V & A Ocean Liners: Artists on Board

One thing I really enjoyed about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Ocean Liners exhibition, was seeing new, and unexpected, works by 20th century artists I’d long admired.

Take Edward Ardizzone, (1900-1979). I knew him as a children’s book illustrator but didn’t know that the P & O Line had commissioned him to produce three large murals for the first class children’s playroom on board the Canberra in 1960-61. This is a detail from one of them.

Left hand side of Edward Ardizzone’s ‘Canberra’ mural

It features nursery rhyme characters. On the left is Mr Punch, who acts as a focus for the various Nursery Rhyme characters. His dog Toby sits quietly on the floor beside the box. Behind Toby, a small boy rushes on, waving his thumb in the air. He is Little Jack Horner, who ‘sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, “What a good boy am I.”’ A stripy cat is looking at him.

On the other side of Punch’s box, Little Boy Blue is blowing his horn. (Little Boy Blue, Come blow up your horn, The sheep’s in the meadow, The cow’s in the corn. But where is the boy Who looks after the sheep? He’s under a haycock, Fast asleep.) This Little Boy Blue, we note, is awake and alert.

Little Bo Peep stands in front with her shepherdess’s crook. She has lost her sheep. (Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep, And can’t tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home, Wagging their tails behind them.) But who is the girl in red standing next to her? She can’t be Miss Muffet because she’s not sitting on a tuffet and I can’t see a spider waiting to frighten her.

Right hand side of Edward Ardizzone’s Nursery Rhymes mural

On the left, Humpty-Dumpty sits precariously on the wall. (Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men, Couldn’t put Humpty together again.) Behind him the King’s soldiers in armour, armed with halberds, march towards him.

Underneath Humpty, Tom, the piper’s son has just run off with the pig. (Tom, Tom the piper’s son, Stole a pig and away did run.) But who is standing next to him? Could it be the Mad Hatter from Sir John Tenniel’s illustration in Alice in Wonderland? His top hat has a card reading what looks like ‘10/6’. And who are the characters in armour wearing saucepans for helmets?

I enjoyed working out who was who. If anyone reading this knows who the girl in the red dress is, or who the characters wearing saucepan helmets are, or, indeed, where the stripy cat comes from, I’d be glad to know.

Edward Bawden’s mural for the first class lounge of Oronsay, depicting The English Pub

The next artist on my list is Edward Bawden (1903-1989). I already know his tile designs for London Underground, the most famous of which is his cameo silhouette of Queen Victoria’s head on the walls of Victoria underground station. And I like his other work.

But I didn’t know that, in 1949-51, he was commissioned to produce works for the Orient Line. These include murals showing typical English scenes, The English Pub’s panels refer to various popular English pub names: left to right we have: Cock, Wheatsheaf, Star, and possibly, Elephant and Castle. We note that the Elephant’s typically English cottage has a thatched roof. And a boy is cycling past with a box saying Stop Me. Presumably, he is selling ice cream.

In the foreground, a pre-war steam engine puffs past. This is England through rose-coloured spectacles – but charming, all the same.

Bawden’s 1955 ceramics for the Orient Line

Bawden also designed ceramics for the Orient Line’s first class dining-rooms, like this elegant tea set from 1952, comprising cup and saucer, small plate, large plate and muffin dish. I had no idea that muffins required special dishes but having a specially-fitted cover makes sense. Muffins need to be kept hot to be enjoyed at their best.

Lastly, there is that controversial artist, Stanley Spencer, (1891-1959). He is best known for his startling paintings depicting Biblical scenes set in the Thames-side village of Cookham, where Spencer lived and worked for much of his life. During World War II, he was a war artist (as were both Ardizzone and Bawden) and in 1941, the British Government commissioned a series of paintings to record the war work done in the Clyde Shipyards. The result was his epic series, Shipbuilding on the Clyde.

Detail from ‘The Riveters’ by Stanley Spencer

Riveting was a highly-skilled, and dangerous, job. The riveters had to join pieces of metal by hammering red hot rivets into the plates, and, for this, they had to crawl inside the hollow steel masts. You can almost hear the banging of the hammers and feel the heat. The above picture has at least eleven men working closely together, and I can’t see any protective clothing; no goggles, helmets or gloves, for example.

Detail 2 from ‘The Riveters’ by Stanley Spencer

This scene is taken from a right angle to the first scene. Here, we can see men at work inside the steel tubes, which are huge. A man crouches inside one and, behind, we can just glimpse his mates, lying down to work. The workspace is also cramped outside the tubes – I can see as least thirteen men working, and much of it involved very high temperatures. I have an awful feeling that accidents must have been common.

Spencer’s restricted palette, in dull orange and shades of grey, get across both the ferocious heat and the sheer strength involved.

The Ocean Liners exhibition is not just about the world of the wealthy, travelling the oceans on board ships which catered to their every whim, there is also an important section on what happened to the liners in wartime. They were stripped and turned over to transporting hundreds of thousands of troops to various war zones, not to mention carrying supplies, as well as war leaders, like Winston Churchill, to vital meetings with their allies.

Whether you are interested in luxury travel, art, interior décor, engineering, or history, this exhibition has much to offer.

Elizabeth Hawksley









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16 thoughts on “V & A Ocean Liners: Artists on Board”

  1. This is amazing. I would never have figured out all those characters. Can’t offer much help. I suppose the girl in red could be Mary, Mary, though nothing to support that – no garden or flowers nearby! The saucepan helmets are wonderful. Not from Through the Looking Glass? I’m thinking of Tweedledum and Tweedledee perhaps. Only going on a vague memory here. Suspect both are long-forgotten nursery rhymes. However, you’ve whetted my appetite and if I wasn’t going away on Tuesday I’d be at Google like a bloodhound!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Elizabeth. You are right, the saucepan-helmeted figures are Tweedledum and Tweedledee from ‘Alice through the Looking-Glass’, I’ve just checked my copy. The V & A label said it was a Nursery Rhyme mural, but, it isn’t, at least not entirely. Even in this small section we have ‘Alice’ characters as well as Mr Punch.

  2. Just been round this exhibition! My very strong feeling is that the girl in blue is actually Alice, and the one in red is the shepherdess Little Bo Peep. The saucepan-heads are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    Lovely exhibition.

    1. I think you’re right, Jan. Little Bo Peep usually wears blue in illustrations – partly because she is often stands near Little Boy Blue, and it makes them match, I suppose. But, of course, she doesn’t have to be in blue and, looking more closely, I can see that the girl in red could equally be holding the shepherdess’s crook. And the girl is blue does look like Tenniel’s Alice with her white pinafore and three tucks on the skirt of her blue dress. So you get a gold star from me for observation!

      1. The description should have read ‘Nursery Characters’ perhaps. I wonder if the stripy cat might be the Cheshire Cat?

        1. I wondered about the stripy cat being the Cheshire cat, too, Jan, but I don’t see how it can be. If it were, surely it would be sitting so that we could see its grin. There are lots of cats in Nursery Rhymes, though: ‘Pussy cat, Pussy cat, where have you been?’ for example, but, at the moment, its a cat without provenance, as it were.

  3. Really interesting, Elizabeth. I have seen the Stanley Spencer shipyard paintings before. Amazing to see the depth of detail. But I haven’t seen the others. Time for a trip to the V and A!

    1. Thank you for dropping by, Jean. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the exhibition. There are also some very nice William de Morgan tiles and lots more. I believe the Stanley Spender Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings are usually in the Imperial War Museum – but you may already know that.

  4. > …is on until 17th July, 2918.

    Well, that is certainly a long exhibition!

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful reportage. You’ve got me remembering a trip from NYC to Le Havre in ’62 on the SS United States. It was December and, important to the child I was then, Santa stopped by…

    1. How nice to hear from you, Steve. And lucky you having actually sailed on an ocean liner; I wish I had. Being visited by Santa must have been thrilling. In December, though! I do hope the sea wasn’t too choppy and that it wasn’t too cold.

      1. Oh, thank you. I’ve been lurking and reading your posts here and there, but keeping quiet.
        I didn’t get seasick on that trip (the S.S. United States is 990′ long and over 100′ wide), but it was very blustery (moving at 30+ Kts. – the “Fastest Ship in the World”) and cold. I was a kid, though – impervious. I remember playing shuffleboard on deck. Santa’s appearance on board in the middle of the Atlantic was a definite high point. Shocking, really, to see him on board. Very incongruous. That’s probably why I still remember it!
        The SS US was a more utilitarian ship than those featured in the described exhibition. I remember endless corridors of steel and somewhat Spartan appurtenances. My father and I were traveling “Cabin Class” (2nd). If you are interested, here’s a link to the timetable and pricing for the 1962 season: http://www.timetableimages.com/images/stevet/
        It’s interesting (to me) that this voyage is linked to my interest in the Rose Beetle and, ultimately, the search that led me to you. As different as we likely are, there is some synchronicity lurking beneath the waves. We are both curious types, at the least! Be well, my friend.

        1. Upon review, I encourage you and your readers to look at the above referenced images. They include not only the Timetable, but also the S.S. Lines Brochure, passenger rules, regulations and etiquette. It’s an exhibition all in and of itself.

          For example, “It is not the custom to dress for dinner the first and last nights out and Sundays.”

          That would be supper to you, of course. Strange, if any day’s supper were to be formal, I would guess Sunday. Ach, what do Americans know about such things?

          Wild West Steve

          1. Thank you for the images references for the interesting historical documents!

            Re: Dinner v. supper. Originally, ‘dinner’ referred to the main meal of the day, which, for most working people was the midday meal – what, nowadays we would call lunch. The midday meal is still often referred to as ‘dinner’. It’s a class thing (as it so often is in the UK). Gradually, in the early 19th century, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘the fashionable classes switched their main meal to the evening’ and took the name ‘dinner’ with them. On board an Ocean Liner, the evening meal is definitely ‘dinner’! Supper is simply a light, informal evening meal – scrambled eggs, say.

        2. Thank you for your comment, Steve, interesting, as always. I can’t say I follow the Ocean Liners – Rose Beetle link, though!

          You might be interested to know that, when I did a stats print-out of all my blogs on Dec 31st, 2017 (there are over 90 of them), the Rose Beetle post came in eleventh.

          1. Across the ocean to Europe, across Europe by train to Brindisi, ferry to Corfu, bus to Kalami where I lived in Larry Durrell’s “White House” that winter-spring. Fast forward to finally getting around to reading “My Family and Other Animals” (which sat on my shelf for 30 years) and Jerry’s subsequent books. Naturalist that he was, G. Durrell was not fastidious about naming species in those Corfu stories. Hence my curiosity regarding what exactly is a Rose Beetle? QED.

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