Ocean Liners - Speed and Style review: This V&A show will float your boat
Reviewed by MELANIE MCDONAGH
Wednesday 31 January 2018 09:45
The one ocean liner most of us are able to identify is, alas, one that sank: the Titanic.
Still, despite that PR misfortune — or possibly because of it — the notion of ocean travel, especially by steamship, is still invested with irresistible glamour. The great ships were little worlds in themselves, with inutterable glamour and style at the top and more cramped class solidarity in steerage.
Think of the marine bit of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and then the episode in the film Brooklyn where our heroine is sick in a bucket, mid-Atlantic, in third class.
This exhibition at the V&A is the most comprehensive ever about international ocean liners. That, I know, doesn’t sound like much of a fun gig for those Londoners who know next to nothing about the sea, whose reflexive mode of transport is a plane and who think of cruises (the sad descendants of the liners) as floating prisons for the Saga generation (I know of one American whose solution to parental care is to stick his elderly father on one transatlantic cruise after another).
But stop it right there. Ocean liners — ships that actually ran to schedule rather than turning up at their destination as the weather allowed — were not just incidentally interesting: they were crucial for shipping more than 11 million emigrants from Europe to America from 1900 until the First World War; they were militarily important; considered vital for national prestige and maintaining empires; economically crucial for cities dependent on shipbuilding; and, just as important, as a way of promoting design in response to the constraints of space and motion. This exhibition has some 200 artefacts and finishes with a wooden panel from the first-class lounge of the Titanic, split where the ship broke in half and floating mournfully on water as it once did on the Atlantic.
It’s bookended by two ships: Brunel’s groundbreaking Great Eastern of 1859 (the Brits led the way on steamships), which transformed ocean travel, to the Queen Elizabeth II of 1969, which brought the era of great ocean-going passenger shipping to a close. Between these two vessels a whole transport culture is on display, from fabulous posters for the liners to contemporary film clips — such as Hitler on the Nazi steamship the Johannes Rey, or a moving chronicle of the strength and skill of Clyde shipbuilders.
Pride of place goes to interiors from great ships of the nations such as the Normandie. She was the showgirl of the French fleet, “a floating fragment of the country” and an exhibition space for French handiwork — including the fabulous Art Deco lacquer panels by Jean Dunand for the first-class smoking room, depicting streamlined youths at play. Requisitioned in the war by the Americans, the ship sank after too much water was used to douse a fire on board.
What was the appeal of ocean liners? They were a contained world: for the duration of your voyage you were in a limited space with a defined cast of characters, like Murder on the Orient Express without the homicide.
Or, as a spritely Cunard brochure of 1929, The New Art of Going Abroad, put it, “Life aboard ship is a little world between two worlds… a week of existence suddenly cast adrift.”
Jules Verne in his novel A Floating City, put it thus: “If the Great Eastern is not merely a nautical engine but rather a microcosm, and carries a small world with it, an observer will not be astonished to meet here, as on a large theatre, all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.” Which is why ocean liners were so good for film, from Buster Keaton to The Poseidon Adventure.
The shipping companies’ steely focus on wealthy travellers was directly influenced by the US government, which in 1921 imposed restrictions on the immigrants allowed to enter the US. At a stroke, the composition of passengers changed from a majority in steerage to a more even distribution of classes and the creation of the new “tourist” class.
An interesting picture of the cross- section of one ship shows the respective accommodation for the classes: third class was respectable if not showy. As for the fabulous promotional material on display here, it was directed at pleasure-seeking travellers for whom the journey was summed up by the Cunard motto of the Twenties: “Getting There is Half the Fun!”
For designers, liners were an obvious showcase. Many engaged with the challenges posed by limitations of space and motion. Le Corbusier was an enthusiast for the form (showing the upper classes could cope in a confined space) but for others it was an exhibition area: as with Doris Zinkeisen’s lively theatrical mural shown here for the famous Verandah Grill on the Queen Mary.
Restricted space meant the striking Madonna of the Atlantic altarpiece for the salon on the Queen Mary, used on Sunday by Catholics, could be covered by panels for secular use. There was a pretty Torah ark too.
The children were also looked after: there’s a charming mural here by Edward Ardizzone for the play area of the Canberra. Ceramics designers made services with an emphasis on solidity: plates with raised sides to prevent slopping and glasses with solid bases. There’s a beautiful cane bunk bed, with space-saving drawers that open as steps.
But oh, the clothes! For the occasions liners offered for display, from the entrance on board to the grand descent that first-class passengers made down the steps to dinner — brilliantly evoked here — the curators raided the V&A’s own dressing-up box and came up with some fabulous pieces, from Marlene Dietrich’s Dior suit, which she wore on the Queen Elizabeth, to a Lanvin Twenties dress belonging to the heiress Emilie Grigsby.
But, as with the Titanic, there were tragedies at sea. After the Titanic panel, the most poignant item on show is the tiara that Lady Marguerite Allan took on the Lusitania, which her maid rescued when the vessel was torpedoed. Her two daughters were lost.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is at the V&A, SW7 from Saturday until June 10; vam.ac.uk
The luxury liner SS Normandie sits off the piers in New York in 1935.
Photograph: Collection French Lines
A photograph of the RMS Titanic’s propellers as the ship sits in dry dock. The ship was sunk by an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Photograph: John Parrot/Getty Images
Detail of riveters from the 1940s series Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Stanley Spencer.
Photograph: Imperial War Museums
Breezy and buoyant return to a more glamorous age - Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, V&A
Alastair Sooke, art critic
31 JANUARY 2018 • 12:01AM
If, like me, the idea of going on a cruise fills you with dread – the prospect of being tossed about at the whim of a wild and unforgiving sea is too much for my lily-livered, landlubber’s constitution – then the V&A’s latest exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, will hold little appeal.
It would be a mistake, however, to rule it out. The first show ever devoted to the design of ocean liners, spanning a period from the 1840s to the 1960s, it is full of fascinating moments, and animated throughout by a breezy, buoyant spirit.
The latter is most evident in the design of the exhibition, itself, which plays upon a central conceit: that, as we navigate the show, we are “on board” a ship. To begin with, though, we remain on dry land, in a section called “Promotion” – after all, before embarking on a voyage, you need to buy a ticket.
Facing us, beside a spectacular promotional model of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, realised with extraordinary detail at 1:48 scale, is a wall of striking posters, designed to drum up trade for the shipping lines. At a stroke, we discover the great coup of public relations that transformed perceptions of the ocean liner.
To one side, a drab leaflet from around 1874 reproduces a forgettable wood engraving of a steamship, advertising a White Star line from Liverpool to New York. It is a reminder that, during the middle years of the 19th century, steamship travel was still seen as uncomfortable and dangerous. Mostly it was marketed, cheaply and perfunctorily, at third-class passengers to fill the steerage decks. This catered for millions of poor emigrants who left behind Europe for America. By the final quarter of the 19th century, though, the strategy of the shipping lines had changed, and fashionable graphic artists were being commissioned to lure a different sort of passenger, who preferred to travel first class. By the Twenties and Thirties, often described as the “golden age” of steamship travel, this PR transformation was complete, and the ocean liner was acknowledged as an emblem of sleek, glamorous modernity, on a par with the American skyscraper.
Following this introduction “ashore”, we walk across a gangplank, and make our way “aboard” the main body of the exhibition, where we are greeted by ship interiors from the early 20th century.
At this point, designers were still following the model of grand European hotels, and even palaces. Opulent doors and panelling, from about 1912, which once adorned the France, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s largest ship, were designed explicitly to evoke sumptuous interiors at Versailles. There is also an ornate carved wooden panel, depicting two allegorical figures, which provided a decorative centrepiece for the 60ft-high grand staircase of the Olympic. (An identical carving on the Olympic’s ill-fated sister ship, the Titanic, was reproduced, with surprising fidelity, for James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.)
As well as inviting us to gawp at the grandeur of yesteryear, though, the curator, Ghislaine Wood, here emphasises one of the exhibition’s principal themes: that ocean liners were swiftly understood as vast, tangible expressions of statehood. They were, in the words of another scholar, “flagships of imperialism”. This was especially true during the run-up to the First World War, as European nations jostled to project power. It’s why this section is called “Politics of Style”.
The Versailles-like interior of the France offers an excellent case in point, as does an absurdly overblown allegorical mural expressing German maritime supremacy, designed for the first-class smoking room of the Kronprinz Wilhelm, which won the much-coveted Blue Riband for its speedy passage across the Atlantic.
Even after the war, though, ocean liners, which were of immense economic importance because constructing them created so many jobs, remained vessels of national pride. The archetypal example was the great French interwar liner, Normandie, the apogee of Art Deco maritime glamour, which entered service in 1935. Every aspect of her glittering décor was an expression of sophisticated French taste. One of the highlights of the V&A’s show is a soaring golden lacquer panel depicting lithe young men and women, like classical Greek athletes, engaged in sports, by the French artist Jean Dunand. It once graced Normandie’s smoking room. Meanwhile, a nearby display of décor from Cunard’s Queen Mary reveals a depressingly typical mid-century British ambivalence towards progressive design.
A dull painting from 1936, probably commissioned for Cunard’s offices in Liverpool, depicts the Queen Mary’s first-class dining room, which evoked the interior of an English country house.
Compared with the suave modernity of Normandie, it offers a staid vista of parochial disappointment: a wilderness of tough, grey beef and congealing gravy.
At least we can take pride in the commitment to modern design of the British Orient Line after the Second World War, when artists such as Edward Bawden were commissioned to produce designs for liners. By this point, however, following the rise of commercial aviation, ocean liners were already on the wane. Eventually, they would be replaced by a different sort of nautical beast, altogether: the top-heavy cruise ship.
Having outlined the development of ocean-liner design – one memorable moment concentrates on the evolution of the deckchair, and includes an example, with a ripped caned seat, recovered from the Titanic (a rare moment, you could say, when arranging deckchairs is the opposite of futile) – the exhibition plunges us into an “engine room”, packed with information about steam turbines, gyro stabilisers, and screw propellers, alongside Stanley Spencer’s mesmerising wartime painting of shipbuilders on the Clyde hammering red-hot rivets. A label informs us that the hull of the Queen Elizabeth required around 10 million of the things.
Then, we are up on deck, considering pool-side fashions, to a soundtrack of seagulls, before a dramatic projection simulates elegant passengers, dressed in satin and silk, wafting down the “grande descente” en route to dinner (ie making a very public entrance on a liner’s imposing staircase).
By now, we have been whisked away to a sort of luxurious fantasy land, an escapist dressing-up box filled with crocodile-leather Louis Vuitton vanity cases, and items of luggage owned by the Duke of Windsor (supposedly he and Wallis Simpson once boarded the SS United States with a hundred pieces). Yes, of course, there could be less rubbernecking at the extravagance of how the other half lived – even if one or two pieces of eye-popping bling, such as a Cartier diamond tiara from 1909, have terribly sad stories attached to them. The tiara belonged to a woman who survived the sinking of the Lusitania but lost two daughters during the catastrophe. It was rescued by one of her maids, but its exorbitant value must have felt like nothing compared with the priceless lives of her children.
I also wish that the final gallery, devoted to the impact of the ocean liner upon modern culture, as filtered through the imaginations of artists, architects, writers and filmmakers, was more extensive. After all, there are only so many pristine dinner services one can look at before the onset of ennui.
Still, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is a surprisingly sophisticated exhibition. It will satisfy those who yearn, nostalgically, for the glamour of a lost age. At the same time, it will sate those with an appetite for serious analysis of modern design. Above all, though, it will provide a great deal of carefree fun, as it blithely imitates life on board these marvellous “floating palaces”. Bon voyage!
From Sat until June 17. Sponsored by Viking Cruises. Tickets: 0207 942 2000; vam.ac.uk
Wooden panel fragment from an overdoor in the first-class lounge on Titanic, about 1911. © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Empress of Britain colour lithograph poster for Canadian Pacific Railways, J.R. Tooby, 1920 – 31. Museum no. E.2215-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Paquebot 'Paris', Charles Demuth, 1921 – 22, US. Gift of Ferdinand Howald. © Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio
Panel from The Rape of Europa for the first-class grand salon on board the Normandie, Jean Dupas, made by Jacques-Charles Champigneulle, 1934, France. © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor, Maison Goyard, 1940s. © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California
Diamond and pearl tiara previous
previously owned by Lady Marguerite Allan and saved from the Lusitania, Cartier, 1909, France. Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection. © Cartier