Despite being a useless sailor, I have always dreamed of lolling about on the sundeck of a cruise ship, dolphins arcing gracefully in the cornflower blue waters of the Atlantic beneath my browning limbs as I speed my way to some exotic destination. Then there’s dinner at the Captain’s table, strolls up and down the deck watching the sun set over the horizon…obviously it’s hard not to imagine this in some sort of sepia-tinted image of Titanic-esque Edwardian glamour, and it was this era of ocean travel I was most interested in discovering when I went along to the V&A’s new exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, last night after work. After initially baulking at the £20 (when did exhibitions become so expensive?!) admission fee, I have to say it was worth every penny: it’s a magnificent display of fascinating items that I already want to go back and see again.
From posters to furniture, art work to fashion, light fittings to crockery, every aspect of transatlantic ocean liner travel is explored from the Victorian and Edwardian palaces whose luxuriant opulence reflected the constant competition between countries and shipping companies to build the most impressive ships, to the streamlined elegance of interwar and postwar travel. Interiors of iconic liners, such as the Normandie, are recreated, complete with original panelling, art work and furniture, which helps you to imagine just how breathtakingly gorgeous the spaces on these ships must have been. The strict class system on board is explored, with the different sets of crockery and menus displaying clearly the service and experience first class passengers received compared to their fellow travellers in steerage. Original footage of passengers enjoying the ships is shown alongside clothing and accessories they would have worn on board, and I loved looking at the range of marketing materials used to entice people to buy a ticket to an experience that was the ultimate in luxury.
What surprised me the most to discover was how short-lived so many of these liners were; when you think of the expense, the attention to detail, and the sheer enormity of the process of building and designing such gargantuan structures, most of them seemed to have just a few short years in service before either disaster or war repurposing brought their days of pleasure cruising across the Atlantic to an end. However, their legacy lives on in the romantic imagination, and that is what this exhibition fuels so well in its beautifully designed, mirror-walled galleries filled with what is ultimately a nostalgic glimpse of a privileged world that has now all but disappeared. My favourite item was the last on display, and I had no idea it even existed before visiting the exhibition. One piece of panelling from the Titanic survives; a beautifully carved section from the wall of the First Class Lounge, the damage to which demonstrates where the ship broke in half as it sunk. James Cameron used a model of it in the final scenes of the Titanic, when poor Jack is left clinging on to its sides while selfish Rose takes up all the space on top, and in the exhibition you can see it floating on a fake sea, the last scenes of the Titanic projected on the wall behind. Looking at the exquisitely carved flowers on the woodwork, I imagined how happy and excited those passengers must have been as they sat in that beautiful room, filled with the thrill of being on the most luxurious ship in existence, totally oblivious to their fate. It gave me the chills to look at it, and seeing that was worth the entrance money alone. There is also a genuine deckchair from the Titanic in the exhibition, and for those who are interested in the more tragic side of ocean liner travel, the heartbreaking story behind this gorgeous Cartier tiara that was rescued from the Lusitania will have you in tears.
The exhibition is on until June, so there’s plenty of time to see it. I know I’ll be going back!