The Normandie, “the exact reflection of the French nation’s genius”, steams into New York in 1935
These days only one ship – Queen Mary 2 – makes transatlantic crossings.
Everything else is long gone, overtaken by quicker, cheaper, polluting air travel.
Elegant departure from Southampton has given way to the hell of Heathrow.
Commercial airlines lost their glamour decades ago but these great ships never lost theirs. Even on film or newsreel, they are still aweinspiring.
To have travelled first class to New York must have been heaven.
The golden age of high-speed, high-style, transatlantic sailing was brief – about five or six decades in the middle of the last century.
But what speed and style! At the wonderful new exhibition in the Victoria & Albert Museum you get much more than a whiff of it.
Speed was an essential part of the magic. In 1838 Atlantic passage by paddle steamer was nasty, brutish and long.
Sirius, regarded as the first record-setter, took 18 days 14 hours that year. The average speed was about nine miles per hour. But shipping companies began to vie for ever-faster crossings.
Marlene Dietrich disembarking at New York in 1950
The Blue Riband – the honour for fastest average speed rather than fastest crossing, since routes varied – semi-formalised this around the end of the 19th century.
Of the 35 holders – 25 were British – the final one was the SS United States in 1952, its three and half days (average speed 34.51 knots – nearly 40 mph), never beaten by a vessel in regular transatlantic service. Given the delights on board, that hardly seems long enough.
In the V&A exhibition there are three beautiful suitcases (from Maison Goyard, personalised of course) that belonged to the Duke of Windsor.
He and Wallis were transatlantic regulars, sometimes with a hundred pieces of luggage. Presumably they didn’t open them all.
So beautiful was the décor on these liners, so fine the food, so gorgeous the setting – more than the equal of any grand hotel – that the moneyed, voguish passengers felt challenged to live up to it (and each other).
First-class life on board most ships became a fashion show.
The entrance to, say, the ballroom was down a glamorous staircase, a “grande descente”, the better to show yourself off.
Cecil Beaton bemoaned the lack of it on the new Queen Mary: “When constructing a boat, even a luxury liner,” he wrote, “the English do not consider their women very carefully.”
RMS Queen Mary and her sister Queen Elizabeth are the ships that loom largest in British memories.
Building the Queen Mary was begun at John Brown’s shipyard at Clydebank in 1930 but was almost immediately halted by the Depression and only started again thanks to a government loan that also allowed work on Queen Elizabeth to be started.
The Queen Mary was launched in 1936. It was very grand but rather conservative in its décor.
The Windsors in sailing chic
Works by leading artists Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer were rejected as too modern.
Instead it had the feeling of a English country house, lots of marquetry and merrie England artwork in the first-class dining room.
Queen Elizabeth made more of a nod to modest modernity.
The most stunningly stylish liner of them all (and the star of this show, always providing you like art deco) was the French ship Normandie, ravishing inside and out.
“We wanted to produce a ship which would embody the most modern artistic trends and be the exact reflection of the French nation’s genius,” said the launch statement, reflecting the nationalistic competitiveness that came with ocean liners.
Powerful public representations of their nations’ stature, it was crucial that they should be the biggest, fastest, most desirable or most beautiful. Which quality was most important depended on the nation. For the French it was beauty and in the Normandie it was achieved.
At the V&A they have one of the gold lacquer panels from Normandie’s smoking room, which you entered down a grand theatrical staircase Cecil Beaton would have approved of.
The huge panel, Les Sports, shows six lightly-clad male athletes and one female, posing with javelins to optimal physical effect.
Key to Normandie’s lavish stylishness was the fact 40 per cent of the passengers were travelling first class – an unusually high proportion.
But liners were never the monopoly of the minted. The majority were travelling second or third class. The classes on board were literally stratified – toffs at the top, non-toffs below.
On some ships, the map of the vessel given to passengers showed only the areas where they were permitted to go.
The Queen’s Room on the Queen Elizabeth 2.
To those travelling more cheaply, it was as if the first class didn’t exist. And vice versa.
That we associate ocean liners with luxury and style is almost an accident of history.
The key thing about such ships is that they are capable of carrying an enormous number of people.
Between 1900 and 1914, 11 million emigrated from Europe to America. Almost all were poor, travelling packed together in steerage. That’s where the business was. But in 1921 the United States tightened its immigration rules.
Movie theater on a passenger ship, around 1930.
Afterwards the shipping companies had to look elsewhere – to tourism. Americans were getting richer and many more could afford to visit Europe.
The less affluent of them had to be persuaded there was no suggestion that third class meant “cheap” in any way except price.
“In a third class cabin,” said the ad, “you will enjoy the companionship of cultured men and women.”
Mighty ships were an investment for war as well as peace. When the government subsidised the building of Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania at the beginning of the 20th century it was on the understanding that they could be requisitioned for war. They were bigger and faster than navy ships.
November 1923: Passengers on board the liner ‘Leviathan’.
The Mauretania was used as a troopship and hospital ship throughout the First World War, but was the longest Blue Riband holder, from 1909 to 1929.
The Lusitania stayed a passenger ship but was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1915 bringing death to nearly 1,200 passengers and crew.
Queen Elizabeth began life as a camouflage-painted troop ship in 1940 and didn’t become a passenger liner until 1946. It is half a century since Queen Mary was retired to Long Beach, California where she is permanently moored as a museum and hotel. Her sister ship Queen Elizabeth was sold several times to owners who didn’t know what to do with her.
In 1972, while being refitted in Hong Kong as a floating university she caught fire, capsized and was scrapped where she lay.
The beautiful Normandie, launched in 1935 as the fastest and largest ship afloat, was seized by US authorities in 1942 to be converted into a troop ship. She too caught fire, was capsized by the water used to douse the blaze and was eventually scrapped in 1946.
Oh well, you better take me to Heathrow, squash me into my seat and pass me a nasty airline meal.
Ocean Liners: Speed And Style is at the Victoria & Albert museum in London until June 17.