A fragment of wood panelling from the Titanic, inspiration for the life raft that saved Kate Winslet in the Oscar-winning film, is to go on display in Britain for the first time.
Debate has raged for years over poor Leonardo DiCaprio’s fate – freezing to death in the icy Atlantic – and Winslet joked last year: “I think he could actually have fit on that bit of door.”
It turns out that the piece of wood was not exactly a door. It was a faithful recreation of a rococo panel that featured above the entrance to the Titanic’s first class lounge, known as an “over-door”.
The real-life panel broke up when the ship sank in April 1912 and a metre-long fragment was salvaged from the water, ending up in the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Cameron was a regular visitor while researching the film.
Next year it will return to Britain for the first time as a highlight of Ocean Liners: Speed & Style, which opens in February 2018 at the V&A. The show will celebrate the golden age of ocean travel.
Ghislaine Wood, co-curator of the exhibition, said the Titanic panel is “a remarkable survivor” of a great tragedy” and illustrates the tremendous quality of the ship’s interior.
“It was only when one of our researchers watched Titanic and saw Kate Winslet floating on the panel that we realised it was the same design. Seeing the film, I was surprised at the accuracy of the historical detail,” she said.
The exhibition will chart the transformation of ocean travel from the 19th to the 20th centuries. “In the earlier part of the story we’re dealing with very large numbers of immigrants travelling to new lives abroad,” Ghislaine Wood said.
“After the US introduced quotas reducing the number of immigrants going to the United States, shipping companies turned towards trying to attract wealthier passengers.”
Art Deco posters were created to tap into this new, luxury market, and Hollywood stars were photographed on board to add to the sense of glamour.
The show will include a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1950. Other couture outfits include a beaded flapper dress that belonged to the Kentucky-born socialite Emilie Grigsby, who travelled regularly between Europe and New York on the Olympic, Aquitania and Lusitania.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor once boarded the SS United States with 100 pieces of monogrammed luggage. A smaller selection of their cases will be on display.
Other items nod to more tragic voyages. There is a diamond and pearl Cartier tiara that belonged to Lady Allan, wife of Canadian shipping magnate Sir Hugh Montagu Allan. She took it aboard the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast in May 1915. Lady Allan’s two daughters were lost, but Lady Allan survived, along with her two maids and a suite of luggage.
The exhibition will recount the rivalries between European liner companies as they competed for a share of the first class market.
France had the Normandie, which entered service in 1935 and featured some of the greatest Art Deco objects ever made, according to the curators. No expense was spared, down to the beautifully-made furniture in the first class playroom.
Its British rival was the Queen Mary, a “showcase for the British Empire” with interiors designed to evoke an English country house.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, said the exhibition will tell a wider story of Empire, trade, commercial rivalry and social class with a “startlingly brilliant collection of ocean liner material”.
:: Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is sponsored by Viking Cruises and runs from February 3 – June 10 2018.