by Roderick Conway Morris

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Speed and Style

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 2 March 2018
V&A, London
Empress of Britain by J.R. Tooby, 1920-31



Jules Verne was one of the first writers to travel on an ocean liner - Brunel's 'Great Eastern' - and he was visionary in his appreciation that it was not just 'a masterpiece of naval construction' but a floating microcosm of society encapsulating 'all the instincts, follies and passions of human nature'.

These Leviathans, the largest and most complex moving objects ever built, were soon employing armies of naval architects, engineers, ship-builders, designers, artists and craftsmen in their creation, and transporting millions of people all over the globe - from the leisured, super-rich in their luxurious suites to the 'huddled masses' crowded into the steerage quarters in the vessels' bowels.

For nearly a hundred years between the second half of the 19th century and the mid 20th century, ocean liners were the primary passenger link between European states and their far-flung empires and colonies. Between 1900 and1914 alone, they carried 11 million emigrants from Europe to the New World.

Only one ship from the Golden Age of ocean travel survives: the 'Queen Mary', launched in 1936, now permanently moored at Long Beach, California. An amazing 26ft-long model of her opens the gloriously diverting, deliciously nostalgic but also highly informative 'Ocean Liners: Speed and Style', curated by Daniel Finamore and Ghislaine Wood.

These hugely expensive ships needed to carry a full passenger load on every voyage and in a competitive markets large sums were spent on their promotion. Their towering prows, sleek lines, huge funnels and expanses of primary colours were a gift to the graphic artists of the times, as the selection at the beginning of the show of outsized posters advertizing them reveals.

Flagship ocean liners also became symbols of national pride, heavily subsidized by their respective governments - Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and, in due course, America and Japan. They became showcases of national engineering, design and artistic skills, and the launching of ships such as the German 'Bremen' (1925), the Italian 'Rex' (1932), the 'Normandie' (1935) and the 'Queen Mary' (1936) were major international events.

Interior styles were at first eclectic. In 1905 the 'Amerika' had a Tudor smoking room and Pompeiian swimming pool, for example. But the integrated design of the 'Normandie' made it the greatest Art Deco object ever made. The 'Orion' (1935) was the first British ship fully to embrace modernist styles and also the first liner to be air conditioned.

Liners became the supreme spaces and vehicles for displaying and promoting fashion around the globe. The central 'grande descente' staircase (recreated in virtual reality in the show) was already a feature of liners by 1910, giving passengers the chance to show off their finery. When the 'Normandie' made her maiden voyage to New York in the mid '30s, of the 519 first-class passengers 100 were representatives of the fashion industry. By the 1920s 'cruise wear' was making sports and leisure wear chic, establishing a tradition still alive in cruise collections in the couture calendar today.

'L'Atlantique' had already become a fashion victim shortly before. Her first-class quarters included a 150-yard-long Parisian-style boulevard with 36 boutiques offering French luxury products. When fire broke out, it swept through this open thoroughfare and completely destroying the ship after only two years of service.

Those who are oppressed by draconian luggage restrictions on modern airplanes can look back with envy to the likes of one first-class passenger on the 'Titanic', whose insurance claim records that she had 12 trunks, including a Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk, hat trunks and shoe trunks.

Meanwhile, we can spare a thought for the three-quarters of a million military personnel transported during the Second World War on the 'Queen Mary', whose first-class cabins, designed for two, were adapted to accommodate 20 men.

Ocean journeys also fostered a sense of unreality and a suspension of conventional behaviour, the theme of James Cameron's 'Titanic' (ironically, the release of the film led to a surge in cruise ship bookings). As a lifelong transatlantic traveller noted in the 1920s: 'At sea you can be as rich as you say you are. Moreover you can tell so many fibs on the ocean, that one more or less can make no difference.'

And although the great ocean liners were notionally rigorously divided along class lines, they could provide opportunities for social transgression. This was, however, almost invariably temporary, as a handsome first-class steward on a P&O liner bound for Bombay found to his cost. Having danced with an aristocratic young woman one evening and been observed leaving with her, he made the mistake of daring to greet her on deck the next day, only to be told firmly: 'You should know that In the circles I move in, sleeping with a man does not constitute an introduction.'

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style; V&A, London; 3 February - 17 June 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023