As the largest machines of their age by far, ocean liners have become powerful symbols of progress and 20th-century modernity. No other form of transport was so romantic, so remarkable or so contested.
From the mid-19th century to the late 20th century, the ocean liner revolutionised ocean travel. Ocean Liners: Speed & Style (3 February – 10 June 2018) is the first exhibition to explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner around the world. Revealing the hidden design stories of some of the world's greatest ocean liners, including the Titanic, Normandie, the Queen Mary and the Canberra, this exhibition re-imagines the golden age of ocean travel, with over 250 objects including paintings, sculpture, ship models, fashion, photographs, posters and film.
Beginning with Isambard Kingdom Brunel's steamship, the Great Eastern of 1859, the exhibition will trace ocean liner design, from the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic, to the floating Art Deco palaces of Queen Mary and Normandie, and the streamlined Modernism of the SS United States and QE2. It will examine all aspects of these ships' design – from ground-breaking engineering and fashionable interiors, to the lifestyle on board and their impact on art, architecture, design and film.
On display will be the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950, and a striking Lucien Lelong couture gown worn for the maiden voyage of Normandie in 1935. The exhibition will also showcase one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A's collection – Jeanne Lanvin's 'Salambo' dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.
Highlights include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, a panel fragment from the Titanic's first-class lounge, a stunning lacquered wall from the Smoking Room of the French liner, Normandie, and Stanley Spencer's painting 'The Riveters' from the 1941 series Shipbuilding on the Clyde. The exhibition will also feature works by Modernist artists, designers and architects inspired by liners – including Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth, Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier – and reveal the largely forgotten history of leading artists and designers who contributed to their design, such as William De Morgan, Richard Riemerschmid, Jean Dunand, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone.
Ocean Liners: Speed & Style will explore how spaces on board changed as the requirements of new markets shifted attitudes, as well as the democratisation of travel and development of leisure activities in the 20th century. It will also consider the shrewd promotional strategies used by shipping companies to reposition the on-board experience, as emigration gave way to aspirational travel, and highlight the political shifts and the international rivalry that developed over 100 years, as liners became floating national showcases.
More recently the ocean liner has been appropriated into pop-culture, literature and films, including Ronald Neame's dystopian The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and James Cameron's Titanic (1997). This, and the phenomenon of the modern cruise liner will be explored, demonstrating how nostalgia for the great 'floating palaces' of the past can still be felt today.