Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A


I was sitting outside Harry’s Dolci on the Guidecca sipping a Bellini, as one does, with one of the best views of  Venice across the canal, when the whole terrace was cast into shadow. A vast block of flats, over 70 metres high and 360 metres long slid past, carrying anything up to 6,000 passengers, with thousands of cabins, swimming pools, casinos, clubs, bars, cinemas and theatres, gyms, shops and restaurants. The cruise ship has grown faster than any other holiday sector in the last 20 years, carrying around 20 million passengers a year. However, these marine cities are major polluters, generating nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, carbon dioxide and diesel particulate matter into the air, with each ship pumping 200,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the oceans every week. The idea of spending any time at all on one of these floating shopping malls with 5,999 willing captives, sounds like hell on earth, or rather, water. The sister vessel to the Costa Concordia, the ship that died of shame when it ran into a small-ish Italian island called Giglio, is named the Costa Fortuna, without a hint of irony. It certainly cost a lot of lives. 

The exhibition at the V&A takes us back to a more glamorous and stylish time: the golden age of ocean travel, in the 1920s and 1930s when it was the only way to cross the Atlantic. In a section called ‘Politics of Power’, Great Britain vied with France and Germany, as well as Italy and America, to build bigger and better ‘flagships of imperialism’ before and after the First World War, as they jostled to display national and maritime power, by using the best designers and artists to project their expressions of statehood through Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernism. The fairy painter Edmund Dulac was employed by Canadian Pacific to design certain interior areas of RMS Empress of Britain, the 56,000-ton luxury liner, built by John Brown at Clydebank in 1930. Sadly, there is no mention of William Heath Robinson, who designed the Knickerbocker Cocktail Bar and a children’s nursery on board the same ship. During WW2 she was commandeered by the Admiralty as a troop ship, only to be holed and sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1941.There are some intricate models, including a highly detailed 1:48 scale one of Cunard’s flagship Queen Elizabeth at the entrance to the exhibition, behind which are numerous familiar posters, including Cassandre’s iconic Normandie and J R Tooby’s Empress of Britain. Other British artists are represented by Abram Games and there is a charming mural by Edward Ardizzone for the children’s playroom of the Canberra. Also on display is Paquebot ‘Paris’ by the American artist Charles Demuth, famed for painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, hanging in the Met in New York.

On loan from the Imperial War Museum is ‘The Riveters’, part of Stanley Spencer’s extraordinary and epic series Shipbuilding on the Clyde, which was commissioned by the British government. In the same gallery is a beautiful wooden model, showing where every single panel and every single rivet is placed on the hull. A film playing alongside showed one of the three enormous manganese-bronze propellers being hoisted into position onto Titanic’s sister ship Olympic. It took three men to put in each red-hot iron and steel rivet, and there were more than three million of them. A scale model of a quadruple expansion tandem engine is a beautifully engineered piece of machinery on display, as well as cutaway designs and models of the biggest ocean-going ships, from the Titanic and the Normandie to SS United States and the QE2

Fashion and lifestyle are also examined, and, this being the V&A, there are examples of evening dresses, including their famous silk and glass-beaded ‘Salambo’ dress, a Lucien Lelong silk crêpe model and a Dior day suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on Queen Elizabeth in 1950. There are also wall panels, one from the Titanic, furniture, textiles and film excerpts. These clips are fun, if a little predictable, from Titanic, The Poseidon AdventureDiamonds are Forever, Marilyn Monroe trying to squeeze through a porthole in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Brideshead Revisited and Giuseppe Tornatore’s eccentric fable The Legend of 1900. There is a five metre-high lacquered gold leaf panel, depicting half a dozen young male athletes and a topless girl, all in shorts, as part of the art deco interior on the French ship Normandie which has been loaned from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. One gets the feeling that, if they had a larger budget, the V&A could have designed an exhibition that was grander, more romantic and certainly more stylish than the one we have, and possibly the new Sainsbury Wing, where the Opera exhibition was on until recently, would have been an ideal location for a grand entrance, just as first class passengers in their most glamorous clothes, came sweeping down the staircase before dinner, known as la grande descente.

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