Neglected artists, architects and engineers resurface at the V&A’s ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’


The ‘golden age of ocean travel’ features in the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’ (until 10 June). Co-organised with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, it explores the design and cultural impact of ocean liners, from their engineering, architecture and interiors to the fashion and lifestyle aboard.


Normandie in New York, 1935-39 (ph: Collection French Lines); Titanic in dry dock, c1911 (top, ph: Getty Images)

More than 250 objects, including paintings, sculpture and ship models, alongside objects from shipyards, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film have been assembled, and in some cases reunited. Highlights include panel fragments from the Titanic’s first-class lounge, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912, and from the smoking room of the Normandie, designed by art deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Riveters’ from the painter’s 1941 series Shipbuilding on the Clyde, features alongside works by Le Corbusier, Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth and Eileen Gray.


‘Riveters’ (detail), from ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’ series by Stanley Spencer, 1941 (ph: Imperial War Museums)

Beginning with Brunel’s Great Eastern of 1859, the exhibition traces the design of luxury liners, from the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic, to the floating art deco palaces of Queen Mary and Normandie, and the streamlined modernity of SS United States and QE2. The work of celebrated couturiers includes the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950, and Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress, a version of which was displayed at the 1925 Paris Expo.

Paquebot Paris by Charles Demuth, 1921-22 (ph: gift of Ferdinand Howald, Columbus Museum of Art Ohio)

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style celebrates the largely forgotten history of artists and designers such as William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone, while highlighting the political and social shifts represented by these floating showcases of national ingenuity. It also investigates the promotional strategies employed by shipping companies to reposition the on-board experience, as emigration gave way to aspirational travel. Cultural appropriation of the liner is also examined, including Ronald Neame’s dystopian The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).

Panel from The Rape of Europa, Normandie grand salon, by Jean Dupas, 1934, Miottel Museum (ph: Peabody Essex Museum)

‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’, at London’s V&A until 10 June, is accompanied by a series of events, courses and workshops. Co-curated by Ghislaine Wood, V&A research fellow and deputy director of the UEA’s Sainsbury Centre, and Daniel Finamore of the Peabody Essex Museum, the exhibition is designed by Casson Mann.

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