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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.