by Daniel Finamore and George Schwartz
In July 1840, RMS Britannia departed Liverpool for the voyage that would initiate transatlantic steamship service on a regular schedule. On arrival in Boston, owner Samuel Cunard and the ship’s captain made a point of heading up to Salem for a visit to the museum of the East India Marine Society, the forerunner institution of today’s Peabody Essex Museum. So began the transatlantic nexus between Europe and North America that became what we know today as the great age of ocean liner travel. After more than 175 years and many thousands of ocean liner crossings, the Peabody Essex Museum presents Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style, the first exhibition to fully assess the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner.
This groundbreaking exhibition co-organized with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, situates ocean liners in an international context, exploring many aspects of their design – from architecture, engineering, and interiors to the lifestyle aboard and, crucially, their cultural impact as archetypal symbols of the modern era. The exhibition brings together over 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. As showcases of opulence, technology, and social sophistication, these floating cities captured the imagination of artists, engineers, and architects.
Ocean Liners is the result of a collective interdisciplinary investigation on the part of art, design and maritime historians. The rich collections and curatorial perspectives of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) dovetail harmoniously. Founded in 1799 by sea captains and merchant traders, PEM has been actively collecting art and design related to ocean liners since at least 1870, building holdings of paintings, prints, posters, and models that today number in the thousands. The V&A, one of the world’s leading institutions of art and design, 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.
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. They could live in an Art Deco Parisian apartment or a Romanesque castle. The choice was theirs.
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 up 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.
Ocean Liner Collectors
Cultural memory of the liner era is made manifest today in the collections of former travelers, maritime history devotees and aficionados of 20th-century graphic and decorative arts. Though today these collections foster reflection upon the past, their heritage lies not in nostalgia, but to document the novelty of modern life. This exhibition was only made possible by the generous loans of avid collectors of ocean liner art, as well as those who have donated and bequeathed their lifelong possessions.
The majority of PEM’s vast ocean liner ephemera collection was bequeathed by Howard Galvin who worked in the Thomas Cook Travel office in Boston from the 1930s into the 1970s. He stored it, impeccably organized, in 11 four-drawer file cabinets. The study of ocean liner history is greatly augmented by the informative texts and images that appear in the printed advertising brochures, deck plans, and other promotional material that make up this and other collections gathered and preserved by enthusiastic travelers and collectors. Such things as baggage tags and menus are both specimens of the commercial art of their times, and a part of the material culture of the steamship era.
Many significant objects in the exhibition came to the PEM through Francis Lee “Pen” Higginson, Jr., a former museum trustee whose connoisseurship, for many years, had been art and artifacts related to the steamship era. Higginson was born in London in 1906, when his father was with the London office of Lee, Higginson & Company. The family’s return to the United States the following year was the first of more than 60 transatlantic crossings Francis Lee Higginson made. At the age of 29, during Queen Mary’s 1936 maiden voyage, Higginson presented the officers of the ship with a Gorham cocktail shaker of silver plate, engraved with each of their names. Cunard conveyed upon Higginson a uniform and the rank of supernumerary officer, which allowed him to enter the officers mess and roam the bridge. The well-used shaker was returned to him 31 years later after the final transatlantic crossing, re-engraved with a dedication of thanks, and later donated to the PEM.
Of the liner objects Higginson gave or arranged to be given, the undisputed monarch is a giant 22-foot model of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. It was built in 1949 by Bassett-Lowke Ltd. of Northampton, England, the premier model making company during the golden age of ocean liner travel. In the interwar period, Bassett-Lowke gained international notoriety for their high quality models and were contracted by Cunard, White Star Line, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, and others to create scratch built models for booking offices in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. The monumental model of Queen Elizabeth greeted visitors to Cunard’s palatial New York City offices on 25 Broadway, enticing them to book passage on the ship. With the end of the ocean liner era, this and other world class models that were the face of many shipping lines were jettisoned from folding offices or scrapped. Queen Elizabeth is one of the few fortunate examples, and it landed in the PEM’s collections as a result of Frances Lee Higginson.
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. 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. 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.
Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA and PhD from Boston University where he studied Archaeology. He has written over 40 articles and chapters for academic and popular publications, and is the author and/or editor of five books, including Capturing Poseidon: Photographic Encounters with the Sea, Maritime History as World History, and Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea.
George Schwartz is Curatorial Scholar at the Peabody Essex Museum, where he has contributed to several of the museum’s most successful exhibitions including Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. He holds a master of arts in historical archaeology and a doctorate in American Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book Collecting the Globe: The Salem East India Marine Society Museum.
About the Peabody Essex Museum: The Peabody Essex Museum is located at East India Square, 161 Essex St. in Salem, MA. The mission of the Peabody Essex Museum is to celebrate outstanding artistic and cultural creativity by collecting, stewarding and interpreting objects of art and culture in ways that increase knowledge, enrich the spirit, engage the mind and stimulate the senses. Through its exhibitions, programs, publications, media and related activities, PEM strives to create experiences that transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style will be on exhibit until October 9, 2017. For more information on the exhibit, hours, and directions, please visit pem.org.