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Architecture & design

The baronial splendours of ocean liners

— September 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Passengers on the deck of a P&O liner

P&O: Across the Oceans, Across the Years

By Ruth Artmonsky with Susie Cox

I have to declare an interest. Since launching (excuse the pun) into a new part-time career as a cruise lecturer, I’ve discovered a whole new world of travel and leisure at sea, one which is extraordinarily rich in design, pictorial record, social history – and even real art.

P&O, the best-known liner company, celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. To commemorate the occasion, this gloriously nostalgic book brings to life a lost era, with images of places and people, sumptuous interiors, posters and photographs. And despite its coffee-table design and very un-intellectual marketing and cover, it includes some very solid historical research.

P&O – in full, The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company – grew from humble beginnings to dominate British mercantile shipping for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. It took the ‘Peninsular’ element of its name when the company was awarded the British government contract for a weekly mail service to the Iberian Peninsula in 1830s. The 'Oriental' was added when a second mail contract extended the company's services to the East.

P&O continued to expand with routes to the Far East and Australasia, carrying passengers, mail and a huge range of goods.

The company’s dominance and high standards made it a British representative around the world, celebrated by many writers. William Makepeace Thackeray dedicated the published account of his Mediterranean tour to the Captain of the Iberia, while Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Exiles’ Line told how the company’s ships were homes-from-home for the British around the world. Noel Coward penned a typically witty poem entitled P.& O.1930, and Somerset Maugham wrote a short story called ‘P&O’.

The Company’s art collection isn’t outstanding in its quality, but very interesting nonetheless. Naturally, portraits of company people and images of ships predominate. There are many anecdotes about their creation, such as that of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of a chairman of the company, Sir Thomas Sutherland (1898): it was exhibited at the Royal Academy,  after which Punch satirists published their own version entitled ‘Peninsular & Oriental, Pines, Prunes and Prisms’ in a reference to Dickens.

Until the mid-20th century, the interior style and décor of ships tended to replicate life on land. In the 1920s, country-house style was epitomized by Viceroy of India, with a Robert Adam-style first-class Reading and Writing Room, and a baronial- style Smoking Room, while its indoor swimming pool was designed in Pompeian style. By contrast, in the 1960s the Canberra looked to the future, with designs by Hugh Casson and a teenage ‘Pop Inn’ boasting graffiti panels by David Hockney.

As air travel developed and the British Empire shrank, the golden age of passenger transport died. Cruise travel became an end in itself, and very successfully so. Today, new vessels are constantly being added to the P&O fleet and the company’s 175 years were recently celebrated in Southampton in great style.

This publication covers the full history of P&O, both at sea and on shore. Chapters are arranged thematically, with a reference list of quotations and an index. The images are drawn from the P&O Heritage Collection, whose curator Susie Cox looks after more than 25,000 items. The author, Ruth Artmonsky, has in fact written two books on P&O this year. This is the full version, while her summary history (P&O A History, 64 pages) has been published by Shire Publications.

P&O: Across the Oceans, Across the Years by Ruth Artmonsky with Susie Coxis published by Antique Collectors Club, 2012. 264 pp.  200 colour illus.   ISBN  978-1-85149-691-4


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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