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“Like a cultural arms race”: V&A celebrates the age of Ocean Liners 1

a black and white photo of a large Ocean liner in New York docks

Normandie in New York 1935-39. © Collection French Lines

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.

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.

an art deco poster with a huge Ocean liner in its centre

Empress of Britain colour lithograph poster for Canadian Pacific Railways J.R. Tooby London 1920 – 31. © Victoria and Albert Museum London

a photo of three pieces of luggage stacked upon each other

Duke and Duchess of Windsors Luggage, Goyard about 1950_ Miottel Museum Berkeley California. Photograph courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum Salem Massachusetts

a detail of decorative panel with flower design

Marquestry panel, Deluxe suite wall panel from the Ile de France, 1927. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum Salem Massachusetts

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.

a photo of a green beaded dress on a mannequin

Silk georgette and glass beaded Salambo dress Jeanne Lanvin Paris 1925. Previously owned by Miss Emilie Grigsby. Given by Lord Southborough. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

a painting of a ships funnel in red and black

Paquebot Paris Charles Demuth United States, 1921 -22. Gift of Ferdinand Howald, Columbus Museum of Art.

a photo of a fragment of a carved panel

Wooden panel fragment from the first-class lounge on Titanic c.1911 Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Halifax Nova Scotia Canada.

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.

Earthenware, painted in colours on a white slip and covered with a c...

De Morgan panel for the saloon on ss Sutlej. ca.1882. The Victoria and Albert Museum

a black and white photo of passengers boarding a ship via a gang plank

The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907. Gift of the Georgia O’ Keefe Foundation. Victoria and Albert Museum

a photo of a diamante tiara

A diamond pearl necklace saved from the Lusitania, Cartier Paris 1909. Previously owned by Lady Marguerite Allan. Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier

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.

a detial of Golden panel with Greek figures with spears

A detail of the French panel. Photo John Holden

An art deco panel with a boat and woman in the foreground

Panel from The Rape of Europa for the first-class grand saloon on-board Normandie, Jean Dupas, made by Jacques-Charles Champigneulle, France, 1934 © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California

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

London, Greater London

As the world's leading museum of art and design, the V&A enriches people's lives by promoting the practice of design and increasing knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.



One comment on ““Like a cultural arms race”: V&A celebrates the age of Ocean Liners

  1. Nicholas Messinger CDR RNR Rtd on

    This is a most fascinating exhibition for which you are to be very highly commended. As a former P&O first officer, c 1972, I had the immense privilege of witnessing at first hand, the transition from elegant ocean-going main line passenger liners to purpose-built, cruise ships – at which point I resigned and trained as a nuclear submariner.


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