Ocean Liners: Speed and Style review

Things to do, Exhibitions
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Before the steamship, ocean travel generally involved sailing for weeks in abysmal conditions, desperate to get off and stop being sick. But half way through the nineteenth century all that changed, and people couldn't wait to get on. This opulent exhibition at the V&A shows how for almost 100 years, the sea was where nations displayed their wealth, and where the upper crust set the latest fashions.

A maritime exhibition might not scream ‘interesting’ to everyone, but this one really is laden with visual gifts. Showing how interior design evolved on board, and how this in turn influenced international dry-land style, this is peak V&A: stylised and stylish, swanky and kitsch. There’s a nice synergy between cabin atmosphere and shiny-things-under-soft-light museum vibe. There are gorgeous art nouveau posters and art deco chairs; embossed silver-leaf wall coverings are hung like bits of ancient tapestry; a tiara worn on the RMS Lusitania – sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, killing more than 1,000 passengers – sparkles with tragic glamour.

There’s a moral undertone too. As well as clips of Kate and Leo in ‘Titanic’ (salvaged parts of the original ship are also on show ), there is footage of people arriving in the 1950s from the West Indies. This industry was built on migrants: without people moving from one country to another, the grandeur wouldn’t have existed. It’s an exhibition for our time. Though it could do without the sound of horns, surf and rigging piped in. That seems a bit London Dungeon for this class act.

The fractured modernism of paintings by Albert Gleizes and Charles Demuth, along with photographs of ships by Le Corbusier (who saw liners as a model for urban housing), Alfred Stieglitz and Eileen Agar, add a touch of intellectual rigour. But the real fun is to be found in wandering the many plush chambers of this sprawling exhibition, as if exploring one of the lost luxury vessels yourself.

By: Jonathan McAloon



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