From the Great Eastern to Titanic to QE2, a new exhibition provides insight into the glamour and design of legendary cruise ships of the past
London’s V&A exhibition showcases opulent ocean liners from the 19th and 20th century
London’s Victoria & Albert Museum will give visitors a taste of the golden age of luxury travel when its exhibition Ocean Liners: Speed & Style opens on Saturday.
The show explores the history behind the 19th and 20th centuries’ most opulent cruise ships, starting with the steamship the SS Great Eastern of 1859 and including the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, RMS Titanic and its sister ship, RMS Olympic, as well as RMS Queen Mary, SS Normandie, SS United States and the QE2.
An earlier exhibition took place at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and has been reimagined for the V&A, incorporating more than 250 exhibits, some of which have never previously been seen in Europe.
The story starts in the mid-19th century when ocean travel became a more appealing prospect for wealthy passengers rather than a dangerous voyage which could result in a watery grave.
Tristram Hunt, V&A director, says Ocean Liners will take “visitors on a journey from boarding to disembarkation and all of the global history in between”.
Mr Hunt says it is not a “Brexit exhibition” but is designed to show how different parts of the world are presented in the huge liners. The exhibition will also explore the rivalry between imperial nations such as France, Germany and Britain, who used the “floating palaces” to show how they were making national advancements in maritime travel.
The exhibits include a Cartier tiara, belonging to Canadian aristocrat Lady Marguerite Allan, which was recovered by one of her maids from the doomed RMS Lusitania in 1915. Lady Allan lost two of her three young daughters when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat during the First World War. A panel fragment from the first-class lounge of another wreck, the Titanic, will return to the UK for the first time since the fated ship set sail in 1912.
Other highlights include a Christian Dior suit worn by German actress Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1950 as well as a Lucien Lelong couture gown, which she wore for the maiden voyage of Normandie in 1935. A flapper dress worn by wealthy American socialite Emilie Grigsby, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the RMS Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania, will showcase the high-end fashion of the 1920s.
“The great age of ocean liners has long passed but no form of transport has been so romantic or so remarkable,” says Ghislaine Wood, the exhibition’s curator. “Three years in the making, this exhibition will show how liners have shaped the modern world in many ways.”
After spending four months in London, Ocean Liners will relocate to the newly-opened V&A in Dundee on Scotland’s east coast in September.
The new design museum, which is the first Victoria & Albert outside London, has cost up to £80 million (Dh415m) and is projected to transform Dundee into a city-break destination.
Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is at London’s V&A from Saturday until June 17, then V&A Dundee from September 15 to February 24, 2019. For more information, see www.vam.ac.uk