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Ocean Liners, Glamour, Speed, and Style. The exhibition, a detailed rundown of the spectacular exhibit currently open in Salem MA.

by Jonathan Quayle |

On the 20th of May, 2017 a major exhibition premiered regarding the design & evolution of the ocean liner, opened at PEM, The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA.

It is without question the most comprehensive dedicated display on the subject ever created. The exhibition was devised between the major world institutions of the United Kingdoms V&A, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and PEM. Years of planning and hard work have gone into the exhibit, items have been sourced from around the globe, from major art institutions, galleries, museums, to single collectors far and wide. 

Beautifully displayed in PEM's impressive main atrium,  the original letters from Southampton's fabled Ocean Terminal. Saved by Peter Boyd-Smith from the famous 'Cobwebs' store, Southampton. Peter was luckily allowed to save what he could hours before demolition in 1983. He sold the letters to the noted Ocean Liner dealer, the much missed Ken Shultz. They later appeared in Christies New York and sold to a private collector. 

The exhibition runs until October at Salem.

Pursers Locker are very proud to have been involved in this exhibition.

Please join me as we journey around the exhibit, highlighting key artefacts along the way.....

We arrive at PEM's impressive atrium and travel two flights of stairs to the exhibitions entrance, greeted by a monster reproduction of Cassandra's legendary poster, "Normandie", her bow beckoning us in.....

Normandie is a familiar theme throughout the exhibit, as well she should be, being one of the ultimate liners, however there is a healthy balance and respect to the other Queens of the Atlantic, Mary & Elizabeth. 

And so we enter, and again greeted by the Normandie, this time in the form of a beautiful mural commissioned for the French pavilion at the Worlds Fair, depicting the famous liner at her home berth. This mural acts as a grand wall, hiding us from the promise of what lays ahead, mimicking the grand hull of a liner itself, we round a corner to the first exhibit hall.

Almost jumping out of us is surely one of PEM's prize exhibits, the legendary Bassett Lowke builders model of the RMS "Queen Elizabeth", produced in c-1938. It was one of at least four of this scale, two for the US market and two for the home market. This example for years had resided in Cunard's New York Head office, before being gifted to PEM in the late 1960's. Each model was produced from a single log of white mahogany, laminated. The fittings are all gilded or silvered metal, each porthole is meticulously reproduced. Today these models, along with the matching examples produced for her earlier sister, "Queen Mary" are rightly considered the finest shipbuilders models ever made, as well as still being amongst the largest Ocean Liners models ever produced.

PEM have bravely decided to display their model without its heavy bronze display case, making this model jump out and look even more spectacular, its thats possible!

The remainder of this galleries artefacts centre on the idea of promotion and advertising. Everything is here, from beautiful art deco brochures to some of the most iconic travel posters ever produced, a feast for the eyes.

Just one of the incredible pieces of advertising material, this piece, which at one time passed through the hands of the late, great Ken Shultz, is huge in scale. Its interesting how the company were trying to in effect 'decofy' the ageing edwardian sisters in the changing times when competition represented the likes of CGT's cutting edge "Ille De France".

As we leave behind the first hall, we look back at the monumental letters of Cunard's 1960's era logo, the logo still in use to this day. These letters have a particular place in my heart, they hail from the front of the beautiful Southwestern House, the former grand Edwardian railway hotel, in Southampton. In place from the 1960's until the mid 1990's, the building housed Cunard's head office. Southampton is my home town and for years I would look up these letters. In 1996 Cunard moved to new purpose built facility  elsewhere in the city, and a local company cleared the old offices. These letters were thrown in a skip, thankfully the gentleman clearing the offices spotted and saved them. My mother bought them for me from him for my 16 birthday, they have been with me ever since, so it was a real thrill to see them mounted so proudly on display at this major exhibition. 

We move on to the next gallery over a bridge over the atrium, this space concentrates on the machine that was the Ocean Liner, here we see beautiful engineering models, ships hulls abstractly hung from the ceiling, further builders models, propeller miniatures and so on.

Amongst the many varied and fine treasures in this space we have an original platers model & hull for the legendary 'Big U', the SS "United Staes", and a truly beautifully scaled smaller builders model of the "Queen Mary" 

A detailed cross section model of the Conte di Savoia, showing her revolutionary but short-lived dynamos, supposed to cure the ships rolling in heavy seas, it actually ended up magnifying the effects creating serious movement resulting in mass seasickness amongst the passengers, the dynamos were soon abandoned.

A beautifully scaled builders model, again by the best model makers in the world, Messers Bassett & Lowke. This model dates from the ships launch and original configuration of c-1936. Thankfully it was never altered as many models of a smaller scale were. This example was a gift by Cunard to PEM in the late 1960's. PEM again decided to display this minus its cover, allowing us to fully appreciate it and the ships original lines & beauty, uninterrupted.

Other exhibits in this space run from the sublime to the ridiculous.

From a wooden mould for one of QE2's original turbines..............

To the stunning beauty of the original Hales Trophy of the Blue Ribbon of the Atlantic, I love the museums juxtaposition of these brilliant exhibits.


We leave behind the grime, grit and reality of the engineering and venture back into the warmth of the passenger accommodations, this time during the High Edwardian era, the grand Beaux-Arts and the gilded age.

We begin with the English Arts & Crafts movement, were we see an honesty to construction and materials. Leading lights in the movement are all here, from monumental tiles panels from P&O line vessels by the renown potter & tile artist, William De Morgan, to designs by William Morris and Dr Christopher Dresser. These humble simple techniques and styles contrast sharply with what else was happening in design. We are assaulted by the grandness and style of the guided age in full monumental force, set off by perhaps one of the most famous and iconic pieces of Ocean Liner interior design ever produced, Honour & Glory, Crowing time, from the RMS "Olympic". 

Without question on of the stars of the show, this epic carved panel from the ships iconic Grand Staircase is beautifully displayed at a high level, far better displayed that its usual home of Southampton's Sea City Museum. The carving stands and looms above us, much as it did onboard Olympic when you would have transcended the staircase, crowned by it famous dome above.

I am very pleased Southampton Council allowed this panel for inclusion into the exhibition, I have known this panel all my life since first seeing as a small boy in the city's old Maritime Museum, the Wool House. It is like an old friend, it seems fitting it has traveled across the Atlantic one more time to be here.

A couple of detailed views of the Olympic panel, for the first time we can properly see the detail of the griffins that support the main panel. For years this panel has been poorly mounted, pretty much on ground level. Finally we get to enjoy its grandeur, viewing it at a more appropriate level.

Honour & Glory, crowning time poignantly off sets the next artefact, which again must be one of the highlights of the show, from the same hands that carved the clock panel comes the large panel recovered from the Atlantic in 1912, the beautiful and stunning 1st Class Lounge panel fragment.

 The carving has been beautifully but simply mounted on the wall, again uncovered without protection or a cover, allowing us to view the panel much as we would have done had we'd been walking around the public rooms of the Titanic herself. The piece speaks volumes without saying a word, it resonates the countless tales and fables established that cold crisp, April night, over 100 years ago. 

It must be noted that thanks be given to the panels home, The Museum of the Atlantic, for allowing the panel out for us to see.

Close up details of the panel fragment that originally stood above the main entrance doors out of the lounge. Its near identical sister panel can still be seen to this day in the town of Alnwick, where the near fully preserved 1st Class Lounge now resides in the White Swan Hotel, from her sister ship, "Olympic". This panel is also of course the inspiration of the section Rose clings to in the film 'Titanic' (1997).

This carving leads on nicely to what the French were fitting out their liners at the same time. The classical themes are all here again and repeated but perhaps on a grander scale. Thankfully the French Line Archive, in Le Havre has managed to hold onto a vast collection of original paneling and material from such stalwart liners at the SS "France" of c-1912. The exhibit has made great use of major elements from the archive, including vast panels from the corridor space around the liners 1st Class Lounge, to the doors that lead into it.

We then hit another crazy juxtaposition, leaving the Beaux Arts of the last century and dive into the wonderful period of the interwar years and the start of the of Modernism into Art Deco. This section wouldn't be able to begin without starting with the legendary Normandie, and we are not disappointed in the fine array of items from her.

No Ocean Liner exhibit would be complete without the inclusion of at least one Verre eglomise (reverse painted glass in gold, silver and palladium leaf) by Jean Dupas, from the panel, 'The Rape of Europa" from the ships 'Grand Salon' 1st Class lounge. Also included are the iconic table and chair from the same space, designed by Jean-Maurice Rothschild, manufactured by Baptistin Spade, with the classic Aubusson tapestry designed Emile Gaudissard.

A bespoke piano created for the Deauville Suite onboard the SS "Normanide", from the collection of Mario J. Pulice, being played at the gala opening night of the exhibition.

French Lines famous early interwar liners are well represented, its not all Normandie. Several artefacts are on display from the famous 'Ille De France', including an art panel from a suite and iconic furniture from her lounge and dining room. L'atlatique is also represented.

The majority of the items relating to the Normandie hail from several sources, but the main contributors other than PEM's own collection are from the noted Miottel Museum, Berkeley CA. And Mario J. Pulice, New York, collection. Again it is with great thanks that such an awesome assembly from the fabled liner was possible to these generous collectors to enable this to happen. 

We then come around from the French Moderne to English Art Deco, I am pleased to say a strong representation here centres on my favourite liner, the RMS "Queen Mary". Her importance is nicely displayed here, often seen behind the fabled Normandie, Queen Mary was just as influential in her own way. Her successful interior style strongly influenced British design for years, and although far less grand than her French competition and her Grand Lux appointments, Queen Mary embodied an approachable scale of warmth, love and heart the French superstar never found, its great that this exhibition puts that forward like never before.


The Queen Mary artefacts and one from her sister ship, Queen Elizabeth, create a warm heart to the exhibit. Here we have displayed the iconic and for years thought lost, aluminium relief plaque by Maurice Lambert, 'Speed & Progress' originally hung outside the pre war Travel Bureau, on loan from the Miottel collection.

The iconic aluminium relief panel, 'Speed & Progress', by Maurice Lambert. Original installed outside the Queen Mary's Cabin (First) Class travel bureau.

A suite of original furniture, as designed and built from the Cabin (First) Class pre war Long Gallery, c-1936, RMS 'Queen Mary'. The arm chair is of particular note as being one of only a handful of pieces to survive in its original fabric from 1936. In this case the fabric is a sea green with pink corral decoration, and synonymous with the ships careful 'autumnal shades' colour scheme found throughout the ship in the pre war period. 

The vase shown above, from the RMS 'Queen Elizabeth', dates from c-1938 and was designed and hand thrown by the famous Pool Pottery, Dorset, England. It was produced to sit within one of the niches of the ships main 2nd Class staircase. It was returned to Poole Pottery in the 1960's to be repaired but never returned to the ship. Its partners onboard would all be destroyed in the fire that would consume the liner in Hong Kong in the 1970's. I purchased the vase from Christies in the early 2000's when they held the dispersal sale of Poole's archive after the company was sold.

All three items pictured above hail from my own personal collection.

The stunning and surprisingly large scaled Herbert Davis Richter's portrayal of Queen Mary's main dining room, produced for Cunard White Star Line to promote the new liner in 1936.

A sketch by Doris Zinkeisen for one of her main murals in the Verandah Grill, c-1935. Seeing this for the first time, it was wondrous to behold Doris's early ideas and intentions for the final mural. This along with many other highly significant articles hail from the collection of Stephen S. Lash, a noted marine collector. It is with great thanks that Mr Lash has loaned items from his amazing collection, at the opening of the exhibition there was talk that Mr Lash intends to gift the majority of his collection to PEM, PEM's collection will be all the richer for that truly amazing gift.

One of many amazing articles sourced for the exhibit is this rare survivor, a test sample of hand tufted carpet by Templetons, of the main rug for Queen Mary's 1st Class drawing room. Its colour and quality are stupendous.

QE2, single restaurant chair by Robert Heritage.

If there is one area that somewhat lacks in the exhibition, its the absences of any significant artefacts from the iconic QE2. The ship is represented by a single chair, it seems a great shame that such bastion of the North Atlantic is so poorly represented. This is a result of several factors, ultimately QE2's own fate. Many iconic items from the ships design remain onboard, one need only think of the four seasons statues of the Princess Grill or tapestries of the ships launch, as examples. Sadly the ship seems to have become somewhat of an enigma. The doors to the ship are locked tight, and no-one seems to know who the gate keeper is. Another disappointment is the absence of Cunard/Carnival to have been involved. As I understand it they were approached but declined interest, instead leaving Royal Caribbean as the only shipping company to sponsor it. It mystifies me that a company marketing itself with the tag line 'The Worlds Greatest Ocean Liners', falls short to help preserve its historical legacy. The exhibit ends with a beautiful huge builders model of one of Royal Caribbean's new builds, when we should have been seeing a large scale model of QM2, it certainly feels like a missed opportunity.

From QE2, we swing into a mid-century master class, all hail the epic SS 'United States', for years when you have spent time pouring through books growing up as a child you think you are pretty familiar with the ships of the pasts interiors, nothing could be further from the truth. I have always adored this panel from one of the private dining rooms onboard, but seeing it in the flesh was astonishing, a thing of true beauty, the ship must truly have sparkled when new. All the key ships of the period are noted or included here, the SS "United States", the SS "France", SS "Franca C" and the "Andrea Doria" etc.

The stunning illuminated art panel with inset cut and polished crystal elements from the Big U, SS "United States".

One of the screens from the ships ballroom, with its underwater world & corral theme, in breathtaking illuminated plate glass.

One of the ships iconic 'propeller' tables especially designed for the liner.

'Come on in, the waters fine' are spelled out by signal flag, or words to the effect, the enamel letters formerly installed within the pool onboard the SS "United States".


A truly remarkable section of paneling that was rescued from the "Andrea Doria" from the famous Zodiac Suite. Beyond this can be seen two outstanding light fixtures from the collection of the great Ocean Liner aficionado and saviour, Peter Knego, and his astonishing mid-century collection, another significant leander to the exhibition.

Bronze sculpture, 'Dancer with seagulls' by Marcello Mascherini, originally installed on the SS "Franca C", latter reused and installed on the SS "Eugenio C".

Chair by Gio Ponti, manufactured by Cassina, for the First Class Dining Room of the SS "Conti Grande", c-1948.

A closeup detail from one of Peter Knego's stunning light fixtures.

The evolution of the steamer chair, represented by not just any old steamer chair, but one recovered from the Atlantic in C-1912, and hailing from the ill fated "Titanic". Next in line is a red lacquered example for CGT from the SS "Normandie" C-1935, and to finish an aluminium example from the Big U, SS "United States" C-1952.

Utterly charming children's playroom nautical equipment especially designed for the iconic SS "Canberra", C-1961. Again special mention must be made to P&O Heritage, who's major support of this exhibition and the loan of multiple items was invaluable.

Children's equipment & art from the Normandie's First Class children's room

Nearing the end of the exhibit we enter a fascinating section devoted to faith at sea, strongly represented by the devotional services aboard the RMS "Queen Mary". The Queen Mary when completed in 1936 was the first ship to have a truly dedicated synagog as built, specific and not a multi use space as found on other liners such as Normandie. This was incredibly significant, Cunard White Star Line, although undoubtedly thinking of the bottom line, went above and beyond in its plans for its new liner included a dedicated space. It was testament to this space and attitude of welcome on its flag ship that drew a huge following, its not easy to quantify but this simple but effective effort & gesture by Cunard White Star helped at least in some small part in the escape of Jews from a tide change in attitude across Europe & Germany, to the US in the dark days prior to WW2.

The ship was well appointed for most religions, mixed dominion services were held on Sundays at sea within the First Class Lounge. The ships First Class Drawing Room could easily be converted into space for Roman Catholic services. Whilst the First Class Library could also be converted for religious services when the need arose. A similar function in the ships 2nd Class Reading & Writing Room would occur, the latter being hidden when not in use, the Queen Mary was a dynamic floating mutli domination church at sea!

The epic 'Madonna of the Atlantic' by the renown marine artist, Kenneth Denton Shoesmith. This stunning and large scale work was hidden behind folding doors, adorned with one of his famous market scenes which corresponded to its companion at the end of the room over the fireplace. It was said this was Winston Churchill's favourite room onboard. He was known to have used it as an office and often held press conferences here if travelling onboard.

Its hard to appreciate the scale of Shoesmith's masterpiece, but if you think that the Madonna is not far off life size, you can get some indication of scale.

The detail in this work is extraordinary, at her feat lay the equipment needed to transverse the North Atlantic, charts and maps of the great ocean lie rolled up, a sextant, globe, lantern and hourglass all symbolise faith, the sea and the ships great journey, the North Atlantic being centre on the globe.

Shoesmith's style is brilliantly used to highlight the Christ child, carefully outlined in royal blue, very similar to his use of colour and detail outline he was famous for with his countless advertising posters of the period.

The stunning and beautiful Torah Ark, from the RMS "Queen Mary", designed by noted synagog designer, Cecil Jacob Eprile. Sadly no longer within the collection of the ship itself. Apparently donated to a local synagog in Long Beach upon the ships arrival to the city in 1967, it was poorly treated and was almost lost until someone noticed its importance, rescuing it. It was purchased by the Magnes Museum, Berkley, CA. Where it was beautifully restored. If ever there was a room onboard the ship that deserved a full restoration, the ships internationally important synagog would be it, I cannot think of a better space to mark and commemorate the ships sterling work before and during the war and as memorial to those lost.

An interesting note of design is the use of veneer, the main body of the ark is quarter sawn oak, laid over each other in opposing directions to create the shadow effect seen here, this was the same technique used within the ships 2nd class dinning room.

The gilt cast metal work bears striking similarities to the fire dogs found within the three fireplaces in the First Class Lounge.

A CGT French Line Bellboys uniform, of the type used onboard the SS "France" of c-1961.

RMS 'Queen Mary', c-1936, A beautiful and fitting gift made by a passenger on the ships maiden voyage to the ships officers, of solid silver. It remained on the ship its whole service life, the same passenger was also onboard for her final voyage in 1967, the officers had it re engraved and dedicated and presented back to the passenger, who in turn along with an extensive marine art collection, gifted it to PEM.

A small but extensive cross-section of ocean liner ceramics as used onboard, dating from the 1840's to the early 20th century. This collection belongs to Peter & Pam Laister, dear friends that I have know for years. Their collection of steamship china must surly be amongst if not the best in the world. They have loaned multiple items for the exhibition.

A deluxe full table setting from Normandie, a brilliant display, with an edited French Line promotional video playing behind, the table lighting up the corresponding piece of equipment when discussed on the archival video, very clever, nicely executed.

What Ocean Liner fan can not have been influenced by seeing the golden age of the liner on the silver screen, what ever film it was, it most likely had a lasting effect. For me seeing the original 'The Poseidon Adventure' or the brief appearance of the burnt out Queen Elizabeth in 'The Man With The Golden Gun' all left an indelible mark. So its only fitting that its influence be marked and recorded here at the tale end of the exhibition. I cannot think of a better or more influential film than original 'The Poseidon Adventure' from 1972. Its self a story loosely based on a stormy crossing on the Queen Mary, fitting the ship would later play the Poseidon in the 1972 film. To mark this the exhibition the curators contacted my great friend, James Radford, an author of two books on Queen Mary and noted expert on the film. He kindly gave PEM an original poster from 1972, it fittingly ends the exhibition, leading to the final room of the contemporary liner of today. 

The classic poster from the classic, first and ultimate disaster movie of all time, 1972's 'The Poseidon Adventure'. An original poster kindly donated by James Radford, West Hollywood CA. 

The legacy of the Ocean Liner, the giant Royal Caribbean cruise ship of the hour, contrasted with the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore.

For both PEM and the V&A's exhibition, a special and beautifully produced catalogue book has been produced, you can buy it direct from both institutions and online. For Ocean Liner fans it is a must have, its full of hundreds of beautiful colour photos of original publicity material and detailed pictures of many of the artefacts within.

Front cover detail, the three famous funnels as depicted in a 1920's poster for Cunard and the famous RMS "Berengaria".

Happy to say in the middle of the book is a lovely spread of original furniture from the Queen Mary, showing each piece in an archival photo, c-1936, also from the collection.

Also included within the exhibition catalogue is a bed from the Mauritania.

I would like to close this blog with a huge thank you to the following people I had the pleasure to meet during my visit to PEM last week,

A special thank you to the exhibitions co-curators, Ghislaine Wood & Daniel Finamore, without whose vision and skill this exhibition would not exist.

A special thank you to Anna Ferrari, Project Curator, whose skill and warmth have been instrumental to this being a truly great show.

And a special thank you to both Meredith More, Research Assistant for Ocean Liners and Assistant Curator for the Scottish Design Galleries, V&A, & George Schwartz, Curatorial Scholar at PEM.

All of the above made me feel so welcome at PEM last week, it was a honour to be involved, albeit in a small part, in such a successful and fantastically staged show.






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