"Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Glory" at The Peabody Essex Museum Explores the Golden Age of Ocean Travel

When Lynda Rose Hartigan, Deputy Director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, delivered a few words during a recent preview of the museum's newest exhibition it was like she had been in my head poking around. "Truly still among the largest moving structures ever built, ocean liners allow people to dream and aspire to a cosmopolitan lifestyle they might not otherwise experience on land."  Whoa. The woman had been reading my mind!

For years I've fantasized about the ultimate dream vacation that would start with me being welcomed aboard an enormous ocean liner (note that I said 'ocean liner' and not 'cruise ship') preparatory to experiencing a leisurely sail across the Atlantic watching the waves go by from a well-placed deck chair, enjoying leisurely Afternoon Teas in a classy and comfortable lounge, and dressing up for dinners served in an elegant dining room filled with lots of other nattily dressed strangers. I would spend time in my well-appointed state room and perhaps read quietly after ordering a pot of tea from Room Service; walk the mostly-abandoned decks in the peace and solitude of the predawn hours while taking photos of the rising sun as it cast golden rays across the ocean; and have nowhere else to go for seven glorious days until disembarking on the other side of the Atlantic feeling pampered, refreshed, and privileged just like all of the people before me who had experienced the glory days of ocean cruising in years gone by.
Smokestack & lifeboats on the Queen Elizabeth model.

Unfortunately for me though, as I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth and have yet to accumulate loads of expendable cash in my glamorous occupation as a 911 dispatcher (and single-cruising prices are horribly prohibitive) that ultimate vacation remains simply a dream, a "someday if I'm lucky" as it were. In the meantime while I'm waiting for that someday, I continue to sigh wistfully while watching 1957's An Affair to Remember - one of the most romantic movies of all time set in one of the most romantic places of all time in which Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr fall in love while on a Transatlantic cruise from Europe to New York - and puzzle over why Rose didn't share her obviously-big-enough door with Jack after the Titanic had sunk below the waves and left them floating in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

For those like me who have that dream of someday sailing the high seas on a grand ship of the line but can't quite realize it yet, for now we can make the journey to Salem instead and take in the PEM's newest exhibition that brings to life the great age of ocean travel. Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style was designed for people like myself who love the romantic notion of sailing across the ocean surrounded by the best that life has to offer in what could certainly be called a 'floating palace' but as awesome as that is, there's a lot more to the exhibition than just glamour and romance.  Co-organized with London's prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A), this new groundbreaking exhibition is the very first to look beyond the nostalgia the ships evoke and also explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner from the successful marketing campaigns created by the major shipping companies to the innovative engineering, opulent interiors, and the lifestyles of its rich and famous passengers.

Model of the SS Kronprinzessin Cecilioe.

“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,” said Dan Finamore, PEM's Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History. “Through this exhibition people will hopefully discover what an amazing experience ocean liner travel must have been, how important these ships were culturally and nationally as both messengers and artistic statements, and how carefully and intentionally designed interiors can affect us emotionally and express our personal values.”

Drawing from the museums' collections, international institutions, and private lenders, Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style is filled with more than 200 works from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century (an era when ocean liners ruled the sea) including paintings, sculpture, models, furniture, lighting, wall panels, textiles, fashion, photographs, posters and film as it brings together elements of interior ship design that have never been exhibited before. "This exhibition was four years in the making," said co-creator Elaine Wood of the V&A, "and is far richer and far more ambitious than either institution could do alone. No one has ever attempted to tell this vast all-encompassing story that really sums up the big picture of ocean liners. One of the things that this exhibit really celebrates is the major artists and designers producing extraordinary works created for a very particular environment.” The exhibit includes pieces from the SS Normandie, a French liner that was promoted as the most elegant in the world, the SS United States built in 1952 and designed by American naval architect William Francis Gibbs to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record, the ill-fated ocean liners the RMS Titanic, SS Andrea Doria, and RMS Lusitania, and more.

As soon as you enter the first gallery you know that this exhibition is going to be big as right from the get-go visitors are greeted by a large mural created for the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life held in Paris, France. The six radiant inner panels made from lacquer and bronze powder on fiberboard inner panels of the mural were created by French artist Gaston Suisse (1896-1988) and depict the newest French ocean liner, Normandie, as the epitome of modernity and grace. The panels on the left and right of the mural are reproductions of the originals which were recently restored and are on view together for the first time.

Things continue to be big on the other side of the Normandie panel where the largest model of the largest ship in the world at the time of its construction is docked. This monumental one-ton model of the Queen Elizabeth built by Basset-Lowke Ltd., the premier model-making company during the golden age of ocean liner travel, greeted visitors to Cunard’s palatial New York City offices on Bowling Green.

This model and others were fixtures of booking offices offering clients close-up views of the liners they could travel on, making the prospect of crossing the ocean even more exciting. This 1949 model of RMS Queen Elizabeth, Cunard White Star's flagship for more than twenty years, was constructed in 1948 of white mahogany, gunmetal, and brass and was a gift of the Cunard Line to the PEM in 1970.

As the first gallery is about Promotion - how each of the lines presented themselves so that passengers would book on their ship and not another line - this section of Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style also includes an array of posters used to entice potential passengers including these from the United States Lines, White Star Line, and American Line (which in 1932 became part of the United States Lines.) 

Moving into the second gallery which is geared towards engineering designs, sea safety, and comfort, a wood, gunmetal, and brass model of the RMS Queen Mary, sister ship to Cunard's Queen Elizabeth, that was built in 1935 by Bassett-Lowke, Ltd. of Northampton, UK and was a gift to the PEM by Cunard in 1968, sits behind several touch-screen terminals that offer visitors a chance to do a little interactive viewing of various aspects of the ship.

Launched in September 1934 and sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line (known as Cunard-White Star Line when the vessel entered service), today the Queen Mary is permanently docked in Long Beach, California where she serves as a tourist attraction featuring restaurants, a museum and a hotel. Having visited there myself in 1992, I guess I can technically say that I've spent time on an ocean liner!

As liner engineering advanced and nations vied for speed in the 19th century, an informal award known as the Blue Riband was bestowed on the passenger liner in regular service crossing the Atlantic Ocean westbound with the highest speed record . Traditionally, the record was based on average speed rather than passage time because the ships followed different routes. There was no formal award until 1935 when Harold K. Hales (1868–1942), a British politician and owner of Hales Brothers shipping company, donated this elaborate trophy of gilded silver and green onyx. Designed by Charles Holliday of James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, UK, the trophy’s imagery draws on ancient mythology with Poseidon and Amphitrite, the god and goddess of the seas, flanking Victory on the base who supports a globe upon which two Titans wrestle over a liner. It's an impressive trophy!

While engineers were designing each new liner to be the largest and fastest on the sea, top-tier artisans were creating the finest designs and artwork to fill the ships with which they accomplished while reflecting the taste, sensibility, and politics of their time. "Choosing which vessel to travel on was a way for passengers to select a fantasy experience," said Finamore. "They could live in an Art Deco Parisian apartment or a Romanesque castle. The choice was theirs."

As I've always been a big fan of the Beaux-Arts style, one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition is the panel Honour and Glory Crowning Time that graced the grand staircase leading to the first-class dining room of Titanic's sister ship Olympic which was the largest ocean liner in the world for two periods during 1911–13, interrupted only by the brief tenure of the slightly larger Titanic.

Another marvelous piece of Beaux-Arts design is this oil on canvas in a gilded and painted wood frame entitled Our Future Lies Upon the Water which was the centerpiece of the first-class smoking room on the German liner Kronprinz Wilhelm. Created by German artist Arthur Heinrich Wilhem Fitger in 1901, the muscular youth conquering the raging seas underlines Germany's expanding industrial strength, maritime presence, and global ambitions in the early 20th century.

One of the most poignant pieces on display in the exhibition is this fragment of a panel from the first-class lounge on the RMS Titanic that was found floating in the water after the ship's tragic sinking on April 15, 1912. An example of the richly carved panels that decorated much of the ship's interior, when travelers entered the recital lounge of the liner dubbed to be "The Queen of the Ocean," they passed under this beautiful arch with its ornate details featuring carved musical instruments and florets. Passengers on the ill-fated liner were sailing on the ultimate Beaux-Arts ship which the White Star Line intended to be grander than the most luxurious five-star hotel.

Continuing in the Beaux-Arts style, the above photos show a door from the first-class embarkation hall and paneling from the communication gallery of the SS France, a French ocean liner which sailed for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, colloquially known as CGT or the "French Line". Later christened Versailles of the Atlantic, a reference to her décor which reflected the famous palace outside Paris, France was introduced into the Transatlantic route in April 1912, just a week after the sinking of RMS Titanic, and was the only French liner among the famous "four stackers". Credited for bringing the grand staircase to the ocean liner, a fashion which prevails in modern cruise ships, France quickly became one of the most popular ships in the Atlantic.

Evoking the life and death of a great liner, this Mid-Century style chipped and stained panel is a remnant from the Andrea Doria which was launched in June of 1951. An icon of Italian national pride as, of all Italy's ships at the time, she was the largest, fastest, and supposedly safest, the Andrea Doria came to a tragic end on July 26, 1956 in what became one of history's most infamous maritime disasters, Shrouded in fog as she approached the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts bound for New York City, Andrea Doria collided with the eastbound MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line and sank 11 hours later with the loss of 46 lives.  Following the disaster, this panel from the ship's Zodiac Suite washed ashore on a Nantucket beach. Created by Italian designer Piero Fornasetti of ink and paint on masonite mounted to plywood, the whimsical blue-green zodiac designed panel decorated one of the Andrea Doria's private suites.

Another Mid-Century piece, this large illuminated wall panel was one of a set that decorated SS United States's intimate, midnight-blue private restaurant. Created in 1952 by American designer Charles Tissot, the star patterns were formed by insetting cut-glass rods and lenses into the panels that when lit, gave the illusion of celestial bodies at varying distances.

As you can't have a glamorous ocean liner without outfitting it with glamorous furniture that's exactly what the designers produced and the owner's filled their ships with as the exhibition continues with displays of International Design Trends.

The Art-Deco pieces above would have been found in the grand salon of Normandie and (with the exception of the side chair which belongs to the PEM) are on loan from the single largest lender to the Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Glory exhibition - the Miottel Museum in Berkeley, California which is a private collection open by appointment-only to scholars and and serious collectors. With an ocean-liner collection totaling some 30,000 works that includes everything from postage stamps to a grand piano, the collection is owned by John "Crash" Miottel who has harbored a strong fascination with all things ships since early childhood.  The reverse-painted glass panel gilded with gold, silver and palladium leaf designed by Jean Dupas is from The Rape of Europa mural that graced the ships' Grand Salon while the side table of Formica, wood, and brass was designed by Jean Dunand. The side chair designed in 1934 by Jean-Maurice Rothschild, Baptistin Spade, and Émile Gaudissart is crafted of gilded wood, metal, and wool and silk tapestry.

The 1936 Art Deco armchair and table from the Queen Mary were part of the first-class long gallery that was both comfortable and contemporary.  The anodized aluminum panel by French sculptor Maurice Lambert above the chair is one of a pair of reliefs entitled Speed and Progress that were displayed above the First Class Travel Bureau on the ship. The stunning relief features Pegasus being outrun by a stylized DH86 aircraft and was one of many works that disappeared when the Queen Mary was permanently moored in Long Beach in 1967.  It later turned up in auction and is now part of the Miottel Museum in Berkeley.

This 1936 painting by Herbert Davis Richter depicts the first-class dining room which was without doubt the grandest room on the Queen Mary and one of the largest and finest ever built aboard any ship in liner history. An engineering as well as decorative tour de force, the room was designed to seat the entire compliment of over 800 first-class passengers in one sitting whereas there were two sittings in the second and third-class dining rooms.

To the right, this Mid-Century design comfy-looking orange easy chair made of wood and velour was designed by Nino Zoncada of Italy and was used in the first-class ballroom on the Eugenio, a 1966 Italian-built ocean liner originally owned by the Costa Line. If there was a chair in the exhibition that I was tempted to take a seat in, it was definitely the wood, brass, and velour armchair on the left designed by Gustavo Pulitzer-Finali for the MS Augustus, a luxurious ocean liner built in 1950 for the Italian Line.

In search of a new market as air travel began to replace ocean travel, Cunard specifically designed the Queen Elizabeth 2 to embody the 1960s "Swinging London" vibe, marketing the ship as a fun and happening alternative to a boring airplane while aggressively targeting a younger, more fashionable crowd. This hip and mod restaurant chair made in aluminum alloy and manufactured by Race Furniture was originally used in the QE2's Columbia and Britannia restaurants and lent an air of contemporary chic to the traditional white tablecloths. Designed by Robert Heritage who is celebrated as the most awarded designer in the history of the British Design Council, the chair design was awarded a prize by the Council of Industrial Design in 1969 - the same year that the QE2 entered service. Yea baby!

Prior to World War II, long-distance travel was a luxury afforded to the rich and often famous including stars of the stage and screen and footloose, fancy-free aristocrats such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who mingled on-board with American millionaires. Even before boarding the liner, passengers made their mark with their luggage - an overabundance of which was the true sign of the seasoned and stylish traveler. Designer Maison Goyard and Louis Vuitton luggage like Goyard's 1940s painted canvas, leather, and brass suitcases that were owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (just a few of the pieces that they brought aboard) and the 1925 Vuitton steamer trunk and jewelry case were definite status symbols of the rich and famous.

Speaking of stars, on display is a 1950 day suit designed by Christian Dior and worn by Hollywood movie star Marlene Dietrich who was an experienced trans-Atlantic tourist. The photograph shows Dietrich wearing the suit as she waits to board the Queen Elizabeth. On the Normandie, one of her favorite liners due to its opulenceDietrich even had a favorite stateroom – the Deauville Suite - that came complete with a honey-colored baby grand piano designed by Louis Süe and manufactured by Graveau of Paris.

One simply couldn't go on a fabulous cruise without fabulous jewelry - a few pieces of which are on display in the exhibition. The platinum and gold bandeau tiara above, set with 30 carats of circular-cut diamonds within an outer border of seed pearls framing a central detachable 3.3 carat diamond, was commissioned in 1909 from Cartier Paris by Sir Hugh Montagu Allan for his wife, Montreal socialite Lady Marguerite Ethel Allan, née Mackenzie, and taken with her on the ill-fated final voyage of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The tiara survived the sinking along with Lady Allan and her two maids as one of them carried it off the boat with her but sadly, Anna and Gwendolyn, Lady Allan's two daughters who were traveling with her, died in the disaster.

To the right, the gold and platinum brooch by Jean Schulumberger of Tiffany & Co. was purchased in 1964 by Richard Burton and given to Elizabeth Taylor who was photographed wearing it while coming off a voyage of the Queen Elizabeth. Titled "The Night of the Iguana Brooch," the design is actually a dolphin (though it doesn't look like it!) with diamond and gold scales featuring a cabochon sapphire eye and emerald mouth. The reason for the name is that Liz accompanied Burton to Mexico while he was filming John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana" movie and as they had had such a fabulous time, Burton gave her the brooch as a special gift on the premier of the movie.

On loan from the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach, this 1934 altarpiece executed on a gold leaf background by Kenneth Shoemaker entitled The Madonna of the Atlantic was located in the first-class drawing room. During the week a hinged, four-panel folding screen decorated with a Mediterranean scene - also by Shoesmith - kept it hidden from view.

This 1935 Art Deco Torah Ark in the shape of a hand or Hamesh, a symbol of protection and blessing, was located in a permanent synagogue known as the "Scroll Room" on the Queen Mary's third-class deck. Designed by English architect Cecil Jacob Epril, the synagogue was one of the first to be put aboard a trans-Atlantic liner. Though there was a growing number of wealthy American and British Jews who were making voyages across the Atlantic and who would be pleased by such a facility, the location of the synagogue as well as a kosher kitchen seem to indicate that Cunard personnel anticipated that the people who would most require those facilities would be the passengers in third-class - refugees from Nazi Germany.

In this 1868 painting by Charles Robert Dudley entitled A Deck Scene on Great Eastern, the largest paddle steamer in the world at that time which was on a trans-Atlantic cable-laying voyage when this painting was made, travelers who stepped out on deck to get some air didn't have the luxury of deck chairs as the deck was considered the functional area of the ship. If they wanted to sit outside and get some air, they had to bring some of the interior furniture out with them as depicted here. It wasn't until the 20th century that technological advancements allowed the deck to be opened up for passenger use.

As outdoor space became more popular with passengers, ships were designed with larger, uncluttered decks and deck chairs became icons of leisure travel in the 20th century with each liner company developing its own distinct design. Representing the epitome of luxury and opulence, passengers would relax in their deck chairs against a cooling ocean spray, sometimes covered by a blanket, while attended to by the ever present and attentive deck stewards. Securing a deck chair that was in a prime location - protected and sunny as well as close to witty neighbors - was the mark of a seasoned traveler. From back to front - a folding aluminum and nylon deck chair from SS United States circa 1952; a wood and cane chair from the Normandie circa 1935; and a beech and cane deck chair from RMS Titanic circa 1912.

On Titanic, first and second class passengers had the opportunity to reserve their chairs for the voyage, upon which a name card would be inserted into a special brass frame like the one in the upper left corner of this chair.  During the day the chairs could be rearranged according to passengers' wishes but at night they were folded and and tied against a portion of the superstructure of the ship with rope. Another poignant part of the exhibition, this chair, manufactured in 1912 by R. Holman & Company in Boston and on loan from the Museum of the City of New York, is one of less than a half dozen left in existence out of the 614 that Titanic had set sail with.

Following the ship's tragic encounter with a rogue iceberg, Titanic baker Charles Joughin claimed to have thrown at least 50 deck chairs into the water to act as flotation devices while many more must have been strewn about as the ship slipped beneath the waves. When the recovery ship, the Mackay Bennett, was dispatched to go pick up the bodies of those that had died on the Titanic, the all-volunteer crew found more than just the dead in the water as they found deck chairs and other wreckage, too. Frederick Hamilton, a crewman aboard the Mckay Bennett, recorded in his personal diary on April 21, 1912, that “The ocean is strewn with a litter of woodwork, chairs, and bodies.” The official logbook of the ship records the recovery of multiple deck chairs from the Titanic wreckage over a period of several days, as well as their repair by the ship’s carpenter, suggesting that some of them were intended to be made functional again.

On a side note, exhibition co-creator Dan Finamore confided that he definitely took some delight in telling his friends that while he was working on the exhibition he was “Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” an idiom which is often used to describe a futile action in the face of impending catastrophe. I'm sure I'd have done the same thing!

On a less somber note, Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Glory continues with some fashions of the day including a bellhop uniform that particularly caught my eye. I blame my penchant on loving a nice uniform with shiny brass buttons on growing up a military brat! This bellhop uniform circa 1930s would have been worn on the liners of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique - typically known overseas as the French Line - including the SS Normandie and SS France.

Of course there were pools on ocean liners and people using them wearing - what was then - the latest in swimming costumes. From left to right - one of the earliest two-piece suits for women, this circa 1937-39 wool jersey was made by Finnigans, Ltd. of London; the man's "topper" swimsuit complete with zipper pocket and belt is American-made circa 1934; and the woman's colorful two-piece suit was designed by Italian designer Emilio Pucci for Saks Fifth Avenue in 1968.

From swimwear to evening wear, in the middle is a circa 1953 dress used in an advertisement for the Andrea Doria and a men's 1969 dinner suit complete with ascot. To the left, a Lucien Lelong copper lamé evening dress in a lean cut meant to emphasize the streamlined, modern style of the ship, circa 1935, is similar to the one the designer showed on board the Normandie when representatives from fashion houses would hold shows displaying their latest creations in the ship's dramatically-lit grand salon while sailing across the mid-Atlantic. On the right, made from silk, gold lamé, and glass beading, this circa 1925 Jenny Sacerdote-designed dress was reportedly worn beneath the fur coat of 19-year old Mary Elizabeth Staples along with several other dresses in order to prevent having to pay customs tax on her expensive purchases when she returned to New York in 1927. A beautiful example of haute-couture craftsmanship, Jenny Sacerdote was at the height of her fame and success when she designed this dress.

Naturally dinnerware on ocean liner was of the designer-type also including these streamlined pieces from the Normandie - a chrome-plated and brass pitcher designed by Peter Muller-Monk circa 1935 from the Miottel Museum and a circa-1935 teacup, saucer, and dinner plate made by the Steubenville Pottery Company of Ohio on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. *Correction: This place setting was influenced by the Normandie was but never used on board the ship.

If you were fortunate enough - and wealthy enough - to be a sailing in one of Normandie's very best suites - Deauville, Trouville, Rouen, or Caen - then you could skip dining with the crowds and have dinner in your suite which was served in style and then some. The service of multiple utensils, glassware, and dishes included crystal wine goblets, decanters, and other glassware by French glass designer René Lalique as well as an oyster plate by his daughter, Suzanne Lalique. Custom-designed and produced in very limited quantities for exclusive use in the ship's deluxe suites, this amazing dinner service is on loan from the Miottel Museum in Berkeley and - trust me - the photos do not do it justice!

The exhibition ends with displays geared towards the modern impact of ocean liners on today's cruise ships and contemporary architecture - a tribute to the symbols of human progress and visionary creativity that ocean liners evoked but from a personal point of view, what's the point of a resort that acts like an ocean liner? Half of the joy and fun of ocean travel back in the day was the 'getting there' for as co-curator Elaine Wood of the V&A said, "There is something immensely romantic about the liner, the idea of taking a voyage, a traveling and transportive experience ..." Indeed.

Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Glory ran from May 20th to October 9th, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum before setting sail across the Atlantic for a February 2018 opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. For information on visiting the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, click here and book your own passage into this wonderful exhibition that may very well have you dreaming the same ultimate vacation dream I have of someday setting sail and reliving even just a tiny bit the Golden Age of Ocean Travel. Once I win the lottery that is!


  1. David F Hutchings, Maritime Author, UKThursday, June 8, 2017 at 11:28:00 AM EDT

    What a stunning exhibition!

  2. The place setting designed by Muller-Monk was influenced by the Normandie but was never used on board the Normandie.

    1. Thank you Jean, I have noted a correction to that above.


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