Book Review: Ocean Liners - the exhibition catalogue for the V&A's show

Think ocean liners and you will most likely conjure up images of a glamorous world peopled by society beauties and actors playing deck quoits by day and elegantly sipping cocktails in art deco wood-panelled bars by night. 

Ocean Liners exhibition catalogue

Ocean Liner: Speed and Style 

Ocean Liners is the companion book to an exhibition at the V&A and the Peabody Essex Museum and as its name suggests is a glorious celebration of the ocean liner. Brimful of crisp reproductions, the book immerses its readers in a life of glamour and carefree fun. Dip into the book and you will find  Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich resplendent in their haute couture; dining tables laden with lobsters and elaborate confectionary sculptures alongside passengers splashing about in the ship's pool. 

The glamour of the liner was an important part of their story. Theatre companies promoted the arrival and departure of their stage actors travelling between New York and London. Fashion photographers and illustrators would use the setting of the ocean liner for features and campaigns. Designers such as Coco Chanel started to offer cruise wear for those who were wintering in warmer climes including jersey knits and bathing suits with matching cover-ups. 

Alongside this visual splendour, the book digs deeper and draws on the expertise of design, industrial, fashion and art historians to explore everything from developments in engineering to the influence that ocean liners had on modernism. The contributors make the case that these vessels had a significance extending beyond a world of glamour as militarily important assets; sources of national prestige and migration enablers.

The age of ocean liner started with P&O ships in Europe taking mail and transporting personnel and soldiers to help service the British Empire. Between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, the ships transported more than 11 million emigrants from Europe to America. When America changed its immigration policy in the 1920s, the ocean liners had to look for ways to attract and entice passengers onboard.

In part, they did this through promotion. the 1860s, the liners would promote their ships through simple factual press adverts announcing the services available. By 1900, new ships were advertised through striking posters and brochures that promoted the liners as the height of modernity and luxury. Alongside these bold posters, the ship liner companies used meticulously crafted ship models - cut away or illuminated - in ticket offices windows. More unexpectedly, the shipping lines also used the architecture of own headquarters and passenger terminals for promotional purposes. The heft and bold modelling of the Cunard Building in Liverpool, for example, was intended to reassure passengers about the seaworthiness of Cunard's liners. This promotion was enormously successful - something that the authors describe as 'one of the greatest public relations successes in the history of industry, [as] transoceanic steamship travel was transformed from a dangerous, dirty and sickening experience into a highly desirable and glamorous leisure activity within only a few decades.' (p16). 


As the liners began to focus on wealthy passengers travelling for tourism and business, the companies started to create luxurious interiors. From the late 19th century, the liners adopted lavish historical styles to make their liners stand out from the competition. The France, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s largest ship, was designed explicitly to evoke the interiors at Versailles

Design of the ocean liners became increasingly competitive, as nations sought to create faster, larger and the most elegant ships. At their height, the liners came to be seen as direct expressions of national characteristics and style. The Normandie, whose construction was subsidised by the French government, was described by one critic as ‘the most resplendent attempt to turn ships into floating displays of a nation’s genius’ (p132).

Different countries used different styles for the interiors of their ships.The early German vessels opted for a baroque ornateness, while the British tended to go for 'ships of traditional comfort' (p22) and after the Second World War, the Americans adopted a sleek streamlined industrial modernism. The ships often became a showcase for the most important designers and artists of that time. French liners employed designers including Jean Dunand, Edgar Brandt, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Rene Lalique; while British liners used artists including Edward Wadsworth, William de Morgan and later David Hockney and Edward Bawden.

With design playing such an important role in the success of ocean liners and as the largest moving objects ever built, it is no surprise to discover how liners influenced artists, architects and engineers. These included American Cubist Realist painters and the urban housing of Le Corbusier. Ocean Liners inspired Le Corbusier so much that they formed the subject of the first of his three essays in 'Des yeux qui ne voient pas' where he described liners as 'an important manifestation of temerity, discipline and harmony, a beauty that is calm, vigorous and strong' (p230). 

The book concludes with a section looking at the afterlife of the liner and the development of the modern cruise industry. Today, cruise ships carry some 24 million passengers a year to destinations right across the globe. As the cruise industry has grown ever popular, the cruise lines have become international and have adopted homogenous designs that allow them to operate in all markets and to all destinations. Ships with distinctive national identities showcasing the leading artists and designers of their day have given way to ships with interiors with palm fronds and sea creatures set against a colour palette of aquamarine. 

This is a great book that marries beautiful images with great analysis and accessible essays. Like all the very best exhibition catalogues, Ocean Liners is a book to read as well as look at and savour. Let's hope that this book finds its way to the boardrooms of the major cruise companies and sparks a discussion or two about the power of great design to generate a romantic, glamorous and truly memorable travel experience.

Our thanks to V&A publishing for providing a review copy of the book.