Jenny Steele: A City Goes To Sea | Catalogue Essay

‘A City Goes To Sea’ is a limited-edition publication with essays by artist Jenny Steele and writer Sara Jaspan responding to 1930s Transatlantic Ocean Liners and Art Deco architecture in the USA and UK. The text is accompanied by Steele’s drawings and architectural research photography, as well as research images from the Cunard Archive, University of Liverpool and North West Film Archive (Manchester Metropolitan University). Designed by Textbook Studio. Available to purchase here.

The following piece reflects on ‘The Maiden Voyage’ – a body of work and research presented by Steele at Georges Dock Plaza in Liverpool from 8-22 September 2019. It features in the publication alongside an introduction to the project by the artist.

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A child of the 90s, my only tangible connection to ‘the great age of ocean liner travel’ (though not framed in these terms) was James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). I’d been on a budget P&O ferry to Holland, so could relate to Rose’s sea sickness, but the connection between the two vessels ended there. Looking back, there were two distinct elements of the film that captured me most. The sense of danger, excitement and marvel experienced by those boarding the ‘unsinkable’ ship (the largest and most luxurious passenger vessel of its time) about to set out from Southampton on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic; and the distinct world that existed on board – a floating microcosm of late-Edwardian society, cocooned within the liminal space of the ocean. (I was less interested in the final hour, when the reality of the temporary citadel’s arctic surroundings hit.)

This was the most I knew of the early 20th century transatlantic connection and the great steam ships that became both catalysts and symbols of modernity. The tightly-corseted evening gowns and elaborate décor didn’t seem to convey a spirit of progress, however. Cameron’s depiction of RMS Titanic (1912) spoke more of a period all at once unaware of, resistant towards, and hungry for the new age that was about to arrive. Namely, the utopian impulse and lighter aesthetic of the interwar period, reflected in the naval and civic Art Deco architecture that Jenny Steele has spent the last few years researching and making work in response to.

A passage written in 1928 by the leading British designer Charles A. Richter in his notebook reveals how laboured this journey away from the historical styles of the past was. “When we start designing our ship we are full of reminiscences, and that is why traditional forms linger long after the purposes they once expressed have passed away. […] If on the other hand we frankly and cheerfully accept the new materials and methods of construction for what they are, not seeking to disguise them, the new style is within our reach, nay, must inevitably result.”[i] Looking back, it seems only natural that international waters should have provided the stage for new forms of European modernism to be born; spurred on by increasing competition between different shipping lines and countries.   

The fresh sea-breeze of forward-looking optimism that epitomised the Moderne treatment and captured the imagination of the British public seeps through Steele’s designs. The Maiden Voyage (2019) is the product of months spent examining the promotion of and aspirational culture surrounding life onboard the numerous ships that set sail from the Liverpool Docks (where the Cunard Steamship Company’s former headquarters was based) – each departure drawing large, waving crowds. The streamline, naval-inspired fashion that adorned the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazar; the Bloomsbury Group’s maritime-themed furnishings; the emphasis on exercise and wellbeing; original menus, guest lists, and letters home all nourished the making of this work.

‘Getting there is half the fun!’ Cunard’s advertising declared. No longer ‘just a method of transportation but a way of life. She’s a floating resort, a great hotel, a gay night club, a rendezvous for lovers of good food, a chic shopping centre, a sports pavilion, a quiet club… she is anything you want her to be!’[ii] Though the gendered, somewhat sexualised language stings in the 21st century, the early stirrings of consumer capitalism are also striking. The luxury mega-cruise ships operating today – complete with waterparks, casinos, multiplex cinemas, abseiling experiences, theatre shows, night clubs, and, of course, endless shopping opportunities – take the ‘floating resort’ to a new level; leaving only its original pioneering sense of style and genuine adventure behind.

Alongside such vessels, other modern cruise-related experiences place active emphasis on reminiscence and a romanticised past (as would have caused Richter to despair). At Long Beach California, the iconic RMS Queen Mary (1939) has now been converted into a tourist attraction/hotel offering ‘A Trip Back in Time’ steeped in modern comfort and vintage glamour. Titanic Hotel Liverpool goes a step further; a contemporary conversion of one of the city’s former historic warehouses featuring a replica Art Deco staircase, pseudo nautical furnishings and free High-Speed Wi-Fi. 

Steele avoids such sentimental manifestations. The Maiden Voyage revisits a chapter in Modernist design history with a sense of honesty and play; inviting a transparent conversation with the past through creativity. To present the work in Liverpool (a port city long bound-up with the transatlantic connection) – at the foot of the Art Deco Georges Dock Ventilation & Control Station, inside the Cunard Building’s grand Arrival Hall, and, significantly, around the corner from the International Slavery Museum – adds an important layer. The project becomes an activation of its wider setting, connecting us with one strand of the waterfront’s many legacies. Just meters away from the lapping waters of the Mersey Estuary, with seagulls flying overhead; the rise of the floating city temporarily resurfaces.[iii] 


[i] Charles A. Richter, unpublished manuscript notebook, 1928 (in possession of one of Richter’s five grandchildren). Quoted in the introduction to Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style (2017), the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name, co-organised by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.   

[ii] Quoted in the introduction to Ocean Liners.

[iii] ‘floating city’ is a phrase borrowed from Great Eastern (1859) – a novel by the French author Jules Verne.

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