Cunard's Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth - Cunard
Credit: Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved. 2018

In the spring of 2018 London's V&A Museum presents Ocean Liners: Speed & Style. The V&A has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of ocean liner-related objects.

More than 250 items, ranging from paintings, panels, furniture and sculpture to scale models of ships are on show alongside fashions, textiles, photographs, posters and film. This is the first ever major display to explore ocean liner design and engineering as well the lifestyle aboard these magnificent ships. 

The exhibition is co-curated by Ghislaine Wood, V&A Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, and Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum, with support from the V&A's Project Curator, Anna Ferrari. 

Speaking recently, Ghislaine Wood said: “The great age of ocean liners has long passed but no form of transport has been so romantic or so remarkable. Three years in the making, this exhibition will show how liners have shaped the modern world in many ways.” 

Sponsored by Viking Cruises, this landmark exhibition is jointly organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Carved Wooden Panel from the Titanic

Carved Wooden Panel from The Titanic
Credit: Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved. 2018

Highlights of the Exhibition

Highlights of the exhibition include a carved wooden panel fragment (shown above) from the Titanic’s first-class lounge together with a deckchair, both retrieved from the sea after the ship sank.

First class passengers enjoyed a totally different lifestyle to those in lower classes. They travelled with numerous cases and trunks and they knew how to dress. The show features several stunning evening gowns together with a beautiful diamond and pearl tiara recovered from the doomed Lusitania in 1915.  Designed by  Cartier in Paris in 1909 the tiara belonged to the wife of Sir Hugh Montagu Allan of the Canadian Allan Line shipping Company. Lady Allan sailed with two of her daughters and two maids on the last voyage of the Lusitania. The ship sank in German U-boat attack on 7th May 1915. Lady Allan's daughters were lost but her maids survived, along with luggage containing the Cartier tiara.

Also on show is the Duke of Windsor’s Goyard luggage shown in Europe for the first time since leaving the Windsor Estate. 

Diamond and Pearl Tiara Saved from the Lusitania, Cartier, Paris, 1909
Credit: Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, sponsored by Viking Cruises, runs from 3 February - 17 June 2018,

Duke of Windsor's Goyard Luggage

Duke of Windsor's Goyard Luggage
Credit: Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved. 2018

Symbols of Progress and 20th-Century Modernity

Taking full advantage of rapid progress in engineering methods sleek ocean Liners were symbols of 20th century modernity. These spectacular vessels feature in many works by Modernist artists, designers and architects such as Le Corbusier, Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth and Eileen Gray. Through key works of art, the exhibition charts the design of some of the world's most luxurious ocean-going ships. 

Ships such as the Kronprinz WilhelmTitanic and its sister ship, Olympic, sported fine Beaux-Arts interiors. Other liners, such as the Queen Mary and the Normandie were stunning examples of Art Deco. 

The large-scale lacquered gold leaf panel came from the first-class smoking room of the Normandie. Designed by the French lacquer artist Jean Dunand, the scene explores the 'Pursuits of Man'. Lacquerwork was regarded as more fire-resistant than wooden panels and Dunand was commissioned to provide panels for many other French ships. 

Gold Leaf Panel from the First-Class Smoking Room of the Normandie

Gold Leaf Panel From the Normandie
Credit: Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved. 2018

Famous Passengers and the Couturiers Who Dressed Them

Ocean travel offered great opportunities for leading couturiers to showcase their designs. When the Queen Mary arrived in New York in 1950 a very striking Marlene Dietrich stepped ashore wearing a tailored suit by Christian Dior. 

Another frequent transatlantic sailor was the renowned American socialite Emilie Grigsby. The exhibition features a flapper dress owned by Ms Grigsby. Now in the V&A’s collection, the garment, known as the ‘Salambo’ dress, was designed by French haute couture fashion designer Jeanne-Marie Lanvin, founder of the Lanvan fashion house. A similar version was showed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. 


Tailored Suit by Christian Dior Worn by Marlene Dietrich

Tailored Suit by Christian Dior Worn by Marlene Dietrich
Credit: Image by Frances Spiegel, with permission from the V&A Museum. All rights reserved. 2018

An Almost Forgotten Story

The exhibition explores the almost forgotten story of the leading artists and designers, such as William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone, whose work created such lavish and luxurious interiors. These floating hotels, especially the first-glass areas, were the perfect place for artists to show off their talents. 

Through the history of ocean liners, we see the political changes and international rivalry of the 20th century. We explore the sociology of ships and shifting class structures on-board as ships changed from being the main means of emigration to luxurious holiday experiences. In the 21st century cruise holidays are increasingly popular. 

The influence of these spectacular ocean-going vessels is evident throughout popular culture, art, literature and films including Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). 

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style runs from 3rd February to 10th June 2018. Tickets and further information are available from the museum.