SALEM — Many ship names figure in “Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style,” which runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through Oct. 9. Most are otherwise lost to nautical history, as gone as last week’s gazpacho. Ah, but others are as famous as faraway kingdoms — and as magical.
Some of the names belong to actual rulers of kingdoms or their consorts: Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth 2. Other names bespeak great achievement. The Great Eastern laid the first trans-Atlantic cable. The SS United States still holds the record for fastest trans-Atlantic crossing: three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes, eastbound. Others have become bywords for disaster: Titanic, Lusitania, Normandie, Andrea Doria.
The PEM show includes such items as Marconigrams (early radio messages) detailing the sinking of the Titanic and an Andrea Doria decorative panel that washed up on a Nantucket beach. They bring a visitor up short. Is part of the romance of the ocean liner knowing that danger shadowed glamour?
The magic extends even to the names of firms that operated ocean liners. Cunard, White Star, Hamburg-American, Peninsular & Oriental (P&O), Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (the French Line): They partake of transportation poetry.
No small part of the very considerable pleasure afforded by “Ocean Liners” is how it evokes the poetry while also offering the nuts and bolts of its subject — and ocean liners had many nuts, many bolts. Often poetry and technology coincide. A set of propeller models from the 1840s could have come from Constantin Brancusi’s atelier.
There are instances of traditional fine art: photographs by Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz (“The Steerage,” no surprise there), as well as paintings by Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Stanley Spencer. But the richest aesthetic satisfaction “Ocean Liners” affords comes from the artistry of so many of the nearly 200 objects on display: furniture, fabrics, posters, clothes, designs, luggage (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s, no less).
Liner appurtenances include table settings, menus, and a baby grand piano from the Normandie. Perhaps the pianist’s play list found room for Irving Berlin’s “We Saw the Sea” : “We joined the Navy to see the world./And what did we see? We saw the sea.”
This nautical kingdom had its capitals: the West Side of Manhattan; Bremen; Le Havre; Southampton. In a brief bit of newsreel, we see the Kennedys arriving at Southampton, during Joseph P. Kennedy’s tenure as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
That archival footage suggests how widely “Ocean Liners” ranges. A video loop shows ocean-liner scenes from Hollywood movies: “The Lady Eve,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Sabrina,” the Marx brothers’ gloriously overpopulated cabin in “A Night at the Opera.” There’s an animated short from 1918, “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” by Winsor McCay, of “Little Nemo” fame, and, yes, a poster for the original “Poseidon Adventure” (1972). One of the few things not found in the show is Shelley Winters’s swimming medal.
By the time the SS Poseidon turned turtle, ocean liners had been left behind by jet travel. During their heyday, though, the first half of the 20th century, these floating cities made travel an event. That’s why so many of even the most mundane objects in the show are distinctive. Presentation mattered. Every detail counted.
The heart of that heyday was the interwar years. The ocean liner is to Art Deco as the cathedral is to Gothic: not limited by that style, but its supreme expression. There is no sleek quite like seafaring sleek, and Ocean Liner Deco achieved a kind of apotheosis with Norman Bel Geddes’s 1932 design for a ship that looks like nothing so much as a swanky torpedo. The design was never realized. Its simply being imagined was enough.
What may be the most striking item in a show full of them is a model of the Queen Elizabeth. Made shortly after World War II, it was carved from a 6-ton block of African hardwood. The modelers made it on a scale of a quarter-inch to the foot. Just over 21 feet in length, it has 1,700 portholes. Truly, it looks worthy of its own berth in Salem Harbor.
One also finds in “Ocean Liners” a Torah ark from the Queen Mary’s synagogue, a very large zinc cake mold from French liner Liberté in the shape of that ship (not as large as the Queen Elizabeth or Bel Geddes models, but close enough), a wooden turbine pattern used in construction of the QE2, and two shuffleboard courts painted on a gallery floor. They’re a sign of how playful and high-spirited the show can be. Speaking of playful and high-spirited, yes, there’s a cocktail shaker — as well as a cocktails price list, from 1936, for the Cunard-White Star Line (for a dozen or so years the two lines merged). A glass of Hawker’s Pedlar’s Brand Sloe Gin went for 10 pence. Waiter, at that price, make mine a double.
The exhibition was curated by Daniel Finamore, PEM’s curator of maritime art and history, and Ghislaine Wood, of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. After leaving Salem, “Ocean Liners” sails to the V&A, presumably debarking at Southampton.
OCEAN LINERS: GLAMOUR, SPEED, AND STYLE
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through Oct. 9. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.