The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Ship Style & QE2: Britain’s Greatest Liner

Ship Style: Modernism and Modernity at Sea in the 20th Century by Philip Dawson and Bruce Peter (Conway, 240pp, £30)

QE2: Britain’s Greatest Liner by Bruce Peter, Philip Dawson and Ian Johnston (Lily Publications, 215pp, £30)

Reviewed by Catriona Cornelius

Ship Style sees two distinguished authors taking a look at the history of modernism through the eyes of ship design. This beautifully illustrated book moves chronologically from the development and heyday of the ocean liner, to the development of the passenger ferry, and ending with the monopoly of the cruise ship. It is a wide-ranging overview of the history of ocean liner interior design in the wider context of the development of the Modern movement in Europe and America, with the authors showing that innovations in naval architecture were firmly linked with those happening on dry land. To see architects such as Grey Wornum, Charles Mewes and Serge Chermayeff working in the field of maritime architecture provides a fascinating new perspective on modernism. The sheer number of photographs and illustrations sometimes makes it difficult to link them with the text, but this is only a minor distraction.

The second title provides a comprehensive study of Britain’s most famous ocean liner, the QE2 – a masterpiece of 1960s design. The first two chapters point to the QE2’s significance as the last hurrah for a dying shipbuilding industry in Britain; a ship that, sadly, only existed in its purest form for a mere three years, as it was refitted for maximum profit in 1972 with additional alterations throughout her years in service. The QE2’s architects suffered from the backlash against modernist design just as much as those working in cities, with its critics longing for the stately design of Cunard’s signature ship, the Queen Mary. The book is informative and well-illustrated and makes good use of contemporary press and personal correspondence; I particularly liked the story of one of the architects and his office staff viewing the launch of the QE2 from a nearby patch of grass, after being denied an invitation.