Yesterday I went into London to catch up with the lovely folk at Viking Cruises (you might remember me mentioning that I wrote the recipes for their cookery book and also for the gorgeous Nordic Style book they have on board). Viking Cruises are the sponsors of a brand new exhibition at the V&A: Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, which opens this Saturday, and I really do recommend that you give it a visit. Whether your interest is history, engineering or fashion, the whole exhibition is a fascinating insight into the glamour of the golden age of cruising. Known for their cool, Scandi-inspired ships and attention to detail, Viking Cruises really are the perfect match for this exhibition.
The team at the V&A have been working on the Ocean Liners project for over four years. This huge project covers the international design of ocean liners spanning from the 1860s to the 1960s, from promotion to engineering to the interiors and the lifestyle and fashion on board as well as the impact on popular culture and on the art and design of the 20th Century. I’ve tried to limit my pictures to the absolute minimum to give you a feel of the exhibition without ruining it for you.
The exhibition starts in the most spectacular way, looking at how the shipping lines transformed the public’s view of what was, at that time, a pretty disgusting, dirty, and unpleasant way to travel. The display of ship’s posters from Italy, France, the UK, Canada and Australia is fascinating, and the entrance space is dominated by a huge, 5m model of the Queen Elizabeth (which probably came from a shipping office where you would have bought your ticket). I can imagine it was a pretty good tool to encourage people to book a journey.
The next section focuses on the interiors of the liners, spanning right from the late 19th century to well into the 1960s. The shipping lines really started to create the most stunning interiors and you can see that it almost became a competition in which different nations fought for supremacy of the seas, building ever greater and more luxurious ships which almost came to represent the nations themselves. You’ll particularly love this section if, like me, you adore anything Art Deco. The pieces from the glamorous interiors of the ocean liners of the day include objects from the Queen Mary and a breathtaking 5m tall gold lacquer panel from the smoking room of the Normandie, loaned to the exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris).
The engineering section tracks the greatest developments in the design of ocean liners, and there’s a wonderful, steampunk model of a quadruple expansion tandem engine, as well as a fascinating film about the construction of liners, an industry which dominated the UK at the time.
And then suddenly, you’re strolling out onto the deck of a beautiful ocean liner, with the sea twinkling beside you, and an elegant ocean liner slipping by in the distance. The next section looks at everything to do with life onboard, and you’ll find gorgeous pieces of original fashion, luggage from Maison Goyard, once owned by the Duke of Windsor (who, along with Wallis Simpson wasn’t averse to turning up for his voyage with 100 pieces of luggage) as well as a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich on board the Queen Mary in 1950. Look out for the glamorous couture Lucien Lelong gown from the Normandie in 1935 and the glittering (and rather poignant) Cartier tiara once owned by Lady Marguerite Allen and saved, along with its owner, from the Lusitania after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915. Both her daughters were lost in the disaster.
Of course, this being the V&A, the impact of the ocean liner on the art and design of the era doesn’t go unmentioned and you’ll find beautiful artworks too. One of my favourite pieces of the whole exhibition is a ornately carved wooden panel from the first class lounge of the Titanic – it’s beautifully displayed and, honestly, it’s truly breathtaking to see one of the largest surviving pieces. There’s also a model of Viking Jupiter, perfectly placed to show just how contemporary cruise ships have been influenced by the floating palaces of this golden era.
While you’re there, don’t miss the gorgeous range of pieces inspired by the exhibition, including some beautiful Art Deco earrings and brooches, a fab tea towel listing all the provisions taken on board the Titanic and some amazing prints from promotional posters at the time (I really want the one from the Normandie).
Entrance to the exhibition costs £18 and advance booking is recommended. Thanks for Viking Cruises for allowing me a sneaky peek, and thanks to the V&A for the very glamorous party!