Explore the romantic and remarkable age of ocean travel and discover how ocean liners helped shape the modern world.
The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson once boarded the liner SS United States with 100 pieces of matching luggage bought from Maison Goyard of Paris. Next year, some of the cases, with his title stamped in gold, will cross the Atlantic again to feature in a major exhibition at the V&A devoted to the glory days of ocean liners.
Also making its first return voyage, on loan from a museum in Canada, will be one of the largest surviving decorative features from the first-class lounge of the Titanic, a spectacularly carved wooden panel found floating in the sea after it sank in 1912.
The exhibition, more than three years in the making, will open in February with Britain’s exit from the EU looming on the horizon. The V&A director, Tristram Hunt, said while it was not a Brexit exhibition, it would show how design trends spanned an interconnected Europe in the period.
There will be other contemporary echoes in the exhibition: its curator, Ghislaine Wood, said the concept of an ocean voyage as a desirable leisure activity, rather than an uncomfortable and dangerous necessity, came about when the US began to clamp down on mass immigration in the 19th century, and shipping companies had to find new ways to fill vessels.
Shipping companies employed some of the most renowned designers of the day, with the V&A collection including ceramics designed by William de Morgan for P&O liners, and lacquer panels from the French liner Normandie by Jean Dunand.
Passengers travelling first class responded with matching glamour: the exhibition will include a scarlet silk dress worn by Bernadette Arnal on the Normandie’s maiden voyage, for which she ordered a series of gowns in red, white and blue.
Fittings from the Normandie were salvaged when the ship was stripped out as a second world war troop carrier, and subsequently sank in New York harbour.
Also on display will be a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich when she arrived in New York in 1950 on the Queen Elizabeth, and a dazzling Lanvin beaded silk dress, worn in 1925 by Emilie Grigsby, a Kentucky heiress who spent almost as much time on Atlantic liners as she did on land in the 1920s and 30s.
Also on show will be a diamond and pearl tiara designed by Cartier that survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It was worn on board by Lady Allan, wife of a partner in the shipping company, who escaped when the ship was torpedoed together with her two maids and a suite of luggage. Her two daughters were among the 1,198 who died.
The design story will begin with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enormous Great Eastern, the engineer’s last project and the largest ship in the world when it was launched in 1858. He died soon after her maiden voyage the following year, and so never saw his ship converted into a cable laying vessel having failed to make a profit as a passenger liner. It was broken up in 1889 after it had become a floating advertising hoarding.
The story will end with the QE2, launched in 1969 and regarded by Wood as the last of the classic ocean liners.
The exhibition will include a swimming pool, a first for the V&A, in tribute to the vessels’ elaborate on-deck entertainment: it will, however, be dry, so, like the second- and third-class passengers down below on the liners, visitors will have to admire its glamour from a distance.
- Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, V&A London, 2 February – 10 June 2018.
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