Tag Archives: Titanic

Ocean Liners coming to London’s V&A

Vintage maritime history photo of the RMS Titanics propellers as the mighty ship sits in dry dock.
The Titanic in dry dock c. 1911 © Getty Images

I was at a press launch today. It was for a forthcoming exhibition, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’, which will be held at London’s V&A museum from 3 February 2018. It is going to be all about the glory days of ocean travel, exploring the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner, including the ground-breaking engineering, architecture and interiors, and the fashion and lifestyle aboard. Highlights, we were told, will include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, as well as a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first-class lounge where the ship broke in half, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. There will be custom-made furniture and decorative panels from the rival inter-war queens of the sea, the Normandie and Queen Mary. The exhibition will also throw the spotlight on some the famous passengers that travelled aboard, and will have personal luggage carried by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dresses worn aboard by Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Luggage, Goyard, about 1950 © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. Photograph courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor by Maison Goyard, 1940s © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California

Marlene Dietrich Returning from Europe
Marlene Dietrich onboard the Queen Elizabeth arriving in New York, 1959
 © Getty Images

Wooden panel fragment from the first-class lounge on Titanic, c. 1911 © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Wooden panel fragment from the Titanic © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I don’t know that there will be anything in the show specifically relating to Egypt, but many great ocean liners frequently called at Alexandria and/or Port Said on their way between Europe and the ports of Asia. And, of course, visitors to Egypt from the United States first had to cross the Atlantic to Europe, and many would have done so on ships belonging to major lines such as Cunard and White Star.

Below are a handful of fantastic posters put out by various shipping lines, mostly dating from the 1920s and ’30s, advertising routes to Egypt, North Africa and beyond. Some of these you’ll find in my book, On the Nile, but I’m pretty sure none of them will feature in the V&A exhibition, though posters and other liner-related graphics will be definitely be included. Some of these images come courtesy of Galleria Alassio L’Image.

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7121_Victoria-1931 A4

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The dragoman and the Titanic

Object number 22542 in the British Museum is a mummy-board, a cover that was placed on top of the mummy, which was then encased inside the outer coffin. It was covered in plaster to give the appearance of a raised relief and painted. This particular example dates from the 21st Dynasty but who the board was originally buried with is unknown. Instead, it’s come to be known as the ‘unlucky mummy’.

According to the British Museum website, the mummy-board is said to have been bought by one of four young English travellers in Egypt during the 1860s or 1870s. Two died or were seriously injured in shooting incidents, and the other two died in poverty within a short time. The mummy-board was passed to the sister of one of the travellers but as soon as it had entered her house the occupants suffered a series of misfortunes. A celebrated clairvoyant is alleged to have detected an evil influence and urged the owner to dispose of the object, and so it was presented to the British Museum. But the accidents continued and night guards refused to go anywhere near the gallery in which it was displayed. The museum trustees decided to sell the exhibit. It was bought by an American who desired the antiquity for his personal collection, and who had the cursed object sealed in a container and placed aboard ship for its journey across the Atlantic. The ship was the Titanic.

It’s a good story, even if as the British Museum website makes clear, there’s no truth in it. Exhibit number 22542 never left the British Museum until it was sent on a tour of Japan in 2003. Also a study of the Titanic’s manifest reveals no ancient Egyptian corpse carried as cargo.

There was though a live 27-year-old Egyptian onboard the Titanic. He was Hamad Hassab, a dragoman employed by Thomas Cook & Son in Cairo, whose offices were at Shepheard’s hotel. I came across Hamad while researching Grand Hotels – dragomans, or guides, being an essential, or at least unavoidable, part of the travellers’ Egyptian experience. He was in the employ of Mr Henry Sleeper Harper and his wife, Myna, who were returning to America after a tour of Europe and Asia that had included a stay in Egypt, where they’d engaged Hamad – and presumably decided to take him home with them. After the liner struck the iceberg, the Harpers, their servant and their Pekinese dog, Sun Yat-Sen, were all safely evacuated in Lifeboat 3. Three days later, on disembarking in New York on 18 April, Hamad sent a telegram to his brother Said who worked at the Mena House Hotel containing the succinct message, ‘All safe’.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

At some point Hamad returned to Cairo and resumed his job as a dragoman. He had a businesscard printed up which, underneath his name lettered in cursive script, bore the legend, ‘Having the distinction of being survivor from the wreck of the Titanic’ [sic].

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