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Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 3rd February to 17th June 2018

The Victoria and Albert Museum re-imagines the golden age of ocean travel with their major new exhibition entitled Ocean Liners: Speed & Style.  It is the first ever exhibition to explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner on an international scale and features sections on ship design, engineering, architecture and interiors to the fashion and lifestyle aboard.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style introduces over 250 objects, including paintings, sculpture, and ship models, alongside objects from shipyards, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film. It will display objects never-before-seen in Europe, and reunite objects not seen together since on-board these iconic vessels.  

The exhibition begins by looking at some of the interiors of some of the world’s most luxurious liners from the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, Titanic and Olympic, to the floating Art Deco palaces of Queen Mary and Normandie, and the Modernism of SS United States and QE2.

The idea of luxurious ocean liners began to some extent from the ill-fated Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern of 1859, however it was not until the early 20th Century that shipping companies began to sell on-board travel on the liners as an enjoyable experience in itself.

There was also an element of international rivalry with various nations using the liners as a showcase for marine technology and cultural expression. Part of the exhibition features some of the state of the art engineering behind the liners and some of the skills of the workers who built the ships. One of the highlights is Stanley Spencer’s painting ‘The Riveters’ from the 1941 series Shipbuilding on the Clyde.

The exhibition reveals some of the leading artists and designers who contributed to the interior design of the ships, such as William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone.

The often formal nature of travel in the areas on the ships catering for wealthy passengers led to some of the great couturiers designing fashions for passengers to wear whilst enjoying ocean travel. Famous passengers were often used to promote their designs, the exhibition features a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950, and a Lucien Lelong couture gown worn for the maiden voyage of Normandie in 1935.

The exhibition will also showcases Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress, the dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a wealthy American who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the liners throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The Duke of Windsor’s 1940s Goyard luggage is also featured, on display in Europe for the first time since leaving the Windsor Estate.

One of the ironies of ocean liner travel is that it is the ships that sank that are the most famous, the exhibition features a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915 and a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first class lounge, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. At the end of the exhibition, clips from Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), remind us of our fascination with these ‘floating palaces’.

This attractive, enjoyable and fascinating exhibition explores the relatively short ‘golden age’ of luxury ocean travel. In many ways, the exhibition illustrates how shipping companies created the impression that the often long periods on board could be enjoyed rather than just endured. This was often achieved by creating a ‘fantasy’ of an ordered society where everyone knew their place, the irony of course is that ‘ordered’ society on land was under attack for a variety of reasons. 

Despite wars and depression in the early part of the 20th century, seemingly no expense was spared to provide sumptuous interiors and leisure activities that would appeal to the wealthy or the aspiring middle classes.

The growth of the commercial airlines after the Second World War gradually led to the end of the ‘golden age’ of luxury ocean travel but the nostalgia and romance for the period is still strong. This exhibition gives a taste of the period and how artists contributed to and were inspired by the ‘age of the luxury ocean liners.’

Video Review available here

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information , visit the V & A website here

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