The Londoness


Born in Paris.

Made in London.

Teller of London Tales.

Floating Palaces at the V&A

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert museum is an exhibition with some serious swagger. You might want to dress up for this one, as it’s all about the glitz and the glamour of the golden age of travel, and it might leave you feeling, well, a tad mundane. Ocean Liners is the first show of its kind showcasing the architecture, interiors, fashion and lifestyle of the great international passenger steamship. There are over 250 objects to drool over: paintings, sculpture, models, textiles, wall panels, furniture, posters and film footage.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

Paquebot Paris: Charles Demuth’s 1921 painting symbolises the modern age of travel.  (Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Ferdinand Howald).

Putting on the Ritz

For more than 100 years, ocean liners were the primary mode of intercontinental transportation. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the jet age kicked in. Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Walt Disney and David Niven were just some of the celebrities who used these giant golden carcasses to cross the Atlantic.

The grande dames  of ocean liners included the France,  Normandie, Lusitania, Mauretania, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.  Unsurprisingly, passengers opted for German, French and British liners over American ones, as whilst the Prohibition laws were in effect, the giggle water restrictions still applied on American ships.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

The Normandie in New York, 1935 – 39 (Collection French Lines)

Shipping lines employed the great chefs of the day such as Auguste Escoffier who had previously worked at the Ritz. Caviar from Astrakhan, venison steak from Yorkshire, and strawberries and wines from France were served on-board.

As shipping companies started marketing to wealthier clients, so the interiors started taking centre stage. And the more opulent, the better, with styles ranging from Beaux-Arts to Art Nouveau. During the interwar period, Art Deco became the interior style du jour. And it wasn’t just a floating playground for adults. Children were also pampered, the Normandie  playroom going to far as to include a puppet theatre and carousel.

Exhibition Highlights

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

FRONT: Deckchair from The Titanic. (Museum of the City of New York, gift of Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, 2013). BACK: Day suit belonging to Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr, (V & A, gift of Mr and Mrs Anthony J. Drexel Biddle III).

I was mesmerised by the Titanic  memorabilia in Ocean Liners. This deck chair is one of the few that survived the vessel’s doomed maiden voyage in 1912.  The chair would have been reserved in advance of the crossing, together with cushions and a blanket. Passengers would relax on-deck, or the more energetic could choose a game of shuffleboard, quoits, tennis or clay-pigeon shooting.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

Doors from the embarkation hall and panels from the France.  (French Line Collection, Le Havre)

An embarkation hall fit for the Sun King, this understated area was modelled for the France  liner in the style of the Palais de Versailles. Images of Louis XIV were in evidence throughout the first class areas, and his sun emblem featured on metalwork like these sumptuous doors.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

Not to be outdone by the French and Germans, the British swiftly got to work on their own liners:  the magnificent Queen Mary  and the Queen Elizabeth.  More conservative in style than their continental counterparts, the British liners were laminated in exotic woods from the colonies, and the stunning carpets were of the highest specification of weight and length of pile. The Queen Mary  is one of the only surviving great liners – she is moored in Long Beach, California.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

Cecil Beaton was not amused aboard the Queen Mary. “When constructing a boat, even a luxury liner, the English do not consider their women very carefully. There are hardly any large mirrors in the general rooms, no great flight of stairs to make an entrance “ Thankfully, other grand liners included a grande descente,  a staircase where the ladies could make a proper entrance dressed in all their finery.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

LEFT: Maison Goyard luggage (Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California) and RIGHT, Dior suit (Department of Recreation & Parks, City of Los Angeles, courtesy FIDM Museum).

One of the main highlights of Ocean Liners is the Maison Goyard luggage owned by the Duke of Windsor. The Duke and Duchess would travel with mountainous amounts of luggage, once boarding the SS United States  with 100 pieces! On the right, is a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on 21 December 1950 aboard the Queen Elizabeth.  She was a frequent cruiser.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

This rather fetching tiara is from the Cartier Collection in Paris, once belonging to the wife of Sir Hugh Montagu Allen. Lady Marguerite was travelling on the doomed Lusitania  when it was attacked by German U-boats on the 7 May 1915. Her two daughters died onboard, but Lady Allan survived with her two maids, one of whom saved the tiara.

Ocean liners, Speed and Style, V&A exhibition, Titanic memorabilia, ocean liners of the past, 1920s ocean liners, exhibition review London

Fragment of an overdoor from the first-class lounge on the Titanic (Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia)

This piece is sure to be the highlight of the exhibition: a fragment from the Titanic  and which marks the spot where she broke in half on the 14 April 1912. It is the largest remaining fragment of the ship, once located over the door to the first-class lounge., and it’s the first time this panel has been seen in Europe. A visit to Ocean Liners at the V& A is a must for this exhibit alone.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is on at the V&A from 3 February to 17 June 2018.  You can book tickets here.

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Born in Paris. Made in London. Teller of London Tales.

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