Occasionally, one visits a ticketed exhibition and finds oneself wondering just what you’re paying for in comparison with others that are equally interesting but free – especially when it’s in a venue where most of the exhibits are free. Well, that’s definitely not the case with the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style event at the V&A where the price of your ticket has gone towards bringing together a collection of artefacts that have never been seen in the same place before and displaying them with a sense of scale to reflect the sheer size of the ships they come from.
The span of the exhibition captures what, for those of our tastes, must qualify as the heyday of the ocean liner which, I hadn’t realised until devouring one of the lucid and informative legends accompanying the exhibits, was initiated by the introduction of immigration controls in the USA in the early 1920s which meant that the passenger shipping countries could no longer rely on working class travellers seeking one-way transatlantic journeys and needed to start pitching for the more wealthy leisure and business travel business. That sparked a fiercely competitive environment, with the likes of Cunard, White Star and their French and US counterparts mixing technological innovation to shave precious days, or even hours, off their crossing times with attempts to capture the essence of the art nouveau and deco styles in design of the passenger areas to reflect the latest fashions of the day.
That design was reflected in every aspect of the liner business, from their advertising and brochures, which made up the opening galleries of the exhibition, to the interiors and furnishings which is where our eyes widened and mouths began to water. Given the sad end to which some of the liners came to – some sunk during WW2, others like the Queen Mary lost to on board fires, others stripped out or scrapped when their useful life came to an end or decor became outdated – it was exciting to see what had survived in the way of chairs, tables, lights and carpets. More stunning were some of the interior wall claddings – ceiling high explosions of deco style. Sheer fate had a hand in some of those surviving, as many came from the SS Normandie, sunk under the weight of water used to fight a fire which had broken out as she was being converted to a troopship in the 1940s, but not until after many of her interior fittings had been removed to storage, preserving them for posterity where they might otherwise have been lost when she finished her life.
Neatly bracketing our period of interest, the exhibition’s timeframe ran up to the 1960s and the arrival of the post-war liners in the shape of the QE2 and the USS United States which marked the end of the era of transatlantic sea travel as the essence of the liner and the transition to the contemporary concept of the mobile luxury resort. Again, though, the number of items retrieved from both ships as they went through stripping out or refit was fascinating. And so to the main hall of the exhibition, where height and space were combined to evoke the atmosphere of the open deck as the theme turned to life on board. Here, items from the ships themselves were set alongside personal items from those who travelled on them, from Royalty, through more ordinary (though well-heeled) passengers, to the crews who made it all work. There was everything from the luxury of bespoke travelling sets, through the mundane (cut still stylish) in cutlery and glassware to the poignant in a piece of jewellery saved by the only survivor of a family party lost on the Titanic. The authenticity of the exhibits was reinforced by contemporary photos showing the very outfits on display being worn on board.
The final exhibition space brought the story to a close with a mixture of themes, including clips of liners in the movies (there was a crib sheet, but we enjoyed playing name that film), hi-tech projects abandoned in favour of the floating block of flats style of design now current in the cruising business and, as a memorial to a lost way of life, one of the largest panels recovered from the wreck of the Titanic, featured ‘floating’ on a simulated sea surface.
Everything about this exhibition works – lighting, space, angles, captions. With items sourced from museum and private collections across the world, it’s a unique experience – and you’ve got until 17 June to take it in. Full details can be found on the V&A’s website.