Titanic in dry dock c. 1911 © Getty Images

The Golden Age of Ocean-Going

9th February 2018

The latest exhibition at the V&A is the first to explore the international impact that ocean liners had on design and culture. Jack Watkins sailed along, and offers his view…

My maternal grandmother, the daughter of a cranedriver at the Clyde docks, was fond of reminiscing about the past, and of telling me about our family’s years in America, after migrating there during the late 1920s Depression. This was the time when travel overseas meant going by boat, not plane, and she’d proudly recall one occasion when she sailed on the Queen Mary – third class, of course – and was permitted a glimpse of the first-class dining room. A canny Scot, who though she had none herself, was always impressed by money, the memory of the swank and décor stayed with her for life.

Not being one for the arts, she didn’t say much about the style of the boat, but the V&A’s new exhibition – which, in a poignant moment for me, features a painting of the dining room that so enthralled my grandmother in all its pillared, high-ceilinged glory – fills in the details. It reimagines this ‘golden age’ of travel through 250 objects, including paintings, sculpture, ship models, fashion, films, photographs and shipping line posters

The Queen Mary, of course, was very much a mid-20th century ship, reflecting the mania for streamlined Art Deco, a style which most of us imagine when we think of classic ocean liners today. It’s worth remembering that their story actually goes back to the middle of the 19th century, and that master Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There’s a model of his ship the Great Eastern in the show. Brunel pioneered the use of screw propellers, but these were not enough to power a ship of that size in the 1850s, and so it also had sails and a paddle wheel. The ship looks a little odd to our eyes, a cross between an old-style galleon that Admiral Nelson might have commanded and a Mississippi steamboat, because, unlike the later liners or massive ferries of the modern day, it did not have a superstructure above the main deck.

Made of iron and wood, not steel as they would be later, the earlier liners took the stylistic cue for their interior décor from stately homes, though the mahogany chairs had cast iron-bases bolted to the floor to keep them rooted to the deck in bad weather. The doors from the embarkation hall on the France, dated to about 1912, evoke Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace. Our old friend, the Victorian faience king William De Morgan, whose Moorish-influenced work can still be seen today in Lord Leighton’s gorgeous art studio house in Kensington, was kept very busy, designing earthenware tile panels for the P&O ships. His backdrops featured exotic landscapes of palm trees, camels and volcanic mountains, sights which the passengers, if they could be bothered to lever themselves out of their salon chairs, might expect to see en route.

There are a few vintage film clips of life on board for the wealthier passengers. They loaf about in armchairs, or the more energetic are seen engaging in ballroom dancing. On the face of it, it looks very stiff and artificial, but unlike the modern-day cruise, at least these people were presumably there because they were trying to get to some other destination, rather than just ‘having a ride on a boat’. The height of absurdity was the so-called Grande Descente, a dramatic staircase which, by 1910, had become a feature of the first-class liner dining rooms, the idea being to serve as a backdrop for wealthy women in glamorous costumes to make the most stirring entrance to the dining room. How ridiculous and snobbish a charade that must have been.

You didn’t always get a Grande Descente on a British ship though. Even back then, it seems, we were trying to cut corners and do things on the cheap. When that arch-snob Cecil Beaton hopped on board the Queen Mary in 1936, he was dismayed to find the Grande Descente was conspicuous by its absence. “When constructing a boat, even a luxury liner, the English do not consider their women very carefully,” he simpered. “There are hardly any large mirrors in the general rooms, no great flight of stairs for the ladies to make an entrance.” Nowadays, of course, in the days of cheap airflight, the ref blows a whistle in the departure lounge and it’s a mass charge of the great unwashed through the doors to get a seat by the window. Viewed from that perspective, maybe the decorous age of the Grande Descente is more appealing.

To be fair, these great liners were symbols of national pride, even though operated by private shipping companies. The Normandie was the greatest French liner ever built, and its vast construction costs were supported by the French government. It was seen as the pinnacle of Art Deco design, and described as “the most resplendent attempt to turn ships into floating displays of a nation’s artistic genius.” What a vainglorious exercise the Normandie was, though. She made her maiden voyage in 1935; within four years the world was at war, and not long after, the US commandeered her as a troop carrier and a fire broke out on deck. The weight of the water used to douse the flames caused the Normandie to capsize. Many of the art objects were salvaged, however, and some feature in the V&A show, as, incidentally, does a fragment of panel retrieved from the Titanic.

So liners themselves certainly didn’t have it easy. The Lusitania was famously sunk by a German U-boat with the loss of 1,198 crew in 1915. And the Queen Mary underwent the indignity of being painted battleship grey as a camouflage measure when put to use as a troopship in the 1939-1945 war, becoming known as the ‘Grey Ghost’ in the process.

It’s good to see the work that went on below deck being recognized in the exhibition. A Stanley Spencer painting from 1941, Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Riveters was one of a series of oils he produced showing the key stages in the design and construction of ships. The British shipbuilding industry had become huge by the end of the 19th century, with the yards on the Clyde, the Mersey, the Tyne and the Lagan, in the north of Ireland, producing half the world’s shipping, and providing employment for thousands. My great grandfather may never have got beyond driving the crane, but there was a range of highly skilled jobs on offer in engineering.

Virtually none of the grand liners are left today, most having been sunk or stripped. The show makes the point that their modern equivalents are the cruise ships, with those run by the Scandinavian company Viking attempting to evoke earlier styles with their use of natural wood in the interiors, their ‘winter gardens’ evoking the fantasy settings of yesteryear. Yet these big ships were and are terrible environmental polluters – worse, it seems, than air travel – so overall maybe it’s best we leave them, just like my grandmother eventually had to do, as a nostalgic memory, as in this exhibition, or as the inspiration for great movies such as James Cameron’s Titanic.

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