by Jane Durrell
June 18, 2014
We are cutting through calm waters in a ship so large, so superbly engineered that only now and then does a tremor indicate we are at sea. The Queen Mary II is majestic indeed, elegantly Art Deco in most respects and staffed by people so obliging they seem to be a race apart. My daughter and I are en route to Southampton, where we will be met by my son and his wife, who have lived in London for more than twenty years.
The last time I crossed the Atlantic by ship was with that son, who then was four, on the first Queen Elizabeth, a ship half-sister, I suppose, to the I’m on now. I once asked him: do you live in England today because we took you there in 1960? Possibly, he said; actually, quite likely. When his own son was four I cautioned they should be careful where they took him. The family may have stayed home that year.
But here we are, water as far as the eye can see, the sun so tilted north on this June day that it’s visible from our port-side cabin, in a world where even time is fluid. For five days we set clocks and watches ahead to 1 p.m. each noon. This makes our late dinner less of a urgent, also bridged by the British sub-meal of tea.
But I am to report here on the art aboard, plentiful, easy on the eye, arranged loosely by theme. Many of these works are, surprisingly, unsigned. Some are unique paintings and others well-made prints with no mention of length of run. Each of the five staircases, with banks of elevators adjoining has its own theme and other areas do as well. Seascapes dominate staircase A, probably by several artists but united by theme. On every floor a single broad set of steps rises to a landing and separates to complete the transit by a flight on either side, leaving wall space for a socko painting above each landing. These are in a number of styles: bold, flat colors, splashy bright, a few modern reflections on 18th century still lifes, flamboyant suggestions of circus performances. A slicked-up modern Art Deco series lines out sophisticated evening activities.
Art Deco, indeed, is an underlying style in a ship that seems neither 20th nor 21st century but existing in some time frame of its own. Depictions of famous ships, in some of the expansive public spaces, are modern works in an elaborately vintage style. Unlike the showy stairwell paintings, these are signed.
At the purser’s offices, in search of more information on the ship’s art, I apparently asked questions the polite young woman had not been asked before, but she obligingly wrote them down and promised to get back to me. The following day a type written response was in the clip on our stateroom door.
Three hundred works in both two and three dimensional mediums were commissioned for the ship and are found throughout the public spaces. Three hundred square feet of tapestry scrolls down a prominent wall in the main dining room and 450 square feet of bas relief reflects native art of the Americas in a long lobby space. There are bronze sculptures – large, graceful – and in the pleasant Winter Garden Room, a nice daytime hangout, the ceiling is a trompe l’oeil painting. In the staterooms prints of landscapes, seascapes – all that I have seen devoid of people – are satisfactory places to rest the eye.
None of this art is disturbing, or even particularly thought provoking, neither of these things being what we passengers are here for. There are nearly 5000 works of art on permanent exhibition on the ship, the purser’s office says. They do not change and are not for sale. Their total value is five million dollars.
There is, however, a ship Art Gallery where impulse buying is encouraged. One afternoon the two young women who run it gave a tour down its narrow length and I joined them. Champagne was being served; the gallery managers wore four inch heels and dresses as decorous as skin tight will allow. They took turns discussing the works and their makers.
All the artists are living and work in appealing sunlit styles in various degrees of realism, in manners often seen before. I found them boring, and looked instead, part of the time, through the glass at the endlessly interesting changing patterns of the water’s surface. The stock was well chosen, however. Already two or three red stickers indicated sales and another potential buyer was asking questions as we moved along. We are here, aboard this ship, in what purports to be a perfect world and nothing in the art – the ship’s or the gallery’s – is allowed to raise uncomfortable questions.
We dock day after tomorrow. Real life will resume. But what a respite, what a treat, what a lovely pause in the intricacies of living, to exist for a week in the alternate world cultivated aboard a splendid ocean liner.