by Jenny Steele
During my recent project The Maiden Voyage, I explored the design of transatlantic ocean liners that sailed from Liverpool to New York, partly through research at the Cunard Archive, University of Liverpool Special Collections.
Between the 1860’s and 1930’s, Liverpool was the main UK port for transatlantic travel, predominantly for emigration and cargo between the UK and North America. US immigration acts of 1917 and 1924 made entry considerably more difficult so emigration customers significantly dwindled. Shipping companies such as Cunard and White Star needed to attract a new clientele for transatlantic travel, and focused on creating high end travelling palaces during the 1930’s to travel to North America in style, embracing forward thinking and optimistic ‘art deco’ style.
Through research at the Cunard Archive, University of Liverpool Special Collections, I viewed original promotional material for Cunard’s high-end liners that created ‘luxury afloat’, such as the Mauretania and Aquitania. In 1936, Cunard topped their previous designs with the elaborate ‘art deco’, and the still intact Queen Mary ocean liner, now permanently docked at Long Beach, California.
Liners & Architecture
In 1924, US President Calvin Coolidge travelled by ocean liner to the Paris Industrial Arts Exposition in 1925, where he viewed examples of modernist architecture and design for the first time. The International Modernist style often referenced the streamlined, curved forms of ocean liners, with nautical details such as masts and portholes. It was also via the ocean liner itself that this design approach was transferred from continent to continent.
On Coolidge’s return to New York, he encouraged the construction of forward-thinking, optimistic modernist architecture in New York, now referred to as ‘art deco’. Extravagant skyscrapers which emulated the epic scale of the ocean liners, such the as Empire State building were built to demonstrate America’s modernity. Across the city, this style spread to municipal, residential and leisure buildings. In the late 1930s, this architectural style travelled further south to Miami Beach, where the majority of architecture on Miami Beach City was reconstructed in a Seaside Moderne style, closely emulating ships adrift on land with curved corners and masts.
Cunard & the promotion of transatlantic travel
At the Cunard archive, my research mainly involved researching items from their PR department, which displayed interiors and the way in which liners were promoted to the public. Initially, I was interested in the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, however there were a wide range of ships travelling transatlantic routes in the 1930’s that I was previously unaware of.
I accessed a large amount of original photographs used for promotion and documentation of the liners. The first collections were of the Mauretania and Aquitania, which showed salons, dining rooms, decks and bars for the third and tourist classes, as well as portraits and group shots of the traveller’s. The fashions, even in the lower classes were so synonymous with what we know of the era – cloche hats, drop waist skirts with pleats at the bottom. Despite being the cheapest areas to travel, the interiors were still very stately, with palms and marbled floors.
Original photographs of the Maiden Voyage launches were also available for the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth ships. The scale of the event and the thousands of people, all wearing hats, watching the launch were quite incredible, which was also heightened by the presence of royalty at each event. Liners were the most desirable way to travel at the time. A feat of engineering, they stirred the population’s imagination and people wanted to witness the liners sailing off to lands they hoped to visit one day.
One highlight was a letter written from the Saxonia on a transatlantic crossing in February 1921. The writer, Jack, wrote to his relatives about life on board, complaining at first about fellow passengers and boredom, to lastly after several days comparing them to his new family and exclaiming what a wonderful experience it has been. On the back of the letter, it is noted that Jack sadly passed away several years later in a house fire in New York City.
Pamphlets and brochures that advertised the Queen Mary ship always used the colour palette of white, gold and red, often with an ombre effect. Although this impressive ship departed on its Maiden Voyage from Southampton, the liner came to represent a national symbol of hope and ambition, and a welcome commission to the dwindling shipbuilding industry in Clydebank.
It’s promotional material talks equally in depth about the ornate and glamourous modern interiors, as much as the joy and care with which the artists and shipbuilders took to create this floating palace. Artists commissioned included Doris Zinkeisen and MacDonald Gill. The Queen Mary was nicknamed ‘The Ship of Woods’, as it’s detailed marquetry panelling featured over fifty kinds of wood from all over the world, questionably from British colonies.
Resting places of rest and recreation
The language used by Cunard to promote transatlantic travel is fascinating. Without the benefit of moving image, written description is elaborate and sometimes could be accused of going too far in embellishment to sell the customer experience. A brochure for the new ‘Franconia’ describes it as ‘A resting place of rest and recreation’ and ‘The acme of sea going luxury’. The ‘floating palace’ offers a sports arena and emphasises healthy exercise, a popular selling point of the mid war era.
It is always a man who narrates with self-proclaimed authority, as he travels through various parts of the ship at different intervals of the day. H.T.W Bowsfield writes, ‘the Mauretania is so full of decks, so full of air, that one wonders how they do it’. He quotes Rudyard Kipling, who states that ‘Transportation is Civilisation’, in that transport is the lifeblood of the nation; all our other achievements, in science, medicine and the arts, are diminished if people cannot gain access to them.
In a philosophical paragraph he writes; ‘They are making transportation of ourselves and our goods easier, more pleasant and more profitable every day. They are making our voyages to distant countries occasions not only for profit but of such ease that nation meets nation nowadays as neigh bours casually greet neigh bours over the garden wall. They have taken all the apprehension out of travel, and made it also an end in itself’.
During these days of a pandemic, how we long for travel with such ease once more…
Jenny Steele is an artist based in Manchester, who’s artwork is inspired by inter war design. This period emphasised social wellbeing, and she revives elements of its optimistic, restorative qualities through site-specific artwork, textiles, sculpture, printmaking and events.
You can read more about Jenny’s research project The Maiden Voyage on her blog https://themaidenvoyagejennysteele.wordpress.com/
www.jennysteele.co.uk Instagram: @jennycsteele