Among the exhibits at a new show at the Victoria & Albert museum in London is a photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel from 1857. The engineer stands with his hands in his pockets, sporting a top hat and a cigar, looking proud but distinctly Lilliputian against a backdrop of enormous metal chains. These are the launch chains for the Great Eastern, a steamship he designed, then the largest ocean liner in the world. For years it ferried people across the Atlantic, before being repurposed to install another technological marvel, the transatlantic cable, in 1866. Brunel’s Great Eastern was more than a ship; it was a symbol of a new era in which, thanks to advances in engineering and communications technology, the world’s great powers, and their citizens, were more connected than ever.
“Ocean Liners: Speed and Style” tells the story of this and other “floating cities”, as Jules Verne, a French novelist, called them, which for over a century represented the height of modern travel. These powerful vessels could reach far-off destinations in record time, taking hundreds of people with them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the passengers were migrants in search of a better life. Later, as the luxury-travel industry blossomed, liners catered for the wealthy and a new class of aspirational tourists seeking the good life on board. The interiors of early liners mimicked palaces and grand hotels.
Governments recognised the potential of liners as international icons and subsidised their construction: having the biggest, fastest and most magnificent ships became a point of national pride. In wartime they served as military transports, and flagships of the losing side were seized, renamed and refitted to become highly conspicuous trophies. But their popularity was not to last. By the 1960s commercial aviation had taken off, and ocean liners slipped out of view. Today just one, the QE2, continues to operate. They have been succeeded by the slower, coast-hugging cruise liners, but they live on in the public imagination through numerous films, books and memorabilia.
This is the first exhibition to attempt a historical overview of the ocean liner, and the V&A has gone to great lengths to avoid a dry display. The galleries evoke different parts of a ship, from the deck, to the glitzy first-class dining room, to the engine room where the ship’s working parts and working men were hidden away. Furniture and decorations from famous liners are on show, along with outfits and luggage carried on board by celebrity passengers including Marlene Dietrich and the Duke of Windsor. There are children’s toys and deck chairs, posters and paintings, tea sets, tiaras, and a wooden panel from the first-class lounge on the Titanic. The combination makes it difficult to imagine any single liner in its full glory, but taken as a whole, it makes for a very enjoyable journey.
“The Steerage” (1907) by Alfred Stieglitz
Ocean liners have a glamorous public image, and are largely remembered for their opulent, first-class interiors. But for decades the majority of passengers were working-class migrants whose experience was very different from that of the wealthy. Some 40m Europeans emigrated between 1850 and 1914 – many of them to Canada, the United States and South America where they hoped to begin better lives. Ocean liners were their means of getting there, and while steerage (the lowest class of accommodation on board) was cramped, badly ventilated and poorly maintained, people flocked to it. Only after stricter immigration controls were introduced by the US after the first world war did companies focus their efforts on cultivating the luxury market. This photograph shows women, children and men from steerage class filling the available deck space. First class and steerage quarters were kept strictly separate.
“Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Riveters” (1941) by Stanley Spencer
Ocean liners were enormous machines that required substantial investment and manpower to build. This painting, by the British artist Stanley Spencer, depicts just one part of the process. The riveters, in flat caps and workers’ overalls, are joining together parts of a huge steel mast. Millions of rivets would be used during the construction of a single ship.
This is one of a series of paintings that Spencer made for the Ministry of Information during the second world war. They record the efforts of workers in the Glasgow shipyards who were rushing to replace ships and parts destroyed in the conflict. The artist’s unusual use of perspective highlights the cramped and clamorous conditions in which they worked.
“Empress of Britain” colour lithograph poster for Canadian Pacific Steamships (1920-31)
The industrial revolution led to the construction of huge rail, road and shipping networks that were often overseen by the same companies. This poster was designed by J.R. Tooby for Canadian Pacific Steamships, which was an offshoot of Canadian Pacific Railways; the group later set up an airline too. Tooby’s design emphasises the sheer scale of the ship, which rears out of the water, as well as its streamlined design. He uses sharp vertical and diagonal lines so that the prow of the ship seems to cut the water like a knife, while the stylized wavy steam at the top of the image lends a sense of movement to the scene.
Panel from the Beauvais deluxe suite on the Île-de-France (1927), attributed to Marc Simon
In June 1927, the French Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) launched the Île-de-France, a major new liner on the transatlantic route. It was a truly luxurious design, done up in the Art Deco style: the French author and critic Gabriel Mourey described it as “a museum of modern French decorative art”. This marquetry panel was designed for the first class Beauvais suite. The floral composition is made up of shaped pieces of colourful stained wood, which have been neatly fitted together. Zigzag pieces of pale wood create an impression of light rays emanating out from the centre of the design, where a blank section once held a Lalique glass light fitting. The careful integration of architecture and interior decoration won the Île-de-France much praise, and was emulated by future designers.
“Pacquebot ‘Paris’” (1921–22) by Charles Demuth
Modern artists were fascinated by ocean liners. Their massive, metallic forms, bold paintwork and streamlined silhouettes provided the perfect contemporary subject and a chance to experiment with abstraction. Charles Demuth, an American painter, admired the work of the Cubists, who broke objects into flattened sections of colour and light. In this painting of CGT’s transatlantic liner, Paris, Demuth focuses on two huge black and red funnels rising up behind curved, white-painted ventilators. By cropping the image tightly and applying the paint in smooth, flat planes, he emphasises the clean lines and functional design of the ship itself, drawing parallels between its mechanical modernity and his own forward-looking style of painting.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style Victoria & Albert Museum, London until June 17th