Comprehensive and informative, the exhibition explores a fascinating range of topics, including the social constraints of class and the industry’s impact on literature and films, such as the 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, directed by Ronald Neame.Top-notch design is also put under the spotlight, from the covetable fashions on board to the pioneering engineering, glorious architecture and sumptuous interiors that afforded passengers unprecedented excesses of comfort, facilities and services.
“To travel first class by ocean liner, particularly before World War II, was to travel in high style,” says Wood. “Liners emulated the service that passengers could expect in luxury hotels. The Ritz hotels became a model for first-class service on liners, not just for their glamorous interiors but also for the food and beverages served. The tableware and cutlery were specially commissioned from prominent French companies such as Puiforcat, Lalique and Christo e,”she says,“while special menus which included caviar and lobster were created by leading French chefs.”
Shrewdly, the shipping companies did their best to capitalise on social trends, too. So, the cult of bodily health during the 1920s and 1930s, for example, saw the rapid growth of on-board leisure activities. “Decks were transformed into open expanses offering a vast range of entertaining activities such as shuffleboard, deck tennis, quoits, clay pigeon shooting and swimming,” says Wood. “The pool area was even known as ‘the Lido deck’,” she adds,“emulating fashionable beach resorts of the period.”
Among more than 250 objects featured in the exhibition, visitors can encounter shipbuilding artefacts, paintings, sculpture, models, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and lm. However, one of the most compelling aspects of the industry was its appropriation and promotion of high-end design. From the Beaux-Arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm and William De Morgan’s Arts and Crafts glazed tiles, to the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich in 1950 as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary, design was used to create an atmosphere of opulence and make a statement. On the advice of Noël Coward, Dietrich seized every chance to promote her brand and capitalise on the kudos of the voyage, from on-deck photo opportunities to timing her dining room entrances to guarantee maximum impact. “For many travellers, the liner was a space of glamour and spectacle,”Wood explains. “The theatrical grande descente, where diners descended a grand staircase to dinner,” she says,“became the highlight of each day.”
Dietrich isn’t the only luminary to appreciate the allure of an ocean voyage. Before he overcame his fear of flying, the late rock icon David Bowie often travelled by liner. In fact, his pivotal first American tour in 1972 was only possible because he was able to sail there. It’s said that aboard the now-retired Queen Elizabeth 2, Bowie composed hit songs for his post-Ziggy Stardust album, Aladdin Sane.
“People who go across the Atlantic go for very different reasons,” Bowie told GQ magazine in 2002.“I think a lot of people bring books with them, and they’re quieter, more academic. I’ve bumped into writers, musicians, painters, politicians and, on the last trip, John Cleese.”
THE NEW WAVE
A whole ‘new golden age’ was announced in 2004 after the launch of the Queen Mary 2, a gargantuan liner paying homage to the 1930s luxury of its predecessor. Did this age materialise? “I think in many ways it did,” says Dave Mills, product and commercial director of leading international travel website PlanetCruise.com.“Queen Mary 2 definitely contributed to some record-breaking years for passenger cruising in the UK. It’s also worth remembering that when she launched, she was the largest ship ever built. In this modern age of ever-larger ships, the contribution of Cunard’s flagship was to ensure that both the elegance and romance epitomised by the golden age wasn’t compromised by the increase in scale.The recent refurbishment demonstrates the commitment Cunard has to keeping its standards unequivocally high.”
“I think,” adds Mills, “that the dedication of the industry to continually push the boundaries of spaces, destinations and experiences has ensured that luxury cruising in the modern era is every bit as enriching as it was in the past.
In many ways, the elegance and scale of top-end hotels and epicurean spaces have been taken to even further degrees of excellence at sea than can be found in many land-based equivalents.” For sheer prestige, alongside the Queen Mary 2, Mills recommends voyages aboard the Scenic Eclipse, Regent Explorer and Seabourn Ovation. He describes the Scenic Eclipse, which launches this year, as “perhaps more mega-yacht” than mere luxury ship.“Carrying only 200 guests, she will sail on some of the most off-the-beaten track itineraries we have available,” he says.“She comes equipped with two onboard helicopters and one submersible, meaning that guests can experience destinations including Antarctica and the Galápagos over, on and under the water, in ultra-luxury.”
Regent Explorer, which was launched in 2016, bills itself as the most luxurious cruise ship ever built, where guests are treated to “a sublime level of décor on board, including a Chagall and a Picasso or two,” according to Mills. Meanwhile, Seabourn Ovation is another new-build ship launching this year that will carry its 600-plus passengers on itineraries from Europe, to China and the Far East.
It offers Seabourn Conversations, a series of unique, intimate interactions with notable people.“Guests will be entertained and inspired by incredible raconteurs,” says Mills, “including Sir Tim Rice [the British lyricist behind hit musicals such as Evita], Steve Wozniak (inventor and Apple co-founder) and Lord Digby Jones [British politician and leading businessman].” Even if you’ve taken a high-end voyage before, it seems the experience has evolved radically. Perhaps a 2018 cruise is something to consider. These days, where else is it permissible for luxury to go so overboard?