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On May 20, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) will debut Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style, the first large-scale traveling exhibition showcasing the opulence, technology, and social sophistication of these floating cities captured by the imagination of artists, engineers, and architects. The international exhibition, co-organized with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A), brings together nearly 200 works from the mid-19th century through the late 20th-century, including paintings, sculpture, models, furniture, lighting, wall panels, textiles, fashion, photographs, posters, and film to “explore the distinct design, elegant engineering, and cultural dynamics of an era when ocean liners ruled the sea and the popular imagination.”

“The great age of ocean travel has long since passed, but ocean liners remain one of the most powerful and admired symbols of 20th century modernity,” said Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight curator of maritime art and history. “No form of transport was as romantic, remarkable or contested as the ocean liner and their design became a matter of national prestige as well as a microcosm of global dynamics and competition.”

Founded in 1799 by sea captains and merchant traders, PEM has been collecting art and design related to ocean liners since at least 1870 and the V&A began collecting ship models and technology patents to improve Britain’s commercial and manufacturing advantage in the 19th century, when it was known as the South Kensington Museum. In the 20th century, the V&A acquired ocean liner posters and ephemera, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and furniture, all with the aim of representing good design. 


F. Earl for Henri Fichon, Paris, Design for a poster for the White Star Line and Moët & Chandon, about 1912, oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 2014.13.1. Photo by Kathy Tarantola.


Remaining Ocean Travel

Within a few years of the first liners crossing the Atlantic, companies deployed strategic advertising campaigns to shift the public perception of ocean travel from dirty and dangerous to being regarded as a highly desirable and glamorous leisure activity. This dramatic shift in the ocean liner’s image was depicted in large-scale, full-color posters that reflected advances in color lithography printing. Ship models, brochures and films created imagery to attract the savvy traveler, while the architecture of shipping offices and port buildings offered a taste of the high style that could be found on board.

Competitiveness in private industry grew into competitions for national prestige; the French liner Normandie was promoted as the most elegant in the world, with different parts of the ship crafted to reflect distinct French provinces. Each new liner sought to embody modernity, and to be larger, faster and more brilliantly envisioned than its predecessor.

Drawing on new research Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style brings

together elements of interior ship design never-before exhibited, with an

international perspective on the progressive development of modern ship interiors. Over the course of a century, top-tier artisans were commissioned to create the finest designs and artworks for these floating palaces and did so while reflecting the taste, sensibility and politics of their time. Voyagers seeking drama and style could be transported when they entered high-ceilinged rooms stretching over two decks lit by domed skylights. “Choosing which vessel to travel on was a way for passengers to select a fantasy experience,” says Finamore. “They could live in an Art Deco Parisian apartment or a Romanesque castle. The choice was theirs.”


Floating Culture

In the late 19th century, Jules Verne observed of his experience on the British vessel the Great Eastern that the ship’s small world carries, “all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.” The highly structured social experience on board offered passengers opportunities to live out idealized visions of cosmopolitan social order. There were zones for physical fitness, children’s activities, socializing and even religious worship. Dinner in first class was the principal social event of any day at sea. The social act of eating and drinking bound the ship’s elite players in evenings dedicated to haute cuisine, elegant formal attire, and dining rooms with central staircases that enabled dramatic entrances, and mezzanines offering sight lines to other ‘important’ diners. Theatre companies promoted the arrival and departure of their stage actors like Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich travelling between New York and London, and journalists and the public would crowd the docks to see their favorite stars.

Ocean liner travel also had a significant impact on the evolution of sports and casual wear design. Designers started offering a demi-saison to present resort or ‘cruise’ wear for those who were wintering in warmer climes or planning to engage in sporting activities during their transatlantic travel. For the fashion designer, the liner was a modern mode of transportation that opened new vistas for overseas exposure and expansion. The world of haute couture became increasingly international and the golden age of liner travel brought direct access to a global clientele.

As the largest moving objects ever built, ocean liners became a symbol of human progress and a platform for visionary creativity. Today, fantastical cruise ships and contemporary architecture carry on the legacy of the ocean liner.