sailed were actually very well designed both for speed and heavy seas. A 22ft-long model of the Queen Elizabeth revealed how proud the liner’s owners were of its pleasing form: creat­ed in 1940 to stand in the window of Cun­ard’s Broadway offic­es. And an entire wall was given over to a rippling blue sea, crossed by a series of computer-generated liners trailing smoke from their funnels. The exhibition care­fully remembered the tech­nology that made this poss­ible, and the 1.4 million European migrants who left for the New World in 1913 on which the trade’s profits were originally founded.

The exhibition was a cooperative work between the V & A and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Mass; it then moved to the Scottish V&A in Dundee. The project was sponsored by Viking Cruises.

The QE2, built to cross the Atlantic in wint­er, was among the last of the big ships shaped by design traditions rooted in the late C19th. So now the old ocean liner is remembered only via modern culture, literature and films. They demonstrate how nostalgia for the great Floating Palaces of the past can still be felt today.

Fans might like to order a beautiful book that accompanied the V & A exhibition, written by Daniel Finamore (2018).


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