Ocean Liners: Speed and Style

John Westbrooke enjoys an exhibition about the big ships

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When was the golden age of ocean travel? The V&A’s glamorous new exhibition gives it as roughly the century from 1858, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel launched the Great Eastern. In 1970, Boeing 747s took off, and liners became a leisure activity rather than a means of getting anywhere.

As with terrestrial archaeology, you might get the impression that everyone lived well, because their possessions last better, but much sea travel was for the desperately poor. The Great Eastern was a leviathan driven by propellers, sails and paddle-wheels, and meant to carry emigrants to the east and Australia; there weren’t enough, so it switched to crossing the Atlantic instead.

Emigration was big business: 60m Europeans headed for a better life, all but the rich crammed into steerage. The rest spent days (weeks, if heading for Australia) sleeping in dormitories just above the waterline, eating communally and praying nobody had typhoid. “We are divided on deck from the married people by a wooden fence, and a constable stands by the gate to see that no one talks to their friends,” wrote one young woman going to Brisbane.

Not much of a golden age below decks, and not many relics on display here either, but you can glimpse the reality in Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “In the Steerage”: men standing on deck, women in shawls below, babies in arms, washing on lines.

Nor was it always safe. The exhibition gives due space both to the engineering and to the mistakes: the Titanic’s misfortune (there’s a deckchair on display), and even a storm that hit the Great Eastern, bringing a cow crashing through the roof of the saloon.

After World War 1, however, the USA introduced quotas, mass migration ended, and the shipping lines targeted the wealthy instead. This is where the exhibition really takes off, with a wealth of clothing, furniture, models and documents testifying to the new glamour of sailing in style.

International prestige was already involved. Even before the war, the German ship Kronprinz Wilhelm had captured the mythical Blue Riband – the fastest time across the Atlantic, five days 11 hours 57 minutes westbound. Among its decoration was a painting showing a German with a flag and a trident, called “Our Future Lies on the Water”. The British government took the hint and provided a £2.6m loan for the Cunard line to build two bigger and faster ships. Contracts might include a stipulation that they could be requisitioned to carry troops if needed.

As it turned out, one liner, the Lusitania, played a key part in the war. A German U-boat sank her, claiming she was carrying armaments – which London hotly denied. Among the 1198 dead were 128 Americans, and neutral America was outraged; the incident remained a factor when it joined in the war in 1917. Not till 1982 did Britain admit there had indeed been ammunition on board.

Among the survivors was Lady Marguerite Allan: two of her daughters drowned, but a maid saved a sparkling diamond and pearl tiara, now on show at the exhibition; it recently sold for £500,000.

Between the wars came the real glory days. “Choose your steamer as you would choose a summer resort or a town house or a club,” pleaded one brochure. Shipping lines had already been calling on top designers and chefs to create stately homes at sea. Charles Mewès, architect of the Ritz hotel in Paris, had designed the interior of the German liner Imperator, including her indoor pool lined with Greek columns. The legendary chef Auguste Escoffier, late of the same hotel, ran the kitchen.

Art deco was now the style of choice, not just for the decor of the ships but for the posters, the brochures, the menus, all on show at the V&A. (It even fed back into the design of modern houses ashore, round windows and all.) Cunard’s very British Queen Mary held her nose: “Period styles”, said her publicity, “have been discarded in favour of a restrained modernism.”

Passengers contributed their own style. A feature of the day was the guests’ grande descente to a dozen-course dinner, often down a lavish staircase, in all their finery. So here’s a flapperish silk georgette and glass-beaded Lanvin dress, a Dior day suit (more reflective of 1950 austerity and female curves) worn by Marlene Dietrich, and even a post-Carnaby St man’s suit from 1969, which must have lit up the captain’s table.

Most chic of all was the Normandie, financed in part by the French government and described as “the most resplendent attempt to turn ships into floating displays of a nation’s artistic genius”. Sleekly streamlined, she had luxury apartments, Aubusson chairs, a winter garden and aviary, a Grand Salon based on Versailles, and mural decorations in lacquered gold leaf by Jean Dunand.

Sadly, she sailed for only a few years before war broke out again and the Americans seized her for use as a troopship. In New York she caught fire, and was burnt out and then capsized by all the water used to put out the blaze.

Ocean travel continued after the war, but the glamour had gone. Postwar migration, including £10 Poms going to Australia, still provided custom, but ships looked more to family audiences. Where once Stanley Spencer had painted shipyard workers, the Canberra had a children’s room with murals by Edward Ardizzone and a teenage hangout decorated by David Hockney. A blah functionalism replaced art deco.

People still cruise for pleasure in growing numbers (Viking Cruises is sponsoring the exhibition), but it’s mostly the older ones who doll up for the captain’s table: the general dress code is more likely to be somewhere between smart casual and slob. Gone are the days when dogs had their own menu on the Normandie (“Pour votre toutou, Madame”); now you’ll probably find a round-the-clock buffet. Instead of Fred and Ginger dancing on the top deck, the movies give us the Titanic and the Poseidon. The Queen Mary remains in Long Beach, California, but her contemporaries have vanished.

The Symphony of the Seas, to be launched in April, will weigh 230,000 gross tons and carry 6780 passengers, which would have stunned Brunel and will swamp many a port of call. The wealthy prefer small luxurious cruise ships to big luxurious ones: fewer slobs, and they can get into more intimate ports where the leviathans aren’t. The rest of us fly. But visit this exhibition and you’ll walk out murmuring “I must down to the sea again…”

Ocean Liners is at the Victoria and Albert museum until 17 June 2018. Tickets £18, concessions available.