Museum Crush talks to Curator Ghislaine Wood, whose spectacular exhibition at the V&A transports visitors to the great age of the ocean liners
Few ships better demonstrate the commitment to decadence during the great age of the ocean liner than the Normandie. When she set sail from Le Havre in 1935, she was regarded as the greatest French liner ever built.
An enormous gold, Art Deco lacquered panel from Normandie’s first-class smoking room towers over the V&A’s new exhibition celebrating Ocean Liners, and depicts ‘Les Sports’ by Jean Dunand.
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Intricate, bold engravings show athletic, stripped down hunks tossing javelins and exhibiting all round physical prowess – France’s image of itself presented to the world. Embossed panels showing wheat and grapes advertise France’s agricultural abundance.
The piece is considered a French national treasure and Curator Ghislaine Wood calls its acquisition a “real coup” for the V&A following its loan from the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style charts the cultural and design impact of the ocean liner from its steamship roots to the pinnacle of luxuriant travel and, in collaboration with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, they have brought together over 250 objects dating from 1850 – 1970, which demonstrate the romance of these ‘floating palaces’.
There are paintings, sculptures, models, interior panels salvaged from decadent saloons, clothing and accessories which show the shifting demographics of passengers, as well as photographs, posters and film.
“The idea was to show it from a design point of view,” says Wood, who has been compiling the exhibition for over three years. “We wanted to show how they developed from emigrant vessels to these images of aspirational travel.”
Several decorative panels demonstrate the fixation with interior design, including a painted earthenware panel by ceramicist William De Morgan taken from the saloon of Sutlej, a P&O liner which served India and the Far East around 1882.
Posters and brochures from the 1850s show adverts for comfortable workhorses designed to ferry families across the Atlantic to the New World, pioneered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 1859 steamship the Great Eastern.
At this point shipping lines turned enormous profits by transporting passengers, mail and cargo simultaneously. Facilities were restricted predominantly to steerage class.
Wood says that despite a painstaking search for artefacts, objects from these lower classes of ocean travel are almost non-existent.
“They have never been considered important enough to retain once the ships were scrapped,” she adds, although the exhibition features several photographs and artist’s impressions of life among these lower class decks.
Like a cultural arms race, the rise of the ocean liner spurred on innovative design and artistic ingenuity
From the 1920s stricter immigration laws in the USA saw shipping lines switch to attracting wealthier passengers for business and leisure. This shift in marketing strategy coincided with a new age in the advertising industry, the dawn of the Ad-men. Shipping lines began commissioning artists to render striking Art Deco images designed to emphasise the scale and power of the liners.
“The promotion and branding completely changed to glamour,” says Wood, “ships became fronts of states and came to represent their countries. It was an international competition where ships were hierarchical.”
Like a cultural arms race, the rise of the ocean liner spurred on innovative design and artistic ingenuity as nations strived to gain the upper hand.
The ‘Grande Descente’, the dramatic double staircase, became a feature on almost every first-class liner from the 1910s onwards
The liners would compete on two fronts. Speed: each year the ‘Blue Riband’ was awarded to the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing and style: governments began to subsidise private firms to make sure they ruled the waves.
Wealthy socialites of the age would flock to the liners. The apotheosis of this high fashion was the iconic ‘Grande Descente’, the dramatic double staircase which became a feature on almost every first-class liner from the 1910s onwards. It acted as a grand backdrop for women dressed in the latest fashions to make their glamorous entrance to the dining area.
Miss Emilie Grigsby was a New York socialite and master of the ‘Grande Descente’ during the 1910s and 1920s and many of her dresses were donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1967.
Wood tells the story of trawling the V&A’s archives for artefacts and coming across a ‘Salambo’ flapper dress once owned by Miss Grigsby. Having been shown at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, the dress had sat in the V&A’s archives, only to be revealed for this exhibition as one of the most important flappers in existence.
“Having the dresses and the fashion really helps the exhibition to appeal to a younger audience,” she says, “by showing what it would have been like on board for people of similar ages.”
With its golden era during the first half of the 20th century, the heyday of the ocean liner straddled both World Wars. The unparalleled size and speed of the liners made them indispensable military assets capable of transporting vast numbers of troops and operating as hospital ships.
Many were destroyed. The French Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915, killing 1,198 civilian passengers and drawing the USA into WWI.
The interiors of the ships would be stripped of their decadence to make way for military practicality, giving many of the liners macabre, mid-war retirement dates.
As the world became more cosmopolitan post World War Two, the new liners struggled to represent national identities as effectively as before. By the 1960s, aeroplanes had succeeded ocean liners as the fastest and most popular mode of long distance transport.
The Queen Elizabeth II, or QE2, was among the last of the great liners as it set sail in 1969. A promotional poster for a collaboration between shipping line Cunard and British Airways displays the QE2 alongside Concorde and the Red Arrows. Rather than usher the liner into a new era of modern travel, the image of supersonic aircraft in the foreground, with the lumbering QE2 behind, emphasises the liner’s relegation to a relic of the past.
Wood says that ocean liners conjure unparalleled feelings of nostalgia for a past which is long gone and points to the introduction of winter gardens on today’s cruise liners as a hark back to the golden age.
They are romantic snapshots of a bygone era, providing the backdrop for innumerable books, films, plays and artistic works – a stage on which any story can be played out and the V&A captures how these floating behemoths have become immortalised in a moment in time.
As for the Normandie, in 1942 the great emblem of France’s nautical luxuriance was being converted to a troopship on the Hudson River, New York when sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of life jackets in the first-class lounge. The fire spread rapidly, breached the hull and capsized the ship. It lay half-submerged in mud on the banks of the Hudson until 1946 when it was scrapped, having never made it to the war.
Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is at the V&A from February 3 – June 10 2018 vam.ac.uk/OceanLiners | #OceanLiners
Victoria and Albert Museum
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