Oh, how I wish I could have crossed the Atlantic in the heyday of the ocean liner – as long as I had been fabulously wealthy, had a first-class cabin, a pile of luggage which would fill the average family home, and could have spent four days luxuriating in beautifully decorated interiors, taking in the sea air from a comfortable deckchair and danced through the evening in my finest gowns in a glittering ballroom.
Of course, most people had rather a different experience of sea crossings – certainly in the early days of ocean travel. I rather liked the painting by Louis Rochefort from about 1881, of stormy mayhem on the Great Eastern when the rudder broke and passengers endured three days of rolling the waves. It must have been a relief to step on dry land after that voyage.
This show, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum concentrates more on the fabulous opportunities for designers which these floating palaces offered. The inter-war years of the 1920s and 30s saw a huge expansion of travel from Europe to America and all over the world. Clearly there was competition between the shipping companies to create the largest, the fastest, the most fabulous vessel. The poster’s of the day celebrate the sleek lines, the fantasy of calm, untroubled waters, the abundance of food, drink and entertainment. What a way to travel!
I loved seeing the art which is on abundant show in this exhibition. For example, Stanley Spencer was commissioned to record industries involved in World War Two. Spencer visited the Clyde shipyards and sketched the different activities – hammering, riveting, lifting, pushing – and created a stunning panorama of the workplace.
It was also a joy to see a mural by Edward Bawden, commissioned for the first-class lounge of The Oronsay, which depicts the joys of the English pub. Wonderfully witty.
There’s a frisson of fear to be felt when viewing two items from the ill-fated Titanic. There’s a deckchair, found floating in the sea after the ship had gone down, and also a carved wooden panel which had once adorned the first-class lounge, which must have bobbed to the surface after the ship broke up. Both pieces convey a chill atmosphere of the disaster and a sharp reminder of the risks involved in ocean travel. This is the first time either of them has been back to their country of origin.
Then there’s fashion, the luggage, the gaiety and the fabulous marketing posters. It’s all on glorious display to offer the fantasy voyage.
And I loved the furniture – there are so many examples of chairs, from the ones which are helpfully nailed to the floor, to the comfortable cabin armchairs and stylish seats in elegant lounges.
And finally, I can add my own, personal postscript to all this. When I was 10 years old, my family sailed from New York to Southampton in the Queen Elizabeth. It was not a particularly rough journey but it was foggy for most of the four days at sea and the horizon seemed to tilt a lot. But, for a child, it was very heaven. Wall to wall food and drink, plenty of play areas, films to watch, shows to see, a whole ship to explore. It was thrilling. And I was delighted to see a vast model of the stalwart liner right at the entrance of the show. My brother, who has a forensic memory of the journey, informs me that our cabin was on F deck a the back of the ship, just above the water line. That might explain why there was nothing to see out of the porthole!
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 3rd February to 17th June 2018.
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