Set Sail For V&A And Board This Titanic Exhibition

Ocean Liners, V&A ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 6 months ago

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Set Sail For V&A And Board This Titanic Exhibition Ocean Liners, V&A 5
The French SS Normandie arrives in New York, and the scale is staggering. Image courtesy of French Lines.

We board a ship expecting to do battle with our sea sickness, only to find ourselves swept into an opulent ballroom where passengers in finest evening wear enter via a sweeping staircase known as the grande descente. A P&O booze cruise to Calais this certainly ain't.

And though it might sound a fantastical way to get around, such were the opulent scenes that greeted passengers less than a century ago, during the golden age of ocean liners.

We can't imagine how astounding this must have been, in a time when cars had only recently entered mass production and jet engined aeroplanes were yet to be realised.

It's a beautifully designed exhibition.

We gaze up at a poster for the Empress of Britain — a simple, but bold-as-brass design that exacerbates her sleek lines. Such artworks ooze with the romance of the era, and make us wish that so many of these elegant beasts hasn't been scuttled over the years. Then there's a huge — and hugely detailed — scale model of the Queen Elizabeth; trying to imagine such a vessel berthed outside the V&A does our head in.

Crossing a gangplank over a shimmering watery surface, it's clear we're in for one beautifully-designed, marvellously conceived exhibition. The interiors on display seem more fitting for a stately home than a ship. The simplest of items — lamps, chairs, cutlery — can be seen to evolve; starting out ornate and progressing to more minimalist designs as tastes changed over the first half of the 20th century.

The Empress of Britain look impressive on this poster. Image courtesy V&A.

Ocean liners were all about travelling in style and V&A has done a fine job in recreating the showmanship of the age — mannequins in swimming costumes lounge around a pool, one suspended mid-dive.

There are fabulous paintings too: one has a ship in front of skyscrapers, showing off humanity's architectural and technological progress, while an ornately framed classical work depicts a youth holding a trident and the German flag, indicating the country's maritime power.

These opulent interiors look more suited to a stately home.

Indeed, the V&A ventures deep beyond the glitzy surface; there are nods to how life for the ships' staff was nowhere near as glamorous. We've all seen Titanic, after all.

War, though, is the darkest part of the exhibition: liners were often re-purposed to transport troops, and infamously the Lusitania was sunk by Germans who insisted ammunition was part of the cargo. The death of the Americans on board would make the case for the US to get involved in the first world war.

Remarkably detailed scale models abound.

We can't talk about these great ships without a trip to the movies, showing how this age has inspired Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe clambers out of a porthole in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and of course, there's that infamous scene at the end of Titanic (for the record there was definitely room for both of them on that thing). In a haunting touch, we turn the corner to find the largest surviving piece of wreckage from the Titanic.

Ocean liners were eventually superseded by aeroplanes, and re-invented as a sedate mode of transportation heralding the age of the cruise liners we're familiar with today. It's sad to think that the grandiosity of that age will never be seen again. But all is not lost, for this exhibition does a fantastic job in dredging up that era of the floating high life.  

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at V&A until 17 June. Tickets are £18 for adults.

Last Updated 08 February 2018