Ocean Liners at the V&A Museum explores the history of transatlantic seafaring design

Ocean Liners at the V&A Museum explores the history of transatlantic seafaring design

Welcome to a huge, overbearing concoction of glittering surfaces, richly embellished craft and careful attention to everything from the biggest object right down to the tiniest detail. This is the V&A’s new blockbuster, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’, a suitably grand evocation of the golden age of one of history’s most venerated forms of transport.

‘Ocean Liners’ taps into many of our contemporary fascinations and obsessions, including glamour, nationalism, class, art, design, sex and death. The liner represented the apogee of the first industrial age, a floating city of unparalleled sophistication built on the raw power of shipbuilding and steam. The very best artists, designers, architects, craftspeople and stylists were employed to shape these vessels, pouring themselves into every last conceivable detail, from curtains to cutlery, while the industrial might of nations ground out the iron, steel and millions of rivets that shaped each boat.

Model of a quadruple expansion tandem engine, designed by Walter Brock and made by David Carlaw, for William Denny Brothers, Dumbarton, Scotland, 1887. © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums

The V&A’s new show, curated by Ghislaine Wood and Daniel Finamore, tracks the origins of the transatlantic crossing from the early days of mail ships and mass immigration, when the cargo and the destination mattered far, far more than the cramped, uncomfortable journey. But as the moneyed, leisured upper classes started to spread their wings, the ocean liner came into its own, a grand hotel at sea offering glamorous social interaction and company, entertainment and dining of the very highest quality. Class mattered more at sea than on land, and different levels of social status were conveyed unambiguously through design.

Governments started to see their liner fleets as floating embassies for national identity and strength, and the Blue Riband – awarded to the fastest Atlantic crossing – changed hands several times in the 1920s and 30s. There were other factors at play; the big liners had an essential role in carrying troops and equipment during the war, so it made sense for governments to bankroll their construction in times of peace. The boats provided the capacity, but the shipping companies – Cunard, White Star, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, United States Lines and so on – provided the glitz, as liners evolved from the cluttered Edwardian splendour seen in White Star’s Titanic and Olympic to the sleek, populist modernity of the art deco era.

Detail of ‘Riveters’ from the series ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’, by Stanley Spencer, United Kingdom, 1941. © Imperial War Museums

The exhibition emphasises the theatrical, from the room-sets containing reclaimed artwork and furniture to the large-scale recreation of a grand salon, all mannequins and mirrors and wall-to-wall projections of the Atlantic horizon. The ocean liner inspired some of the most evocative and beautiful posters ever printed, but the total design approach extended to all areas, from menu cards to the corporate architecture of their head offices. The most splendid era of all – the late 1920s and 30s – was of course curtailed by war, and the sheer scale of the waste is still staggering; the Normandie, perhaps the ultimate art deco object, only sailed for four years from 1935–39, before catching fire and sinking as it was being converted to a troop carrier.

Titanic in dry dock, c.1911. © Getty Images

The post-war era was more populist, and the strict social stratification of the ocean liner started to become a little more relaxed. Names like Marion Dorn, Edward Ardizzone, the Cassons, Edward Bawden, Gio Ponti, David Hicks, Ernest Race, Robert Heritage and more, turned their hand to the interiors of the new-era liners, fighting an unwinnable war against commercial aviation. The exhibition captures these dying days of unassailable style, and the 250 objects take the visitor on an intriguing and bittersweet voyage, the extremes of which will probably never be seen again. Cruise ships are still a thing, of course (the exhibition is sponsored by culture specialist Viking Cruises), but the scale and drama of the big ocean liner remains a potent symbol of our vision of luxury travel.