Looking at the sketchbook of William Whitelock Lloyd, a soldier-artist who joined a P&O liner after surviving the Anglo-Zulu War, I’m reminded why I avoid cruises. On board this India-bound ship were: a ‘man who talks a great deal of yachting shop and collapses at the first breeze of wind’, ‘a successful Colonist’, and ‘the victim of mal de mer who lives on smelling salts’. It would be just my luck to be stuck in the cabin between ‘One of our Flirts’, the busty lady with pretty eyes, and what Lloyd affectionately called ‘Our Foghorns (automatic)’ — two bawling babies.
By the late 19th century, ocean liners attracted all sorts, from emigrants seeking a new life in the US to curious poseurs. Ever since Samuel Cunard launched his first scheduled passenger steamer from Liverpool to Boston in 1840, the race had been on to provide the most efficient liner service. From the cramped and disease-ridden early vessels to the smart QE2, the history of the ocean liner, explored in a new exhibition at the V&A, is fraught with rivalry.
The Blue Riband — the prize for the quickest transatlantic crossing — was held almost exclusively by the British until 1898, when the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse raced over the Atlantic at an average speed of 22.3 knots. Exulting in their glory, the Germans commissioned a disgustingly faux Rubenesque canvas, ‘Our Future Lies Upon the Water’, for the smoking room of the Kaiser’s sister ship.
The brochures produced for the Hamburg-American Line a decade later were far more enticing. Colour lithographs, used extensively in ship and railway posters, depicted cosy saloons with fireplaces and Persian carpets, as shipping companies turned increasingly to architects to design their ship interiors. Liners were marketed as what they now were: majestic floating hotels.
When Britain reclaimed the Blue Riband it also established a new standard for maritime comfort. The passengers ferried across the water by the Lusitania and the Mauretania dozed in wicker beds and dined on turtle soup. Pity the seasick of the Lusitania on Sunday 16 August 1908 when turtle — a staple on naval menus until it became endangered in the early 1970s — was followed by decadent courses of sirloin, lamb, grouse and Bavaroise Princesse.
The construction of both ships was subsidised by Balfour’s government on the condition that they could be requisitioned in the event of war. While the Mauretania was successfully used as a troop and hospital ship during the first world war, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915; 1,198 passengers and crew lost their lives.
Even in peacetime the dangers to ocean liners were rife. In the mid-19th century, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty, twin-engined Great Eastern embarked on its third voyage only to be caught up in a gale and lose its rudder pin. Furniture was upended, passengers thrown to the ground with their trunks — and a cow plummeted headfirst through the ship’s ceiling, at least in an artist’s impression of the scene. Too rough in its passage to serve as a passenger liner, the Great Eastern was remodelled and used to lay the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic.
Then there was the Titanic. A deckchair with a hole in its seat and a decorative wall panel are displayed in the final, ship-shaped spaces of the V&A exhibition as haunting relics of the disaster. ‘We wanted to explore the Titanic for its design history as well as the legacy of it,’ explains curator Ghislaine Wood. ‘Why does the Titanic still hold such a powerful place in the imagination? I think it is to do with the fact that it represents a long- lost past, something that can’t be recaptured, this great age of floating palaces.’
It must have been the glamour that tempted wealthy travellers back on to ocean liners in the post-war years. Thousands lined the decks of the enormous vessels that went to sea in the mid-1930s in defiance of the Wall Street Crash. As the French SS Normandie set out on its maiden voyage to New York, some 40 per cent of the passengers were in first class. On board the liner in 1938 was Marlene Dietrich with enough hat boxes to fill a cabin. Picture her in front of Jean Dunand’s ‘Les Sports’, an art deco vision of ancient Sparta done in gold leaf, replete with javelin, discus and shotput-throwing athletes. It’s the kind of art the fascists would have loved — and the kind of ideology Dietrich hated.
The British, meanwhile, were launching a dazzling art deco liner of their own. The Queen Mary was every bit as extravagant as the Normandie. There was also a sense of fun to it that’s quite absent from modern transport. Where today could you gaze upon can-can girls and poodles, hoop-twirling acrobats and Venetian masks while travelling from a to b? The murals of the famous Verandah Grill were painted by stage designer Doris Zinkeisen and her sister, and their theatricality proved strangely prescient.
At the coming of the second world war, the Queen Mary was stripped of its colour and restructured so that each of its cabins could hold 20 men. In its new role as the ‘Grey Ghost’, the liner transported three quarters of a million soldiers, many of them from Australia to the UK. With conditions as appalling as they had been on the early steamers, the ocean liner had come full circle.
It’s little wonder that artists greeted the resurgence of the luxury liner in the 1950s with a riot of colour. A beautifully vibrant print from c.1953 by the suitably named Abram Games shows passengers playing quoits aboard an Orient Line to Australia. It’s images like these that make you most wistful for the golden age of travel. Dull photographs of the comparatively functional interiors of the QE2 from just 16 years later give a sense of just how quickly the spark went out of ocean liners. It was obvious then that the future lay in the sky.
But might there yet be a future for the liner? ‘It’s really, really interesting talking to the designers who work on gigantic ships like the Harmony of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, which are the largest ships ever built,’ curator Ghislaine Wood tells me. ‘There are ships so big they can’t dock… I can see in the not too distant future we are going to be in a situation where we are going to have floating cities… people will live on them and they will have all the amenities of a town. It’s not too far away.’ A solution to the housing crisis? Time to invest in a life jacket.